Establishing a city, block by Lego block

By Kate Hayden,

Christopher Anthony began stacking Lego bricks together like anyone else –– receiving his first set at 5 years old. By the time he was 10, Anthony had created his first miniature town with a half dozen buildings, which could fit on a dining room table.

“We had a nice basement where it could stay up all the time,” Anthony recalled. “That led to continued increases in buildings, adding on as I could … I can remember the first two-story building, the first three-story, the first five-story buildings.”

“That first two-story building, it’s still built, it’s still sitting in my basement,” he added. “My sister and I would play, and it was a nightly occurrence. Being able to leave it built greatly increased that permanency.”

Over the years, Anthony’s initial town has slowly grown and moved with him. His hobby had the opportunity to expand in 1999, when Anthony received an order of 110 road plates. Now in his current home, Anthony has a dedicated working space in his basement for the scenes he builds, block by block.

Part of those scenes were on display at the Charles City Arts Center through February as part of the center’s Lego build gallery. Visitors could watch a lively full block respond to a four-story building ‘on fire’, with smoke, made from craft batting Anthony painted, billowing out of the roof. The action through the block was visible with the ubiquitous, tiny Lego men and women, some as firefighters responding to the scene, a tiny TV news crew interviewing the mayor, and many as curious onlookers crowding up the block and side streets –– including one kid with a skateboard on top of a gas station, likely to get a better look at the crowd.

Anthony designed the fire trucks from scratch, although a few of the other Lego vehicles are built from company kits, he said. The fire hose passed between firefighters is made up from shoelaces with Lego parts attached.

“I’m sure there’s well over 100 people set up through the whole scene,” Anthony said. “I wouldn’t even venture to guess how many Lego people (I have) … I probably have an excess of 300,000 Lego pieces.”

Anthony has gradually built up his collection of pieces through both the in-store kits he finds, which he waits to purchase until the sets are on clearance or sale, or through specialty online orders when he needs specific pieces. Specialty orders help construct pieces like an orange fire station Anthony had on display at the Arts Center, which featured gray architectural detailing on the corners.

“I just estimate what I need, and I’d add ten or twenty to the order if I could to make sure I didn’t miscount, I have enough pieces,” Anthony said.

Before Anthony does purchase a full Lego set, he tries to identify what pieces the set includes. He’ll sometimes build the actual set to see what it looks like, then takes it apart to use the pieces in his own designs –– with the exception of some of the vehicle kits, which Anthony builds and includes in his city scenes. The fire trucks are designed entirely by Anthony.

“Sometimes you start building and it doesn’t work out, so you tear them down and come up with another option” for trucks, Anthony said.

Anthony shares some of his creations and finds inspiration online with other Lego enthusiasts, who range from 13-50 years old; the closest Lego club is located in Minneapolis, Minn., where builders collaborate on large-scale projects.

Currently, Anthony is back to working on a courthouse that he began in 1997, which he spends time off-and-on with, depending on the parts he has. The structure features two corner towers and a central clock tower, with a working quartz clock movement piece.

The orange fire station was a recent project, and Anthony has a few more taking shape in his basement, he said. He takes inspiration from real buildings and from photos of historic buildings online. The three fire stations he’s built are loosely based off of real national fire stations; the names come from his former town in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve always liked architecture of downtown buildings. Every building I build gets a history to it,” Anthony said.

Depending on the size, pieces can take anywhere from a few weeks to six or seven months. It was fun for him to display those pieces in public at the Arts Center, he said –– as a chance to share something he’s enjoyed for years.

“When it’s your own, it’s just a hobby, whenever you can you work on it,” Anthony said. “It’s just been a fun hobby … There’s a lot of adults that enjoy them as much as or more than kids.”