You could forgive Clarke Dunham if the events of the last few months have him feeling as if he were a character in a Frank Capra movie — special dispensation, naturally, accorded to anyone who calls Pottersville home.
Faced with financial difficulties, he and his wife, Barbara, were about to lose Tthe Station, a model railroad that attracted millions during the holidays to the former Citigroup building, in Midtown Manhattan, during its 17-year run there.
Since 2011, the Station has been part of Railroads on Parade, a small roadside attraction the Dunhams run just north of Lake George. But when the business failed to turn a profit, a financial backer, John Couri, of Ridgefield, Conn., forced the Dunhams to sell the train exhibits at auction.
The Dunhams thought the four railroad displays would be split up and dispersed to individual buyers.
“We were prepared to kiss it all goodbye,” Mr. Dunham said.
The auction took place on Veterans Day. The Dunhams placed modest bids of $25,000 each for two of the railroad sets, far less than they were expected.
To the Dunhams’ surprise, their bids went unchallenged. With no other bids, the Dunhams negotiated to pay $75,000 for all four railroad displays, keeping them together and resurrecting hopes that they could one day return to New York City.
“The fact that we’re suddenly back in the game, we’re elated,” Mr. Dunham said. “The whole thing is kind of Capra-esque.”
There is still the matter of settling the tab before a Dec. 20 deadline. For that, the Dunhams have help: Lucius J. Riccio, a former New York City transportation commissioner in the Dinkins administration, said he planned to start a campaign on Kickstarter. To Mr. Dunham, 77, a Broadway set designer who has been nominated for two Tony Awards, the Station is an art form that also captures both New York City and railroading history.
“Clarke’s train station was a masterpiece,” said Mr. Riccio, an engineer, Columbia University adjunct professor and former Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member. “I just loved looking at the exhibit with all its wonderful details and intricate train movements. I guess I’m naturally attracted to transportation-related things of any size. I have a childlike interest in the model railroads he displayed.”
“But really, what kid of any age wouldn’t love it? Did you see the excitement displayed by the kids who saw it? Clarke’s exhibit was a tremendous addition to New York.”
The Station was displayed in Manhattan from 1987 to 1990 and from 1996 to 2008, when Citigroup withdrew its sponsorship.
Mr. Dunham said his preference is for Railroads on Parade to remain intact at its current location, run as a nonprofit entity, and to have the Station brought to New York each year as a seasonal show.
“It only takes a day to put everything in a truck and move it,” he said.
But Mr. Dunham realizes that the first priority is to raise enough money to finalize the sale. In Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the main character, George Bailey, lived in fictional Bedford Falls, which, under a scenario presented by a guardian angel, would have become sinister Pottersville had George taken a different path in life.
In the end, of course, all ended well: George’s friends came forward with enough money to save the day, if not the town. The Dunhams would welcome a similar Hollywood-type ending, but they recognize that it may not come easily.
“The only problem with reality is that when you wake up from the dream, the hard work is always still ahead,” Mr. Dunham said. “So, you just go ahead and do it.”
This story was originally published in the New York Times.