Courthouse confection

By RICHARD LUKEN
Register Reporter

 

Register/Richard Luken
Glenda Bruner and Pat Sigg created a miniature replica of the old Allen County Courthouse. The creation is on display at Jones Jewelry as part of the Iola Area Chamber of Commerce’s Gingerbread Walk.

It was by sheer coincidence, Glenda Bruner insists, that she and her sister, Pat Sigg, made up a miniature replica of the old Allen County Courthouse as part of this year’s Iola Area Chamber of Commerce Gingerbread House Walk.
After all, many Iolans have been feeling a bit nostalgic because 2009 marked Iola’s 150th year as a community.
“We didn’t even think about it being Iola’s sesquicentennial until someone mentioned it to us afterward,” Bruner said. “We had just wanted to do the courthouse since last year.
It was also pure happenstance that the courthouse is on display at Jones Jewelry, whose proprietor, Jo Ann Butler, grew up west of Iola and could remember riding into town with her parents and seeing the distinctive clock tower from miles away.
“It’s something everybody noticed,” Butler recalled. “You could be coming from Piqua or driving through from Wichita and the first thing you could see was the courthouse clock.”
The old courthouse stood in the heart of the county square in downtown Iola from 1904 to 1959. The three-story building’s clock tower had “Iola” above each of the four clock faces to notify travelers they were approaching town. One of the four clock faces was saved after the old courthouse was razed and was placed south of the existing courthouse along Madison Avenue.

THE IDEA for the gingerbread courthouse came about during a brainstorming session shortly after Christmas 2008, Bruner said. Their aim was to make the gingerbread house as historically accurate as possible, from the number of windows to the nearby bandstand gazebo.
Bruner recalled watching as workers tore down the old courthouse.
“I was too young to remember it at all,” Sigg noted.
Their faint memories made it essential to find quality photos of the courthouse, but most photographs of the old building were obscured by large trees.
“What we needed most of all was to be able to see the roof line,” Bruner said.
Iola history buff Donna Houser found a series of architect’s renderings of the old courthouse for the sisters. They used those to create their structural confection.
“It’s not done exactly to scale,” Bruner admitted. “We had to do some guessing on parts, but it’s pretty close.”
Bruner had one hesitation: the roof of the gingerbread courthouse is covered with Skittles and other colorful candies. Bruner wondered if the colored elements would detract from its authenticity.
Not a chance, Butler replied.
“It’s Christmas,” she said. “You’re supposed to do things like that.”

CREATING THE structure took several weekends of designing and baking gingerbread components and figuring out how to make the towering clock stay in place.
As part of the Gingerbread Walk rules, all elements of the building were required to be edible.
The sisters found their answer for the tower dilemma by using a stack of Rice Crispy treats covered with angel food cake.
No detail was overlooked. Gum paste was used for much of the building’s “masonry” and small dollops of frosting made up candles for the courthouse windows and figurines of people standing near the building.
“That was the hardest part for me,” Sigg said with a laugh. “We wanted the people to be about the right size.”
Because the gingerbread courthouse was so tall — about 29 inches — the figurines had to be smaller than normal.
Sigg created a scene in which a pedestrian is getting hit from behind with a snowball, while a group of youths, certain to be scolded for their mischief, are running from the area.
A layer of frosting, coated with sugar crystals, gives the luster of new-fallen snow as well.
Adding another layer of authenticity is the nearby cannon — found today in front of the Veterans Wall — and a car parked alongside what would have been Madison.
“We made the car like my dad’s old 1934 Dodge,” Bruner said. “So I guess the scene was supposed to be from the 1930s.”

THE MOST challenging aspect of their project came about as the sisters used posterboard for their building template.
“We actually built it twice, the first time using the posterboard,” Bruner said. “Looking back, that was a mistake because the posterboard has a different thickness than the gingerbread.”
After they made up the gingerbread walls and roof, several pieces had to be reconfigured — or remade entirely.
“We’re always learning each time we do something like this,” Bruner said. “Now we know next time that we should use cardboard for our designs.”
The sisters completed the courthouse on Thanksgiving weekend.
“But we had to get it from my home in Humboldt to Iola,” Bruner said. “And I knew it wasn’t going to fit in my car.”
Instead, the sisters borrowed a van to carefully transport the structure to Iola.
“It’s pretty solid,” Bruner said. “And it’s not as heavy as it looks.”
Butler figured Jones Jewelry was chosen for the courthouse display because of the spacious area near her store’s front window.
“I had been told that they were making something big,” Butler said. “We’ve gotten a lot of visitors wanting to check it out.”

CREATING gingerbread houses is a fairly recent hobby for Bruner and Sigg, both of whom have backgrounds in crafts. Bruner also teaches art at Chanute Elementary School and Sigg etches glass in her spare time. Their parents, Glen and Laura Day, were crafters as well. Glen Day was the founder of Day Construction, and Laura Day created wood carvings, Bruner recalled.
Sigg recalled one of their first gingerbread houses, which became a centerpiece during the family’s Christmas dinner a few years back.
They melted down Lifesaver candies to use as stained glass windows.
“We figured it would be quite a sight to have a candle inside to really bring out the light through the colored windows,” Bruner said.
The project was an unmitigated success — for a while.
“The next thing you know, we started seeing smoke coming from the house,” Sigg said with a laugh.
The windows were melting again.
This year’s effort, too, will likely be destroyed. Sugar, after all, hardly lasts as long as wood or steel.
“By the time Christmas comes around, the roofs may start to fall apart,” Bruner said.
“I’ve heard of a shellac that can preserve something like this, but I don’t know if we’ll try it.”
If not, the courthouse will probably meet the same fate as their previous creations. It will be placed in a garden for little critters to feast on at their leisure.
The courthouse marks the sisters’ third entry in the Gingerbread Walk. They submitted a house in 2007, and last year created a replica of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
But even that structure paled in comparison to the detail and effort it took for the courthouse.
“About halfway through the project, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” Bruner said. “But now I’m glad we did it. It’s the greatest piece I’ve ever done.”