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He built a Ritz-Carlton and two Tampa Bay condo towers — and they’d all fit in a closet

By Susan Taylor Martin | Times Staff
Published: March 8, 2018 Updated: March 8, 2018 at 10:53 AM
Working out of his Orlando garage, David Spalding makes detailed scale models of projects that have included the new Virgage condo tower in Tampa and the Vinoy Place condos in St. Petersburg. He made this model for a French project; when the architect died, his widow returned it to Spalding. [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN |Times|

ORLANDO— Behind the garage doors of the last house on a quiet street in Orlando lies a Lilliputian world.

Here, condo towers soar three feet high. Beach umbrellas are the size of quarters, lounge chairs no bigger than pencil erasers. Pinkie-length yachts sail on forever calm seas.

This is the world of David Spalding.

"I’m the kid who never grew up and stayed at home and played with models," says Spalding, one of Florida’s foremost builders of architectural scale models.

He made the models of the Vinoy Place condos in St. Petersburg, the new Virage condo tower on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard and a high-rise going up in Channelside. He built mini-versions of the Ritz -Carlton in Baltimore, the airport in Geneva, Switzerland and the National Cartoon Museum in Boca Raton. There have been models, too, of marinas, yacht clubs, golf courses and entire residential communities — hundreds in all, over a half century.

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Spalding’s work is so detailed — right down to the teensy people on tiny balconies — that it’s hard to tell from a photo what is real and what is a model. It is a level of exactitude that has enabled him to build a thriving business with zero advertising,

"Despite all of the advances in technology with virtual reality and animation, our buyers still love to see an actual model and there’s nothing like what Dave can do to accomplish that," says Steve Barber of Ascentia Development Group, the Sarasota developer of the Virage. "You can’t beat the quality of what Dave does."

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Now 68, Spalding got an early start on his career thanks to his parents. Both were architects and when they built models, they pressed him, his brother and sister into making the little trees and cars.

Although Spalding toyed with the idea of becoming an architect himself, he ruled it out because he hated math and "if I have to follow directions, forget it." But he had the ability to look at a sketch of a building and render it in three dimensions. During a break in his senior year of college in 1971, he went home to Fort Lauderdale and offered to build a model of one of his mother’s commissions there, the Island Club.

"I earned lots of beer money, $1,500, $2,000," Spalding recalls. "It was big money back then."

That got him hooked.

After graduation, his mother asked him to help with another major job. He did so well with that and other models that he was able to put a third down on a house. He was still so young his parents had to co-sign the loan.

Since then, Spalding has always worked out of his home. And "from then on, it was all word of mouth," he says. "I’ve never advertised, never been in the phone book except for the number."

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Business was great — until the recession. He had built a model of New Port Tampa Bay, a grandiose project announced for the Tampa end of the Gandy Bridge, but the developers of that and so many other boom-time projects already were in trouble.

"In 2007, it got real quiet," Spalding says. "I had absolutely no work."

He and his wife, Lamar, an artist, decided to sell their home in Fort Lauderdale and move to Central Florida. They bought a house near downtown Orlando and because he had nothing else to do, he spent six months gutting and renovating it.

Things began to pick up again around 2011, and "now I’m busier than ever," Spalding says. He is currently working on an eight-story condo tower with waterfall in Jacksonville; a 28-story tower in Naples and a new residential development in The Villages, the huge Central Florida retirement community. He just turned down a 50-story tower in Philadelphia.

Thanks to computer-aided design (CAD) and other technology, many projects today can be viewed in amazing detail on a computer screen before they ever get out of the ground. But Spalding knows scale models remain popular "because people like to walk around" a three-dimensional object.

Costs range from a few thousand dollars for a simple block-form model — which architects often order before they bid on a project — to $100,000 or more for large, elaborate layouts that can take months to make. Spalding says he can keep his prices lower than those of some other model builders by working out of his garage instead of renting warehouse space.

He starts with a plywood base that he sands, primes and paints before putting on permanent features like roads and retaining walls. The "water" is a clear gel that hardens; "grass" is green rayon flock, which looks like green sawdust. He sprinkles on the flock while the paint is still wet.

Next come the "puzzle pieces" — irregularly shaped pieces of Lexan, a clear plastic. The pieces can be added or removed from the layout of a development as various stages get underway.

"If you show a golf course, everybody wants to be on the golf course," Spalding says. So the puzzle pieces in one area might be solid green until the developer is ready to put in the course. Tiny houses can be glued onto the pieces as lots are sold.

Spalding used to make all of the trees himself, fashioning palms out of bits of fabric for the fronds and painted gauze wrapped around picture wire for the trunks.

Other model makers "always used little train-set trees, which are horrible," he says. "That’s why ours were better."

Spalding now buys larger trees from Hong Kong but still makes tiny ones out of sandspurs painted green. He got the idea after stepping on some at a beach in the Bahamas, which became his main sandspur supplier.

"The best part was trying to bring them in through customs — why would anyone want to bring back sandspurs?" Spalding says, remembering agents’ puzzled looks. "They had to call the head office in Miami to find out if they were some kind of drug."

Spalding also makes mini boats, toilets, bathtubs and columns, although he had a silversmith cast the especially intricate columns he needed for one model. Among the accessories he buys are people, cars, chairs, tables and golf carts — none more than 5/16ths of an inch high — that he orders from a company in New Hampshire.

There’s so much work these days that Spalding has teamed up with a man who’s "really good" at making buildings while he concentrates on layouts and landscaping. But he still enjoys working on airports. In addition to Geneva, he made models for those in Greensboro, N.C. and Columbus, Ohio. He’s also done models for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

"I love airports; it’s always fun having to make the little planes," he says. "The guy that owns Miracle-Gro is a major donor (to Embry Riddle) and I had to get a picture of his private jet."

Spalding made a miniature of the jet himself but marvels at planes produced by 3-D printing, an innovation that could revolutionize the model-making business. "The detail is just amazing," he says, calling himself "too old for all that new technology."

Over five decades, Spalding has built so many models he has a hard time remembering them all. But a few stand out, including one that had an unfortunate encounter with too much glue.

"I was so frustrated I threw it up against a wall," he says of the model, which broke, costing him five days worth of work. "From then on I learned to be very patient."

Then there was the model of a condominium planned for the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale.

"This building is not going to sell. It’s ugly," Spalding recalls telling the developer. Sure enough, after eight months with no sales, the developer redesigned the project and gave the original model back to Spalding. He has it hidden under his work bench.

Most developers keep the models after they’ve served their marketing purposes. The Virage model, which took two months to build, is still enticing buyers in Tampa but the models of two completed Sarasota condo towers — Beau Ceil and Orchid Beach Club — are now on display in the offices of the Ascentia Development Group.

As Spalding learned in 2007, architectural models can be an early bellwether of changes in the nation’s economic climate. When new development stops, no one needs models. But with demand so great now , he sees no sign of a slowdown. And once he delivers the models, he doesn’t miss them at all.

"I’ve done so many, it’s just a relief when they’re done," he says. "They not like children."

Besides, when one model is finished, he gets to play with a new one.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate