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Originally published June 6, 2013 at 9:34 PM | Page modified June 6, 2013 at 9:58 PM

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Obituary: Vigo Rauda leaves legacy of 8,000 display models

Vigo Rauda, 82, was a Seattle Latvian-American who 52 years ago started a display-model company that created more than 8,000 replicas used by architects, parks and cities around the country.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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His legacy is more than 8,000 display models, all done to exacting scale, of everything from the Olympic National Park display at its visitors center to the West Seattle Bridge to a Honeywell submarine torpedo to the Carillon Point development in Kirkland.

Vigo Rauda worked in very small measures, with models being 1/16th or even 1/480th of real-life size. Just being off a felt-pen mark’s width could make a model noticeably off-kilter.

Mr. Rauda died at his Seattle home at age 82 on May 7 of heart failure, said his wife of 57 years, Vija Rauda.

In some cases, such as with a prototype model of a tank, Mr. Rauda even made actual working parts, with very tiny one-of-a-kind-metal pieces.

He spent some 500 hours on the torpedo done for Honeywell, likely for marketing purposes at trade shows.

In the case of a major high-rise development, reducing 40-story towers to just 30 inches, some 1,000 hours might be spent.

Before 1960, when Mr. Rauda started his company, Rauda Scale Models, local architects basically built models of their projects out of cardboard.

Remembers longtime Seattle architect Roger Newell: “We would use brown cardboard, chipboard. It was pretty labor intensive. When we found Rauda, it was a time saver, really, a life saver.”

The models were used to show clients what a project would look like, and used by developers to presell.

The work of Rauda Scale Models continues, now being run by two of his three sons, Gunars Rauda and Sigurds Rauda. They literally learned their craft as kids, coming in to help sweep the place.

Vija Rauda, 80, also still comes in to help with bookkeeping. In earlier years, she also wrote the firm’s marketing letters.

It’s always been a family affair, with Mrs. Rauda first supporting the family while working as a chemist at the University of Washington.

For a time, their small, three-bedroom rambler also was used by Mr. Rauda to work on his projects, sometimes plastic sheets covering doors to keep out dust and paint.

Mr. Rauda came to this country as a teenager, as his family was part of the wave of Latvian refugees who fled the Soviet Union takeover of their country after World War II.

Mr. Rauda was born in Riga, Latvia, on Jan. 21, 1931.

Within a year of arriving in the United States, Mr. Rauda, then 18, had finished high school and joined the Army.

He was stationed in West Germany as he could speak German, the family having lived in a refugee camp there for four years.

Then, on the G.I. Bill, Mr. Rauda earned a degree in geography and cartography from the University of Washington.

After working as a draftsman for the state and a private company that went belly-up, Mr. Rauda decided to strike out on his own.

Having already worked on projects involving topography, he designed a machine that could cut accurate three-dimensional lines from a solid block of polyurethane.

With his dad, a carpenter, helping make the machine from wood and metal parts, Mr. Rauda came up with an apparatus that 52 years later the company still uses — despite having available laser cutters and computer-assisted equipment. For some small projects, it’s just faster, said Vija Rauda.

When the company grew so he could buy his own building in Lake City and move the firm from the family home, Mr. Rauda put the “Secret Machine” into a locked “Secret Room” that only family members could enter.

Said his wife, “It did seem a little odd. We had a lot of architects asking if they could see the Secret Room.”

Nope. The machine wasn’t patented.

“The patent would only be good for 17 years,” said Vija Rauda, and her husband didn’t want to do courtroom battle to defend it.

Initially, Mr. Rauda had a hard time persuading architects to use his skills.

But then, in 1962, the developer of Ocean Shores hired him to put together a model showing lots, roads, a hotel and other buildings.

By then, the Raudas had a 6-month-old son, Eriks, now a Boeing engineer.

“The model was something like 10 feet by 5 feet, and the only place it’d fit was in our living room,” remembered Vija Rauda. The living room was the project’s home for two to three months.

When the project was done, the Raudas rented a truck and delivered it to Ocean Shores.

“They were very happy. They gave us a voucher for that night for chateaubriand steaks. It was the first time we had that cut of meat,” said his wife.

Although his sons took over the company in 1995, Mr. Rauda still would come in regularly, sometimes taking part in projects that particularly interested him, said Gunars Rauda.

At literally dozens of visitor centers and museums around the country — Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, the Denali National Park in Alaska — there is a testament to Mr. Rauda’s life work. It is that display that, very accurately, explains some vast region at a simple glance.

Besides his wife and three sons, Mr. Rauda is survived by a sister, Benita Gowen, of Flint Hill, Va., and five grandchildren.

A memorial service for Mr. Rauda will be held at 3 p.m. Friday at the Seattle Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, 11710 Third Ave. N.E.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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