Modeled in details

Area man builds intricate replicas

Area man builds intricate replicas

June 01, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

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The Italian village has a cobblestone path, a foot bridge that juts out from its background and flowers that cascade out of window boxes.

The French cathedral has dozens of columns inside with intricate detail work inside and out, including rows of pews and a simulated stained glass window.

Another church has a wooden pipe organ in one corner while a wedding is occurring nearby.

Neither the village nor the church are real, though the French cathedral is Laon Cathedral in northern France - a replica of it, that is. Hagerstown-area resident Jorge Portalea carved details such as the columns out of wood and assembled them with glue to create the approximately 18-inch-high cathedral.


He carved the Italian village scene out of a single piece of wood and painted it. He designed the wedding chapel model and created the stained glass windows in the churches from plastic that either came colored or he painted.

Portalea made these wooden models and dozens and dozens more. Most of the house models do not have interior details. Two of the houses were made out of cigar boxes so the roof literally opens on one of them.

Portalea, who turns 80 today, said he builds the models for the satisfaction he gets and because he finds it relaxing.

Before he moved to the U.S. in 1960, Portalea was a technical inspector for Argentine Airlines, so he's used to paying attention to details.

Asked in Spanish through her husband if Portalea gets into such detail with everything he does, Juanita Portalea nodded yes. She is celebrating her 77th birthday today.

"I always liked to do something. I remember when I was a child, I built my own toys," said Jorge Portalea.

His father had an auto repair shop, and Portalea said he would break up the wooden boxes the motor oil was delivered in and use them to make toys such as planes and ships.

"I gave my father a hard time because I used to take his tools. He found a solution. He pulled my belt out of my pants," said Portalea, recalling having to hold his pants up with his hands so he couldn't grab the tools.

Portalea gets many of his ideas from magazines, using pictures of houses, churches or airplanes to create models that range in size from several inches to a foot and a half high.

The first model he worked on was a ship in a frame, so it looked as if the ship was coming out of the picture, Portalea said. He was 17 at the time.

Portalea said he sold some house models to the Washington Dolls' House and Toy Museum, but after the founder, Flora Jacobs, died in 2006, the museum closed and he doesn't know what happened to those pieces.

Through Jacobs, Portalea said other people asked him to create models.

But, he said, for the most part, he creates them for his own enjoyment. He keeps the models around the house and occasionally makes models of a friend's or relative's home, which he gives to them.

A couple of years ago, Portalea gave neighbor Andrew Auxt a model of his two-story home after Portalea photographed all four sides of Auxt's home, Auxt said.

"He really is talented," Auxt said. The model "is amazing, the finest detail - curtains in every window, every brick in detail."

Portalea has models of several of the homes his family has lived in, including their home west of Hagerstown and an earlier one in Damascus, Md.

He also created models of car dealerships, including EuroMotorcars in Germantown, Md., and Bethesda, Md.

Models and framed, painted carvings decorate his living room and dining room, fill shelves, hang from the ceiling of his garage, and fill his basement, where he has carvings stacked seven deep in several piles on one table alone.

"For me, (it's) the love of what I do. I was able to combine carving and painting," Portalea said.

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