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Model City in Search of Showroom : Miniature replica of Long Beach begins to crumble after craftsman’s death. City inherited the mammoth piece but shows little interest in taking over the gift.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fernand Martel’s work of art sits in a windowless room in the basement of a retirement home.

There, in miniature, is downtown Long Beach in every detail--the Queen Mary, the oil island, the skyline and the neighborhood bungalows. Martel, who died last spring at age 75, spent years on this exact model, each building lovingly crafted.

But there is a problem. Martel’s work of art is showing signs of neglect. The shiny blue plastic that makes up the harbor is buckled and in need of repair. Some of the buildings need a dab of glue where they are starting to come apart.

When Martel died, he willed his creation to the city of Long Beach. But so far, Long Beach has shown little interest in it. The city’s historic preservation officer calls it a “hidden treasure” but says little attention has been devoted to finding a prominent home. Meanwhile, the director of the retirement home is afraid that the model will continue to deteriorate if it is not moved.

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“Someone needs to do something,” said Karen Townsend-McPoland, executive director of the Breakers, a posh retirement home in downtown Long Beach. “If we leave it sitting where it is, something is going to happen to it. It needs to find a permanent home because it really is neat.”

And big. The scale model takes up most of the space in the basement room, which also houses other Martel replicas of historic buildings.

All this from a onetime opera singer and lounge crooner who late in life happened upon a hobby that became a passion.

On a recent morning, Chuck Nelson, one of Martel’s longtime friends, flipped through one of the scrapbooks that Martel put together over the years. The yellowed press clippings told of Martel the opera singer, the Juilliard School of Music graduate, playing roles in “Carmen,” “The Barber of Seville” and many other productions.

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Some of the pictures were of Martel the bodybuilder. Others had him posed in front of piano and organ. Martel, a French Canadian, worked as an entertainer in Europe, Canada and the United States. But he spent his last 25 years in Long Beach, 11 of them as an organist and singer at Lucy’s restaurant before retiring in 1985.

“The man just loved Long Beach,” said Nelson.

The love of the city turned into an avocation when Martel began building scale model replicas from hobby kits in the early 1980s, painstakingly putting them together in the living room of his small apartment near downtown Long Beach.

“He branched out on his own and began doing the city,” Nelson said.

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First, there were the balsa models of the old city halls that had been torn down, followed by the painstaking construction, block by block, of the Long Beach skyline on a scale of an eighth of an inch per foot. He would take dozens of pictures for something as simple as building a scale model of an overpass. He could often be found on the top of the city’s buildings, shooting more pictures as the project progressed.

Ruth Ann Lehrer, the city’s historic preservation officer, said Martel was constantly borrowing blueprints of buildings to make sure he had every detail just so.

“It’s a hidden treasure of Long Beach,” she said.

In his retirement, the Breakers became one of Martel’s favorite spots, though it was far too pricey for him to live there. He would sing at gatherings, often have lunch there and, eventually, was allowed to put up his model of the city in the room where it now sits.

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Until then, the project had been in pieces in his apartment. Over time, he continued to add to it, until the model began taking on a remarkable depth. Chris Watkins, the Breakers building manager, said tables had to be added as Martel expanded.

School groups were regular visitors to the Breakers. And Lehrer said Martel was constantly bringing city officials to the retirement home in an effort to persuade them that the miniature model should be displayed in a more prominent spot.

Then, Martel’s health began to fail. He suffered a number of minor strokes, then a major one in March--the one that would kill him at age 75.

Hospitalized in Norwalk, Martel had one last wish--that he be allowed to die in Long Beach. He was transferred to a Long Beach convalescent home in early May and died a week later. The city was named as beneficiary of the model.

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So there it sits. Lehrer said the model has not been forgotten by the city, but that it has not worked its way up the priority list. Townsend-McPoland said the retirement home might be willing to keep the model, but only if it is encased and displayed in more suitable surroundings.

“Perhaps if the city isn’t going to do anything with it, we might be willing to do some fund raising,” she said. “But if we did, we’d want it to stay here.”


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