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Issue Date: December 2008


Building A 65-pound gingerbread house

Dentist John Learner has built seven ultimate gingerbread houses for the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s annual contest. This year’s project was his most ambitious: a replica of St. Ignatius High School’s main building.
By Dr. John Learner
I was driving around earlier this year, looking for some cute Victorian house for inspiration when I saw it: The main building at St. Ignatius High School. Six stories. A 159-foot-tall tower. Eleven dormers and other architectural nuances.

My first thought?What a perfect gingerbread house. Every thought since that day? How could I take on such a huge project?

I built my first gingerbread house seven years ago because I didn’t want to throw out leftover Halloween candy. I thought it would be a fun project for my children and me to tackle. They lost interest after the first 10 minutes.

I’m still plugging away, learning something new each year. For instance, never, ever use chocolate on a gingerbread house. It distorts and crumbles after about a year and is a pain to clean up. Also, Pop-Tarts are a better building material than they are a food. They stick really well to hot glue and are structurally sound. You can also dovetail or tongue-and-groove them.

I like to show off my houses in my dentist office. My patients just love the fact that I make houses out of candy.

Last year, I built a three-story Victorian modeled after what is now the Masonic Temple in Kent. I used individual gingerbread bricks to build the piece, and when I was done, it weighed 65 pounds.

I start with a photograph as inspiration, which is how I found myself building a replica of St. Ignatius’ gothic structure. With photo in hand, I build a cardboard house on my plywood base. Then it’s just a matter of adhering gingerbread to the cardboard structure.

I use small gingerbread bricks and icing mortar instead of whole sheets. It’s more sturdy and authentic, particularly when I’m working on a brick structure like this one. I’m lucky to have a wonderful Lebanese patient who bakes all my gingerbread in exchange for dental care. It’s a great deal for both sides.

Typically, a project takes about two months, but this one took three.

I carved out the windows one by one. This took days. With my knife, I cut into the 2-inch-thick gingerbread walls, slowly carving out the proper shape.

Then I began work on the window treatments. The building has white window shades pulled halfway down on most windows, which creates this white/black contrast. So I took cardboard (the kind you find in a new dress shirt packaging), and I cut it into tiny pieces that fit the windows. I glued them into the carved windows.

I added details with paintable icing: tiny things to make it look Christmassy. Wreaths and whatnot. And since brown gingerbread is ugly, and the building is red, I painted all the bricks dark red.

I built the roof out of Wrigley’s and Trident gum (at last count, more than 640 pieces combined) and built 11 dormers, eight chimneys and a tower.

The hardest, most nerve-wracking aspect of the entire project is the drive from Stow to the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. These gingerbread houses are not sturdy things, and anyone who has driven state Route 8 knows it’s not the smoothest road.

I drive slow, real slow, and grip the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turn white. And all the while, I imagine my latest 65-pound gingerbread house sliding around in the back, jostling over bumps. I imagine my Wrigley’s shingles breaking apart, my icing windows shattering, my gingerbread bricks crumbling.

This sounds like it might be a painful job, working for so long on such small details, but it’s really not. After all, I’m a dentist whose nonholiday hobby is building model ships. Working on tiny details with my fingers is what I do all day long.

Still, early on, I started thinking I bit off more than I could chew. I’m already planning for next year: I think I’ll do a nice one-story Cape Cod. — as told to Matt Tulli

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