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Gingerbread house at MOA breaks world record

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- When Greg Hollenkamp sat down to design the world's largest gingerbread house last summer, he aimed to craft a confectionary cottage that evoked images of Hansel and Gretel, the hungry children who happened upon a similar st...

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- When Greg Hollenkamp sat down to design the world's largest gingerbread house last summer, he aimed to craft a confectionary cottage that evoked images of Hansel and Gretel, the hungry children who happened upon a similar structure of sweets in the classic tale by the Brothers Grimm.

But it's doubtful that the original house envisioned by the German wordsmiths faced the same construction obstacles and building-code issues that stood in the way of this Guinness-certified creation, now on display at the Mall of America.

Located at the west entrance to the mall's theme park, the 67-foot house broke the former world record for such a structure by more than 12 feet. On display through Jan. 3, the building is covered in real gingerbread and frosting, which has been adhered to a base structure made of steel scaffolding and drywall.

Mall officials came up with the idea as a benefit for the St. Therese Foundation, aMinnesota-based senior housing provider that will receive the suggested donations given by visitors to the house. But it was a man from Tennessee named Roger Pelcher who made them believe it was possible.

Pelcher had helped to build three previous gingerbread houses, including the former record holder in Memphis, Tenn., and is credited with developing the preferred method of applying sweet siding using frosting as adhesive.

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Dan Jasper, the mall's director of public relations, said Pelcher was approached in late spring about the project. Though he had previously declared his retirement from gingerbread houses, he agreed to come on board on a project to work with Minneapolis designer Hollenkamp, of KKE Architects, and construction manager PCL Construction.

Pelcher and his wife stayed in Minneapolis for six weeks while he provided consulting services and helped to guide the building's construction.

After Hollenkamp developed the style of the house, the first issue to address was visitor safety. The building is spacious enough for shoppers to walk through, so Bloomington officials were brought in to ensure it met city standards for safety. As a result, the house design incorporated emergency egress lighting and a full sprinkler system, though Trent Bowman, PCL's manager for special projects, noted that the gingerbread isn't particularly flammable and tends to dissolve in water.

"During the construction, some of the gingerbread got wet, just from people spilling water on it, and it turns to absolute mush," Bowman said.

Officials also were concerned about the weight of the structure, which includes 15,000 pounds of gingerbread sheeting imported from Toronto and more than a ton of donated candy.

St. Paul-based Ericksen Roed & Associates was brought in to provide engineering analysis on the project, and the house was given the go-ahead at its projected weight.

"I would have to say it's the safest gingerbread house anyone will ever set foot in," Jasper said.

After the skeletal structure was completed, the project appeared set to meet its scheduled grand opening on the day after Thanksgiving. But like a Grinch set on foiling the workers' best-laid plans, a manufacturer delay slowed delivery of the gingerbread siding by more than a week. Once it arrived, workers were left with less than half of the construction time they had anticipated.

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So the workers, made up of subcontractors and officials from PCL, KKE and mall staff, donated their time and worked around the clock to complete the house on schedule. Bowman said he spent at least one 24-hour day on the project himself, but added that there was one worker who had stayed on more than two full days before going home.

One of the trickier applications was the roofing, which had to be done from the top down, because workers couldn't stand on the bread once it had been laid. But adhering the gingerbread to the walls wasn't terribly difficult, Bowman said, even though Pelcher was the only builder that had any experience working with frosting.

"It sounded goofy to me until I put some on myself," Bowman said. "But it adheres with no problem. It sticks just as good as glue."

The building was completed and certified the day before Thanksgiving, and unlike most building projects, the building also underwent inspections from Bloomington's Environmental Health division, to ensure visitors wouldn't try to eat the structure. (As silly as that may sound, some visitors have reportedly tried to do just that, and careful observers can spot bits of siding that have been secretly broken off.)

Thousands of people are now walking through the structure every day, and mall officials have counted more than 100,000 visitors to date.

The project was completed almost entirely with donated materials and labor, though Bowman estimated the price of construction could have easily passed $200,000. It took a monumental effort to get it completed in time, but several of those involved with the project appear proud of their accomplishment and thankful for the memories they've shared.

"It was a challenge, but that doesn't mean it wasn't also a lot of fun," Bowman said.

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