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Scale models help blind to see faces of history



Published: Tue, February 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Models from a Michigan school were rescued from the trash heap.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- After 65 years of eager fingers playing over its facade, Monticello is looking a little worse for wear.

The scale model of Thomas Jefferson's house, faithfully rendered right down to the spindles in its railings, has a missing porch column here, a loosened chimney there.

But as an aid to helping students understand the elegance of the real Monticello, the model remains a useful tool at the Ohio State School for the Blind.

America was in the grip of the Great Depression when the Work Projects Administration, a federal agency that employed people in public-works jobs, commissioned the building of scale models for schools for the blind.

The Ohio school received a $45,000 grant for models produced in the late 1930s. Accompanying them was a book, "Models for the Blind," describing the history and significance of the buildings, devices and natural features depicted.

"The blind and partially sighted children ... can tell you how many windows there are at Mount Vernon, what the portico at Monticello is like and even how the guillotine works," wrote Harry Graff, supervisor of the Ohio Writers' Project, a WPA program that employed writers to produce the book in 1940.

Forgotten models

In the years since, the models fell into disuse and disappeared from many schools for the blind, said Lou Mazzoli, superintendent of the Ohio school.

Nine forgotten WPA models from the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing were headed for the trash heap until an alumnus alerted a Smithsonian curator, who took them to Washington. Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., the nation's oldest such school, still uses some WPA models and has others in storage, spokeswoman Barbara Castleman said.

The Ohio school has kept its collection largely intact. The models rest on long tables in the basement, a miniature inventory of some of the world's great architecture and inventions.

Generations of children have run their hands over the White House, the Wright brothers' airplane, the Arch of Titus and the Taj Mahal. They've been able to spin a working model of a windmill and feel the cable of a suspension bridge. Models for the Blind lists about 90 items made for the Ohio school.

Doris and Dale Pennington, who graduated in the 1960s, said the models remain a strong part of their school memories. He remembers the gristmill. She remembers counting the steps on the Statehouse.

"It's been 37 years, but they made an impression on me," said Mrs. Pennington, 55.

Continued use

They were still making impressions on Ceil Peirano's class of fifth- and sixth-graders early this month.

After learning about volcanoes, the students went to the basement to touch models depicting them. Peirano guided the hands of Sam Shepherd, 14, over a model, making the craters, vents and domes she had told him about less theoretical.

But the volcano wasn't enough. In a room holding everything from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Washington Monument, the students fanned out, running their hands over everything within reach. About 45 percent of the school's 130 students are totally blind; the rest have varying degrees of vision impairment.

The age of some of the models is obvious: Air transportation is represented by a Douglas DC-4, a propeller-powered airplane from the 1940s. Still, Peirano said, she uses them several times a year.

Because texture was as important as appearance, the model makers took pains to simulate real surfaces. Grooves were painstakingly carved into wood to give the feel of brick. The rough texture of stone on the Salisbury Cathedral was simulated by mixing sand into paint.

Mazzoli said he would like to find craftspeople who would volunteer to refurbish some models.

Significant as both learning tools and historical artifacts, the models deserve preservation, Mr. Pennington said.

"They are treasures that you would never get again."




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