Creating detailed Class A ship models from scratch requires skill, focus, attention to detail and sometimes years to complete. Nothing can be rushed.
The ultimate product is an artistic ship replica, constructed plank-on-frame, using original ship plans, authentic shipbuilding techniques and fine woods, all in miniature, and all from scratch.
Some models bear the likeness of legendary ships known for speed or beauty or a role in history; others are fine examples of specific types: a brigantine, a sloop, a schooner, a Navy destroyer, or a square-rigged, three-masted bark such as Galveston’s 1877 tall ship Elissa.
For the creator and the collector, these ships are a passion. For others, they’re an art form worthy of admiration and delight.
Beginning December, visitors can get a close-up look at an assortment of Class A ship models on display in the new Admiralty Marine Model Gallery, 2221 Strand in Old Galveston Square in the island’s downtown.
The new gallery space is the creation of mother-daughter team Tina and Leslie LeCornu, and it honors the vision and artistry of their husband and father, Allen LeCornu, a nationally recognized master model ship builder who opened a model gallery with his family in 1993. He died in 2012.
“Our marine gallery is dedicated to the artistry of scratch built ship models and to the maritime history they represent,” said Leslie LeCornu, who is at the helm of The Admiralty, Ocean Discoveries. “It’s my mission to have my father’s work accessible and appreciated.”
Allen LeCornu was only 10 years old when he began building ship models. In his 20s, he began building models from plans just as a real ship would be built. Over the next 50 years, he built several hundred meticulously rendered square-rigged ships, Navy vessels and schooners. He made all his own parts, except for chains and minor accessories, crafting the hulls from a storehouse of wood including Swiss pear, mahogany and boxwood, among others.
In time he accepted commissions, and some of these were his most outstanding work: “The Alabama” was built for a Houstonian; “The Dorothy,” for a man in Norfolk, Va; and the “Great Eastern,” a famous ship, for a man in Boerne, Texas.
Some of his models, such as the stately Lexington, will be on display along with other treasured models. The USS Lexington was an 86-foot, two-mast wartime sailing ship for the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War. The model was damaged in Hurricane Ike.
The new gallery also will feature ship models from other master craftspeople.
It’s a simple space, framed in wood and light, and housed in the interior of Old Galveston Square adjacent to The Admiralty, Ocean Discoveries.
Models of all sizes are placed throughout the space, some for viewing, some for sale, along with a wide collection of books on maritime history, maps and other maritime artifacts.
“Anyone interested in maritime history and ship model building will enjoy the offerings,” Leslie LeCornu said. “We are offering a warm and inviting place for everyone to explore the world of modern ships, and to see what goes into making a single model of this type.”
The gallery will collaborate with different museums for future exhibits and possibly host meetings for organizations of museum model builders, she said.
It was island-born oilman, developer and philanthropist George Mitchell who contacted Allen LeCornu in 1993 and asked if he might be interested in opening a gallery of his work in Mitchell’s then newly completed Harbor House Hotel at Pier 21 on the island. Mitchell, who died earlier this year, had seen one of LeCornu’s models in a building in downtown Houston, and thought the quality and subject were a good fit for Galveston. At the time the LeCornus were living in Plano.
“The children were out of school and we decided it would be an adventure,” Tina LeCornu said.
The LeCornus, who had never worked in retail, moved to Galveston and participated in their first Dickens’ Evening on The Strand in December 1993. Both daughters, Leslie and her sister, Wendy, were there to support their parents.
The gallery, in the Harbor House Hotel, began as a joint venture with Mitchell. In 1998, the store moved to a larger space in Old Galveston Square on The Strand; in 2000, the family bought Mitchell’s interest in the shop and the business became their own.
The store prospered and soon the LeCornus began to expand inventory beyond ship models to include nautical-related items such as home décor, art and bronzes and more.
Hurricane Ike, which struck in September 2008, was a setback for the family business and a personal blow to Allen LeCornu, who lost much of his life’s work to the rising water. But the family never considered leaving.
With Tina LeCornu handling all the financials, Leslie LeCornu assumed full management of The Admiralty, Ocean Discoveries, stocking the store with items reflecting an ocean theme, and most recently including a line of gourmet foods and infant clothing.
“I chose merchandise to bring a modern interpretation of the sea,” she said. “Whether our customers were updating their beach cottage décor, outfitting a yacht, or searching for an ocean-inspired gift, I wanted them to find both the exotic and elegant to suit a coastal sensibility.”
The family’s philosophy is to offer unusual, high quality specialty items for visitors who want to remember their trip to Galveston with something unique and for locals who know where to go for the items they love.
The shop carries a huge selection of Swiss Army knives, specially made candles and handblown glass ornaments. The shop also offers jewelry, ceramics, stuffed toys, posters, puzzles and all manner of aqua blue and ocean items.
The shop stocks as many American made goods as possible, and it carries goods of some local artists, as well as of some artist collectives in Washington State.
Since Hurricane Ike, it’s been one boom year after another for the store, Leslie LeCornu said.
Much of the success can be attributed to a strong family presence and an emphasis on customer service.
“We love to delight our customers, and we love to see them return,” she said.
The Admiralty also serves as an interior design consultant for individuals who have bought island houses and condominiums and want their coastal home to have an ocean feel.
“If they want to add maritime touches to their décor, we have whatever they need,” she said.
The opening of the new gallery brings the family full circle and it’s an emotional addition for mother and daughter.
“I think my father would be very proud to have his models displayed for people to appreciate in awe and wonder,” Leslie LeCornu said. “I believe it would be the place he would most want to visit in Galveston. I get a lot of people who miss the old gallery, but we have a lot more people who like the new as well. Now we will have the best of both worlds.”