Kids can tell you: Anyone who builds with Legos knows that their masterpiece might tumble to the ground at any moment.
Ben Rollman knows it, which explains his stoic expression in the early morning hours of Aug. 26.
As a convoy of SUVs transported his Lego replica of the Texas Capitol from Pflugerville to the Texas Capitol Visitors Center in downtown Austin, a school bus in front slammed on its brakes.
The SUVs stopped hard in return, shattering the dome of Rollman’s masterpiece.
“The dome crushed in on itself,” said Rollman, who works in IT for the Texas Medical Association.
Rollman, however, remained calm. He and his crew unloaded the intricately detailed model sections, built of 65,000 Legos on an approximate scale of 1 to 72, along with the hundreds of loose pieces, and immediately started the reconstruction, which he estimated would take a day.
Brian “Lasso” Lasseter, part of Rollman’s 25-person construction team, said: “That’s Lego.”
A Capitol project
Rollman and his team, including girlfriend Bethany Brazzell, were done rebuilding the dome in its new home by 3 p.m.
And there the plastic baroque dome will stand tall for the next 10 years for all to see in one of the busiest parts of the Capitol complex.
How could he do it so quickly?
“Two reasons,” Rollman says. “One: I had help. The folks that were here have been building for a long time, and they easily recognize patterns and were able to get larger chunks sorted and rebuilt into subassemblies. Second: It was a familiar construction to me. Having worked on it for over a year digitally and built it myself, rebuilding was much quicker.”
RELATED: You have not seen Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge like this
No mere toy, this looming, 150-pound version of the 1888 Texas Capitol was now ready for viewing by wide-eyed spectators at the Texas Capitol Visitors Center.
The Texas Capitol is far from Rollman’s first Lego masterpiece. In fact, he played with Legos as a kid, gave them up for some time, then returned to the fold in adulthood, along with some other pretty serious Lego builders, who attend conventions and sometimes create large projects in tandem.
“Back in 2011, my then-girlfriend and I built the University of Texas Tower,” he says. “Last year, a few members of our Lego User Group — including myself — built several buildings for the new Dell Seton group of hospitals. I've built a lot of things over the years, but I guess those were the biggest.”
Part of the allure for each creation was a lack of pertinent precedent.
“I usually pick projects based on if they've already been done,” Rollman says. “At the time we did the UT Tower, no one had done it at a good size. Same with the Capitol. I've wanted to do aircraft and buildings that I thought obscure, but someone had already done them. It's probably a bit egotistical, but I don't like repeating someone else's work.”
How it was done
It took a year and a half to design this Capitol replica. For that task, Rollman used a digital studio in Bricklink, a third-party Lego vendor, and then he and his team labored for four months on construction.
“So there was about 25 people who worked on this in some capacity,” Rollman says. “There were probably another dozen that donated parts. People helped build and create plywood bases, print decals, organize and purchase parts, and then drive the model to two locations. Most were from the user group, but a couple of my friends also helped.”
Much of the actual 1888 Capitol is faced with a pinkish granite that Rollman did not, in the end, duplicate.
“I went rounds with the color,” he says. “The building is a different color depending on how close you are, time of day, and if they've resurfaced it recently or not. The other issue is that Lego doesn't make a color that matches. There are colors that might be closer to the ‘sunset pink,’ but they don't offer the same types of pieces, and the ones that are available are expensive. In the end, the Preservation Board and I agreed that tan just offered the most options.”
Many of the bricks were ordered directly from factories in Denmark.
“Actually, the only real ‘deal’ that Lego has with builders is the opportunity to purchase from them at a discount,” Rollman says. “Most of this is done through Lego User Groups and the ambassadors — liaisons between the groups and Lego. They facilitate yearly Lugbulk programs, but also a lesser-known project (called) Support. Both require a minimum purchase that usually prohibits regular customers from taking advantage of it.”
Rollman and his team did not seriously consider duplicating the interiors of the Capitol.
“Honestly, this is not only the biggest model I've ever done, but it's also one of only a couple buildings, period,” he says. “Most of what I build involves spaceships. But yes, if it's ‘minifig’ scale, I will make an interior.”
An unfinished version of Rollman’s Capitol was recently unveiled at Brick Fiesta, a Lego fan convention at the Renaissance Austin Hotel over the July 4 weekend.
“Despite it not being complete, it received overwhelmingly positive feedback,” he says. “In fact, I won the award for Best Architecture — and it was still about a month away from being complete. People actually loved watching it being built.”
RELATED: Rare map shows explorer’s 1807 journey through the Austin area
Was he surprised that the State Preservation Board wanted his Capitol in exhibition for 10 years in such a busy public place? The state group even built a special wood-and-Plexiglas case for the model, which, without the base, is 102 inches long, 62 inches wide and 52.75 inches high.
“To be honest, I feel I forced this on them,” Rollman says. “I was already designing it for fun, for myself. It was only later I asked the State Preservation Board if they wanted it. I'd originally asked if they could help buy the bricks, but they couldn't. And yes, when I found out how long it would live there and that they'd build a case, I was a bit taken aback. Imposter syndrome hit, and I felt like my little project wasn't worth all that.”
In fact, the folks at the visitors center are ecstatic with the results.
“They even made the trash cans,” said Chris Currens, director of special projects for the State Preservation Board, which operates the visitors center as well as parts of the Capitol, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Governor’s Mansion and the Texas State Cemetery. “Once we realized its scale and elaborate attention to detail, we became interested in presenting it for up to 10 years.”
Although the details are astounding, the Lego treatment of the historic landmark would have been even more difficult if the exterior of the real Capitol had been constructed of more pliable, sculptural limestone — as once was proposed — rather than harder, blockier granite, more suited for Lego blocks.
“I wonder what Nimrod Norton, who donated the pink granite for the Capitol, would think of this Lego version?” Currens said. “I think he’d be flattered.”