The promotional holiday display has been a must-see Charleston tradition since 1999 when its creator, model train enthusiast Lou Nappi, first built it and set it up under the stairs in the hotel lobby. At the time, he says, the hotel was looking for a display that might bring in more foot traffic and maybe turn into a tradition for the families who stay there during the holidays.
“That's exactly what it's done,” says Nappi, who's almost finished setting up this year's display.
Back in the day, Nappi had been responsible for creating many of the working overhead model trains you might have seen in restaurants throughout the country, or, closer to home, in Bi-Lo stores in South Carolina.
“The Orient Express owns the hotel and [the manager] gave us some pictures of the Orient Express and some of the cities that it travels throughout Europe, so we kind of mimicked some of the buildings … and tried to give it a European flair,” he says of the expansive hotel display.
This year, for the first time, four generations of the family have been busy helping lay down the rails for the past few days, says Jon Nappi, Lou's 16-year-old son, who started setting up the model train set with his family when he was about eight.
“We try and add something new each year and just and make it a little bit different,” the young Nappi said recently while putting some final touches on it in the lobby. “This year we have working crossing gates and we re-painted all the buildings this year, as well as a new train.”
The family will complete it for viewing by Thanksgiving Day. It will operate from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. through the first of the year.
Stroll through Charleston Place around Thanksgiving and you can't help but see the holiday gawkers gathered around the giant model train set that makes up the centerpiece of the hotel's lobby. For the past decade and a half, the Nappi family of Greenville has been setting up the snowy European landscape with a fully operational miniature ski lift and 300 feet of model track, each year adding a new feature.