Building an Empire

Donald Trump never knew how close he came to competing with me-and not because I wanted to play a boss on reality TV. No, the truth is that, as a kid, I dreamed of making it big in the world of high-profile architecture and real estate development. If things had worked out differently, I might have ended up going toe-to-toe with “The Donald” instead of becoming a museum curator. But show me a Kenner Girder and Panel construction set, and I still can recall those years as an aspiring builder of subdivisions, office towers, and shopping malls.

Construction sets have been popular toys for generations. If I’d grown up in the Roaring Twenties, I’d have undoubtedly worked out my architectural yearnings with an Erector Set. I did have Lincoln Logs among my toys and used them to build the occasional cabin or fort. But the Lincoln Log pieces never stayed together all that well (the roof slats had a frustrating way of sliding off with a clatter), and the Wild West look didn’t fit with my taste for chrome and glass. If I’d been born a few years later, LEGO bricks would undoubtedly have been my favored building material. As it was, growing up in the 1960s meant that Kenner construction sets and I were a perfect fit.

I’ll be the first to admit that my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, isn’t typically known for its glamorous buildings. My knowledge of New York City skyscrapers was pretty much limited to what I saw in the movies or absorbed through Life magazine photos. When I was ten, the neon splendor of Las Vegas dazzled me during a family trip to the West Coast. But what I really wanted to construct was my familiar landscape-my own middle-class, Midwest world. My elementary school had been constructed in the late 1950s and its one-floor layout, floor-to-ceiling windows, and “daring” circular kindergarten room (I never had to worry about being told to stand in the corner) fit the modern mode. Add a second story onto my school and you’d have had the same look as a Holiday Inn motel-my ideal of roadside luxury on those family vacations.

So, I was thrilled the year that I got my first Kenner Girder and Panel construction set. Looking back at a 1966 Kenner catalog in the museum’s library, I’d guess it was Set No. 21 or 22. (For a look at a set similar to mine, check out this 1957 TV commercial.) My set wasn’t the grandest option in the Kenner product line, but it supplied plenty of red molded-plastic girders and beams that snapped together securely and allowed me to create the kind of dramatic cantilevered structures featured in the instruction manual. I was particularly taken with the set’s bubble skylight panels, and remember using them on just about every building’s roof. I could even build a pretty accurate reproduction of my own school.

When I received the Kenner Build-a-Home & Subdivision set the following year, I had everything I needed to recreate my suburban landscape-houses perfect for any cul-de-sac and buildings for a neighboring office park. If I’d known that there was such a thing as a Kenner Bridge & Turnpike Set, I’d have probably wanted that too, but that didn’t stop me from driving my toy cars along the imaginary roads that linked my Kenner houses and buildings.

Once I was “too old” to play with my Kenner sets, my quest for real estate fame and fortune didn’t shrivel away-it just turned a different direction. Those were the years when my best friend Larry and I spent summer hours at the picnic table in my backyard, drawing the products of our multifaceted global conglomerate. Fictional car models, posters for movies from our imaginary film company, and real estate developments filled the back of page after page of scrap paper from my history professor father. Venturing into a box marked “mementos” in the basement recently, I retrieved examples of my architectural output from those years-designs for the same kinds of corporate headquarters, shopping malls, and housing developments that I’d been building with my Kenner sets a few years earlier.

Have I created great architectural designs? Am I famous and fabulously wealthy? Not the way I imagined as a kid. But, looking back at my buildings and drawings, I still say, “Donald Trump, eat your heart out.”