How To Toy Train Layouts Walt Downer’s collection of Lionel Factory Layouts

Walt Downer’s collection of Lionel Factory Layouts

By Roger Carp | October 15, 2023

An impressive collection of postwar Lionel Display Layouts

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Walt Downer’s collection of Lionel Factory Layouts

Ever since Walt Downer can remember, he has been fascinated by things that move. That desire to see something move explains the approach Walt has taken to collecting Lionel trains and accessories from the postwar era. Passionate about Lionel history, he set out to build a great collection of models from the 1945-69 period.

Walt points out that his infatuation with Lionel trains is due to having two older and bigger brothers. His determined pursuit of the best Lionel offered during the postwar era can be attributed to another pair of big brothers.

Walt has in mind two widely known and highly respected authorities on Lionel’s postwar trains. Paul Ambrose took Walt under his wing when the latter began attending train shows and showed a serious desire to obtain the top trains. Paul, a longtime contributor to CTT, taught his protégé to chase after the finest models in the best condition.

Walt’s other mentor is Ed Dougherty, who has been a significant presence in the toy train hobby for almost 40 years. Readers of CTT have had the pleasure of seeing Ed’s great collection of Lionel postwar displays in the Summer 1989 and January 1993 issues.

Which Lionel outfits does Walt count among his favorites? Thinking chronologically, he begins with the No. 2146WS from 1948; it featured a No. 726 Berkshire steam locomotive pulling a trio of heavyweight Pullmans. Next comes the No. 2148WS from 1950, a similar train led by a No. 773 Hudson and tender.

Over time, however, Walt’s direction in collecting shifted gradually towards the displays Lionel developed.

The story of Lionel’s superlative displays is a familiar one to most hobbyists. It’s a tale that opened during the company’s early years, gained momentum late in the prewar era right up to World War II, and reached what many enthusiasts believe was its peak in the 1950s and into the early ’60s.

The rationale for creating such a department, with its own supervisors and hard-working crew of laborers, boiled down to the belief that consumers would buy more of Lionel’s trains and accessories if they were able to watch those items operate. Rather than depend on various retailers (department and hardware stores, appliance and toy shops, and others) to build displays, Lionel would supply them.

Lionel’s Display Department

The Display Department thrived under the direction, first, of Joseph Donato, and later his son and namesake. Joe Donato Jr. in partnership with William Bonanno, whose brother served as Lionel’s chief engineer, supervised the design and production of the static and operating displays in the postwar era.

Speaking broadly, the purpose of the Display Department amounted to coming up with exciting layouts filled with track and accessories every year that best showcased the latest additions to the product line. The operating displays ranged in size from 4 x 6 feet to 8 x 8 feet and featured O-27 or O gauge track (Super O and even HO scale sections were used during the years starting in 1957 when Lionel offered those track systems).

Once the layouts created for a particular year were shown and described in either a special display brochure or the yearly advance catalog, wholesale and retail accounts decided whether to order them. As the orders reached the Lionel factory, Donato, Bonanno, and the men employed by them worked feverishly to build and paint the wood platform, lay and wire the track, and place accessories.

According to the recollections of members of the Display Department, hundreds of layouts were constructed each year. Stores set them up and relied on them to improve sales during the holiday season.

Shop owners and managers might put their displays away until the following year. Or they might strip the layouts of accessories and trains to meet the demands of customers. Some retailers even sold entire displays. In time, the layouts lost their luster and were destroyed or packed up and forgotten.

Whatever the reason, few of these layouts survived. When, in the 1970s and beyond, Lionel collectors discovered these original displays, the competition for them gained heat.

Now our magazine is proud to turn your attention to Walt Downer. Just seeing a display layout is a joy; to find several so nicely preserved, with their track, scenery, and accessories intact, lets us return to the postwar decades, when Lionel dominated the toy world and these layouts delighted countless kids.

Want to learn more about Lionel Store Displays? We published an entire special issue about them!

Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt had filled his upstairs train room by the time he acquired this no. D-223 layout from 1958. This Super O display, which measures 4 x 8 feet, first belonged to a store in Nova Scotia. Among the accessories are the nos. 128 animated newsstand, 197 radar warning tower, 264 operating fork lift platform, 345 culvert unloader, and 464 operating saw mill.
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer has a blast running his favorite Lionel sets on the displays he owns. This shot of no. D-148 from 1955 shows two classic sets. Outfit no. 2239W (below) featured no. 2363 Illinois Central F3s pulling four freight cars. Overhead, a no. 1562W O-27 set has a no. 2328 Burlington GP7 leading four no. 2440-series streamliners.
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Every year, Lionel released display layouts with more and more features. The no. D-264 from 1959 had three-rail action everywhere you gazed. Its instruction sheet described this 5 x 9-foot Super O railroad as “A most unusual display with superb track layout and beautifully detailed four portal mountain.” A dozen added items boosted its appeal, notably the nos. 175 rocket launcher, 192 railroad control tower, 199 microwave relay tower, 494 rotary beacon, and 3662 operating milk car and platform.
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
About the first thing you glimpse after reaching Walt’s train room at the top of the stairs is this gorgeous example of the no. D-290 from 1960. In just 4 x 8 feet, the designers at the Lionel factory packed in a mountain, two levels of Super O track (including a spur leading off to platforms for the nos. 3366 operating circus car and 3672 operating Bosco car), and some of the best operating accessories cataloged in that year. Little wonder that Walt often likes to pick out a couple of vintage trains to run on it.
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays
Walt Downer's collection of postwar displays

26 thoughts on “Walt Downer’s collection of Lionel Factory Layouts

  1. Great article and hopefully this will inspire today’s younger generation to get into this wonderful hobby of both toy trains and model trains as they get older and their modeling skills progress and develop while Lionel still has a wide following and is one of the most well known brands around , there are many folks especially of this younger generation including their parents that just don’t have any interest or like of trains. This is a generation now that is more interested in electronic toys and technology Even with Christmas just around the corner many department stores and toy stores don’t even bother to stock or sell train sets for Christmas gift giving and now even the time honored tradition of having a Lionel train set or any train set for that matter chugging under the Christmas Tree is fast fading away with many households not bothering with that wonderful tradition and just a total lack and disinterest in trains and being replaced by all these other toys and pursuits While we have Thomas and the Hogwarfs express for the kids that too will fade away as kids grow into other grown up pursuits and lose all interest in toy and model trains and when they grow up their own children and families won’t have or ever have the experience and enjoyment of having a toy train set to operate or enjoy and Christmas of the future will also lack that holiday tradition of a Lionel train set running under the Christmas Tree. Very sad and unfortunate indeed. Joseph C. Markfelder

  2. My copy of this edition of CTT is dogeared as I have continually returned to check out the great Lionel Dealer, or Factory, Display Layouts.

    After much planning and research, I am getting ready to begin construction of the D-105 layout from 1953. A 5×9 that runs two trains and is loaded with accessories.

    Thanks to CTT and many others for the inspiration!

  3. I return to apologise to Walt for not commending him on an excellent job on the factory layouts. I received my first Lionel 027 train set for Christmas 1951 after having watched Lionel trains in action at the Sears Roebuck store on Ross Ave. in Dallas, Tex. I still like to watch videos of these vintage O gauge trains but do regret that I didn't get American Flyer S gauge instead after educating myself on Gilbert's product line.

    Though not a factory layout, the one on the rear page of the 1957 Lionel catalog remains my all time favorite. If I had the space I'd build it today albeit in S gauge. Still, thank you Walt, for sharing these great layouts with us. They do bring back a lot of happy Baby Boomer memories!

  4. CTT spends much to much time promoting Lionel O gauge. Lets have more American Flyer S gauge including special issues!

  5. What wonderful pieces of history! No, they are not hi-rail layouts, they are pure MAGIC! I have a hi-rail layout in my attic and I'm really fond of it as satisfies my scale model cravings, but my heart belongs to those classic display layouts. I set one up for Christmas and another one for Easter. The Easter layout comes closest to the display layout genre and it's my absolute favorite. It has nothing but Lionel trains and accessories on it. The grass isn't ground foam, it's dyed saw dust sprinkled over wet paint, just as they did back in the 50's. The roadbed isn't ballasted, it's just tan painted wood. There is something in those simple methods that just fires my imagination. I've seen hi-rail layouts that have rocked my world, but they just don't have the magic of those post war display layouts.
    Those vintage display layouts were built when Lionel was at it's prime and they certainly capture the spirit and the essence of the world's greatest toy train maker. These layouts ,simple and elegant, are pure works of art. The folks who created them weren't aware of how very special their creations were. These folks were artists, craftsmen and designers extraordinaire.
    The factory display layouts were, and still are, the stuff that dreams are made of. The excitement they evoked in those that gathered to view them. Anyone who owns one of these precious gems is very fortunate indeed and I for one am jealous.

  6. These are great! Very well presented. Also like the shelves with the boxes in tow. What's nice is that there are so many ways to collect postwar era and this is one way and very well done.

  7. Hi, I just picked up a D-104 which included the layout plans, which was nice, made it easy to know what went on the layout. I like your wooden shelves, going to do that with my 4X8 display. Nothing like a Dealer layout, brings back some good memories from the department stores.

  8. Very nice display, excellent condition of all items.
    For the young modelers is a great example. But I feel that
    now this days the youngsters don't really enjoy toy trains.
    I try to make a fine display like yours for my grand children they just born
    I will do my best to get their interest in toy trains.
    Sincerely yours. Eduardo Ramirez, MD from México.

  9. Nice layout and great photos. I also like the storage shelves you have under the benchwork. I may incorporate this in my next layout.

  10. The display layouts presented are a wonderful experience for younger modelers to see the effort that lionel put into the layoutseach year end.

  11. I have to keep reminding myself those layouts are about showcasing as many products as possible not realism and that less can be more when I create my own. Still they are wonderful layouts.

  12. It's just wonderful seeing these display layouts. They really seem to come to life with the trains sets that are on the layouts. Just like Lionel intended! Walt's got a great treasure with this collection.

  13. my dad bought me the lionel dealer display in late 1954. it was the d-131. was in the back page of the 'lionel golden years" magazine. wish i still had the display. i believe i was 11 years old when he brought it home for me. the memory of this i will never forget. "thanks dad".

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