Think of Todd Gieg as a master of the miniature — a man who uses old maps and photographs, special paints and infinite patience to recreate the Lynn of 1895, down to the detail of faux ivy crawling up the sides of buildings and painstakingly-recreated signs.
A photographer by trade, Gieg dreamed up the diorama project that has become his passion and pursuit in 2004 shortly after moving to Lynn with his wife, Amy Bertino, and their son, Max.
Lanky and quick with a smile, Gieg is a self-described collector of all things unusual who has filled his Lydia Pinkham building shop with oddities like the giant metal letters from a Boston sign and a Rube Goldberg-like device once used to wash fashionable hats.
Buying a basic model railroad kit for his son when Max was a boy prompted Gieg to dig into the history of the former narrow gauge railroads that crisscrossed the region and carried freight and passengers along Lynn and Revere's waterfront.
"I said, "Why don't I build a railroad that actually existed?'"
He started attending miniature model shows and learned about the detailed, ultra-realistic models crafted by George Sellios who excels in replicating late-19th and early-20th century streetscapes, railroad sidings and other settings.
Gieg dug into the Lynn Museum's photography collection and pored over old city maps to begin to layout his Lynn of yesteryear on a 4-foot-by-16-foot surface spanning four custom-built tables.
As his research piled up and his modeling skills improved, he began to sketch in detail ideas and designs for his diorama. The more than 50 models he built for the diorama over the years ranging from small boats and coal barges to a "gasometer" storage tank and rows of buildings lining Market Street are intricate in their detail and precise, Gieg insists, in their historically-accurate placement based on maps and plot plans.
Long before the Lynnway existed, the railroad and a long-gone byway called Sea Street paralleled the 1890s Lynn waterfront. Working boats plied narrow inlets where mills and coal terminals operated next to docks for sailing ships.
Dirt paths and roads snaked along the waterfront and Market Street was lined with buildings topped by signs advertising "J.P. Coats Six Cord" and "Redpaths."
Many of the diorama's structures, ships and trains are assembled from modeling kits, but Gieg "scratch built" almost a third of the diorama's buildings, relying on photographs and jury-rigged materials to replicate 120-year-old homes and shops.
"I have been successful at this because it is pleasurable. It's a real stay-in-the-moment experience," he said.
He used special paints and resins to experiment with coloring and texture until he was satisfied he had created realistic-looking water. Jars marked with granular mixtures and labeled "fine turf green" and "coarse turf" provide him with the material he needs to recreate grass.
His Lynn waterfront is just the first chapter in a project that he said will bring to life on a small scale the 1895 coastline north of Boston from Lynn to East Boston.
He started a Kickstarter campaign under the title "The Narrow Gauge: Boston's Forgotten Railroad," with the goal of raising $75,000 to pay for materials and meet other costs as he expands the diorama.
Lynn Museum/Lynn Arts Director Drew Russo has spoken with Gieg about exhibiting the Lynn diorama in the Union and Washington streets museum.
"He has generously offered to loan us the diorama for an extended period of time and we are currently working with him on how to best display it," Russo said.
Gieg envisions the diorama as teaching tool alternately fascinating adults and children alike and educating them about a time and an all-but-lost way of life.
"I want it shared," he said.