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The Little Big Apple

It started at an early age and there was nothing Michael Chesko could do to stop it. He was obsessed with building models. No, it wasn’t model airplanes or boats — it was entire cities. He built model cities out of wood blocks, nuts and bolts, mud — anything he could get his hands on that would stand up like a building.

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“I remember our whole front yard was covered with one of my cities one time,” he recalls. “It was gigantic.”

Chesko worked as a software engineer for Motorola before becoming a stay-at-home dad in 2002. Since he was working at home, he decided to make a small model of the lower end of Manhattan. A friend convinced him to show the model around. The Skyscraper Museum in New York showed interest and asked if he could build a midtown version.

“I had some of the major buildings of midtown done, but I knew to finish midtown it would just be a tremendous task.”

In January, Chesko “buckled down” with his materials and tools of the trade — balsa wood, basswood, an X-Acto razor saw, nail file and sand paper. He felt he was falling behind schedule and increased his workload to 80 hours a week for the next six months.

“The models aren’t so much carved; you cut out patterns because buildings are generally square,” he says. “They are mostly put together with pieces. I had to cut out certain pieces and glue them together. The bottom is 1/2" particleboard; it doesn’t warp much, is nice and flat, and there’s no grain.”

The midtown model consists of about 400 city blocks at a scale of 1:3200 (translation: 3/8" equals 100'). The tallest building, the Empire State Building, is about 6-1/2" tall at the top of the spire. If his model were blown up to the city’s actual size, his margin of error would be less than 5'.

What is even more amazing is Chesko had never set foot in New York City when he built the models.

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“My central data base that I draw on is called Oasis. That gave me the perfect map of New York City with the lot sizes. So I knew how big a building was, and I had the footprint of the building. I needed that for my scale. Then I needed photos of the buildings and height information. There I used sources like Emporous, which is another data base on the Internet. Then I would go to photo books … some satellite pictures from Google maps.”

The models went on display in October at the Skyscraper Museum in New York and Chesko says they are on indefinite loan. Although he is not actively seeking a buyer, he wouldn’t turn one away.

“It would be really neat if I could make money somehow,” he confesses. “I haven’t had any offers. I’m thinking that if I worked that much on it and I just used my Motorola salary, that thing would be worth $50,000. I don’t know how to actually price those things, and if someone would actually pay that much. The only person who I could see being a client of mine would be someone like a Donald Trump who could stick it in the corner of one of his offices. He wouldn’t even blink at the price — well, maybe he might.”

Michael Chesko. E-mail:
The Skyscraper Museum, 39 Battery Place, New York, NY 10280. Tel: 212-968-1961.

This aritlce originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.

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