Toys in the Attic: Rod Stewart’s Hidden Beverly Hills Railroad
Life’s been good to Rod?so far. Four decades after the raspy-voiced singer/sometime English footballer first made his mark with the Jeff Beck Group, Faces, and landmark solo work like Gasoline Alley
, “Maggie Mae,” and Every Picture Tells a Story
, Rod Stewart resides in gilded Beverly Hills opulence. Squire of a 28,000 square foot manse that recalls the dignity of an English manor and sunny spaces of the Tuscany countryside he loves to holiday in, Stewart has furnished his personal life with the same earnest elegance he’s channeled into his unlikely, late-career renaissance as black-tied ballad-slinger and late-blooming interpreter of the American songbook.
Indeed, Architectural Digest
featured the singer’s sprawling Beverly Hills estate in a lavish 2007 pictorial and interview that chronicled his tasteful, well-heeled home obsessions. Assisted by noted Los Angeles interior designers Thomas Allardyce and Illya Hendrix, the Déco and Art Nouveau collections of his rocker years have been largely supplanted by Roman busts and Regency furniture, with a particular fondness for 18th century French and Italian pieces. He claims his collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings is one of the largest in the world. “You have no idea how big those paintings are,” Rod notes, “until you’re standing next to one.”
Stewart is known to read auction catalogs in bed, obsessing over an endless parade of coveted new pieces, though he says he’s long since learned to bid with cautious detachment. “I would give anything to work at Sotheby’s,” the iconic rock star says of the upscale auction house that’s furnished much of his lavish home, only the second he’s owned in his 27 year tenure in Southern California.
Yet the magazine barely hints at the other obsession the singer keeps discretely separated from the residence’s sprawling collection of antiques, oils, and ornately framed photos that document much of his private and professional life. Until recently, very few have seen what Stewart has dedicated almost the entire third floor of the residence to: A model train set.
It’s as different from the average toy railroad as the rest of the singer’s glitzy home is from a tract house in Peoria. It measures 23 feet wide by 124 feet long, for one thing, a 1,500-square-foot HO-scaled diorama that captures the essence of post-war Manhattan in intricate, jaw-dropping detail, from its recreation of a crowded terminal station for the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads to the towering brick and stone skyscrapers that frame it. While musicians as diverse as Frank Sinatra?who also inspired Rod’s current saloon singer incarnation?and Neil Young
have shared his intensive interest in toy trains, Stewart imparts his modeling a level of intricate detail that surpasses even the hobby’s obsessive norms.
The public got its first glimpses of Rod Stewart’s massive train set last winter, after the veteran rocker gingerly inquired of Model Railroader Magazine
: “Having been a model railroader for 20 years, and an avid reader of your magazine for longer, I thought you may be interested in publishing some photos of my layout.”
After visiting the magazine’s Milwaukee offices last April while on tour, Stewart invited editor Carl Swanson to fly west on the singer’s private jet for a private showing of the layout the singer has dubbed Grand Street and Three Rivers Railroad. “The photos of Rod’s layout were impressive,” Swanson said afterwards, “but it wasn’t until I saw it in person that the real impact of it hit me. The level of craftsmanship is staggering.”
Its scale alone is mind-boggling, featuring over 100 buildings, some towering five-plus feet high, yet decorated to a level of detail that includes individual sale signs in its tiny shop windows. Even more remarkable, Stewart built much of the massive layout in hotel rooms while touring!
Stewart explained that during his 63-city American tour of 2007, he used a suite in a Chicago hotel as his home base, affording plenty of room for wife Penny Lancaster, their young son Alastair?and the seven huge touring cases the singer uses to transport his train modeling pieces, tools and supplies on the road. After flying to and from the tour’s various outlying stops, Stewart would return to the hotel and immerse himself in hours of painstaking model scratch-building and detail work. He’s already invested over a dozen years in the Grand Street and Three Rivers layout alone.
The singer’s model train obsession spans decades and continents, rooted in a ’40s London childhood where his parent’s shop neighbored British Rail, whose East Coast Line eventually became the model for the first model train layout Stewart built at his English estate in Essex. Fans of his music will note that trains also featured prominently in two of his most successful mid-period releases?a sublime 1985 cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready
” that re-teamed him with Jeff Beck and his 1989 hit, “Downtown Train
“I pity a man who doesn’t have a hobby like this one?it’s just the most supreme relaxation,” Stewart said of the train modeling passion he’s devoted decades of his life to. “Every person should have one hobby that really captures his interest.”
As for the public acclaim and recognition of his fellow hobbyists, Rod proudly says they “mean more to me than the cover of Rolling Stone
Got trains on the brain? Read about Neil Young’s collection here