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Rae’s, an old-school Googie-style diner known for its unbeatable burger prices, normally stands on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, but you can find a different version of Rae’s Diner sitting on Kieran Wright’s kitchen table. Only that version is much smaller, about the size of a Christmas ham.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown, a lot of people passed the time at home by baking their own bread. But Wright immediately got to work on a hidden passion: creating small scale models of iconic Los Angeles landmarks.
“I figured I’d need a new interesting hobby to fill my time at home,” he says. “Sometimes, it takes a pandemic to discover something about yourself.”
Stepping into Wright’s Miracle Mile apartment, you can see his new obsession on the verge of taking over. In his bedroom, bottles of glue, pieces of insulation foam, an X-Acto knife and a self-healing cutting mat clutter a small desk — tools and materials he didn’t even own until earlier this year.
The models are for sale, and some are made on commission. His latest work in progress, a model of the former Sunset Grill, sits on his desk half-made. Many of the finished products, including models of notable L.A. landmarks like Tiki-Ti, Tail o’ the Pup and Morgan Camera Shop, take up the limited shelf space in the living room.
Wright, a New Zealand native, moved to Los Angeles only three years ago, but in that time, he’s shown a zealous love and appreciation for the city and its old, quirky buildings. He researched hidden architectural gems and aspired to visit all the local landmarks, which included taking a drive to Santa Clarita just to experience the food at Saugus Cafe, L.A. County’s oldest restaurant.
“I wanted to see more and feel more like a local,” he says.
Wright worked in digital marketing for Australian airline Qantas, but working from home in March quickly turned into getting laid off in April as the airline industry reeled from the effects of the pandemic.
With more time on his hands, he seized upon the opportunity to start creating scale models like the ones that first caught his attention at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
“I’m a huge Disney fan,” Wright says. “They have this huge scale model of Disneyland there. I could stare at that thing for hours and look at it and look at it.”
One of the reasons Wright has such a love for architecture is that his hometown of Napier — New Zealand’s ninth most populous city — is known around the world as a major art deco destination. This was less by design and more of a twist of fate, as Napier got hit by a major earthquake in 1931 during the height of art deco’s popularity. During the city’s rebuilding phase, art deco architecture dominated. If this story sounds familiar to you, it might be because the same thing happened in Long Beach following a major earthquake in 1933.
Of course, fashioning these miniature models is no small feat. Having never before tried his hand at the hobby, Wright relied on various YouTube tutorials to get started, but he quickly picked up the necessary skills.
First, he visits the building that he plans to recreate and records its measurements, a task that seems both silly and obvious. If you ever encounter a young man with a measuring tape outside an iconic restaurant, there’s a good chance it’s him.
Other times, like in the case of the Tail o’ the Pup and Sunset Grill models, the building is no longer standing as it once did, and he has to rely on pictures. In those cases, he’ll eyeball the measurements.
“I can figure out the dimensions based on a door,” he says. “A standard door is 36 inches wide by 80 inches tall. Once I have a door I can hold, I can visualize the rest from that door.”
Up close, you can see Wright’s devotion in the details, whether it be in the window signage or weathered stains on the rooftops. But his lovingly crafted miniature recreations are coming at an unfortunate time for the businesses that call these buildings home.
Some of L.A.’s cultural landmarks found themselves in peril even before the pandemic set in due to the city’s ever-expanding urbanization: Taix French Restaurant’s Echo Park home since 1962 will be torn down to make way for a mixed-use apartment complex; ditto that for the former location of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, which had been operating just down the street from Taix since 1963 and was even designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument by the City Council in 2009; and in Hollywood, high-rise apartments will replace famed record store Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard.
Shutdown mandates in response to the pandemic have only made things harder for many an independent enterprise. As small businesses fight to stay afloat, Wright’s new passion has become an act of preservation.
“I hate to see these historical places disappear for any reason,” he says. “That’s why I’m doing this. To bring attention to some of these places and make people aware of them.”
Fugetsu-Do, the Little Tokyo sweet shop that’s been in operation since 1903, is one of those historic businesses struggling to stay afloat as well as the subject of one of Wright’s models. He teamed up with the Little Tokyo Community Council and Little Tokyo Service Center who are together coordinating a fundraiser for the Little Tokyo Small Business Relief Fund, where anyone who donates $20 or more has a chance to win the Fugetsu-Do model. They’re hoping his model and the raffle-style giveaway will raise awareness of Fugetsu-Do’s hardships and those of its neighbors.
“Fugetsu-Do is fighting against the pandemic and gentrification,” he says, “and I hope that people go down and actually go to these businesses. I want to convey my love for these places and share my passion for them.”
Looking toward the future, Wright has an ever-growing list of models he hopes to make: Canter’s, The Apple Pan, the ever-exotic Fry’s Electronics in Burbank. But that raises the question, will he ever go back to digital marketing, or has the pandemic swept him into a new career?
“When I lost my job,” Wright says, “I applied for 40 or 50 jobs and got nothing back. That was really what made me decide to find a new way to make some money. I’m going to persevere and see where this takes me.”