I struggled for a couple of years trying to decide on a time and place for my train layout. I was afraid of locking myself into a specific time period. What if I chose the 1950s, then decided I wanted to run trains that were older than that? Fortunately, the answer came kind of out of thin air, once I thought about it some more.
Old, traditional buildings are a safe choice
The first thing to consider is that buildings can last indefinitely, as long as they’re cared for. In every major city, there are buildings that are 150 years old or older that are still in use. So a building that looks like an 1880s storefront can work in any decade. All you have to do is change the signage, the appearance of the people around it, and the cars parked around it. You can change the appearance of the building dramatically by how you weather it. Make it clean and bright if it’s a building on the right side of the tracks. Weather it heavily if it’s on the wrong side of the tracks.
Keep in mind that the railroad tends to run through the older parts of town. That’s often because the town built up around the railroad.
You don’t have to set the time and place with the buildings themselves. Use the trains, figures, and vehicles for that. A traditional storefront can work for any decade since the dawn of railroading. As long as the trains and the vehicles are from about the same era, you have a lot of levity with the buildings, as long as the buildings aren’t newer than your trains.
What are you modeling?
The other question is what you want to model. Some people like to model seedy parts of town, for whatever reason. If that’s what you’re going for, get older buildings and weather them. If you’re modeling a couple of small towns along a main line, you just need a handful of buildings. A storefront, a gas station, and one recognizable chain restaurant will more than suffice. Get the oldest style you can for the gas station and the chain restaurant. Or skip one or the other if you can’t find an old one.
If you want to model an urban setting, get traditional storefronts and houses and cluster them together more closely. Make it as nice or as rundown as you want. I didn’t quite realize what I was going for at the time, but I ended up modeling something that resembles Gaslight Square, a phenomenon of urban revitalization that happened in a part of old St. Louis from about 1957 to about 1967. And with that kind of setting, I can run trains from almost any time in the 20th century. When you look at photos of Gaslight Square, the cobblestone streets and sidewalks and Victorian buildings look quaint, but it still looks like the 50s and 60s because of the way people are dressed and the cars in the picture. Change the people and the cars, and it still works any other decade. There was another part of the city with old buildings and cobblestone streets and sidewalks that was popular for my generation to hang out at on weekends, back when we were cool.