Tom Eblen

We built the old courthouse in gingerbread. It took dough, icing — and a bit of bourbon.

A few days after Christmas 2016, when the old Fayette County Courthouse was wrapped in scaffolding for renovation, project manager Holly Wiedemann took my wife, Becky, and me on a hardhat tour.

We walked around the roof and climbed up two ladders inside the dome. After inspecting the clockworks, we climbed a third ladder through a trap door into the cupola as workers were sheathing it with new copper.

As we admired the circa 1899 craftsmanship and incredible views of downtown, Holly said, “You should do this for your next gingerbread project.”

I have written a couple of columns about my family’s holiday tradition. Each December when our younger daughter, Shannon, comes home, we spend the better part of two or three days creating a festive, edible model of a Lexington landmark.

It’s good family time and keeps us out of trouble. Our creations have included the federal style Hunt-Morgan House and the mid-century modern People’s Bank. A few days before Holly’s tour, we had finished a replica of Floral Hall, the octagonal barn beside the Red Mile that looks like a wedding cake.

I quickly agreed to Holly’s challenge. Becky looked at the courthouse’s complex roof, started counting its more than 100 windows and told me I was crazy.

When next December came, I chickened out. The courthouse was still being renovated, I rationalized, so we should wait a year. Instead, we made the old Spalding’s Bakery. This year, I had no excuse. It was courthouse now or never.

The Richardsonian Romanesque structure was more elegant before 1960, when a brutal renovation removed most of the second-story window arches so a third floor could be added. I went with the original design.

I am the project architect and engineer. Shannon is the artistic director. Becky is our master baker, icing mixer, materials consultant and washer of many dishes. This year, we also drafted Shannon’s best friend, Lisa, who was visiting from New York because Australia was too far to go home for the holidays.

Our rule is that everything on our gingerbread landmark must be edible, although a well-hidden stick or two for roof support is sometimes necessary. This year, a stick and two small blocks supported the roof and dome and held a string of LED lights.

Because of the courthouse’s light color, we used sugar cookie dough instead of gingerbread. After studying photographs, I built a cardboard model and patterns for 42 cookie pieces. I also made two special cookie cutters to stamp windows. Windows are cut before baking, but they must be re-cut within a minute or two of coming out of the oven in what is always a finger-burning frenzy.

Everything was glued together with royal icing, which eventually dries like concrete. The key word is eventually. A structure must be put together carefully in sections to keep the whole thing from collapsing in a heap.

This year, Becky refused to go along with our usual practice of pouring molten sugar (or isomalt) to make each window individually. It would take forever, she claimed. She thought it would be easier to buy clear gelatin sheets and ice them into place. But we didn’t realize the moist icing would make the gelatin curl. More icing! Stick it down! Hold it until it dries!

That brings me to another key ingredient: bourbon. It’s not for the building; it’s for the builders.

To shape the dome, we molded a batch of Rice Krispies treat in a small mixing bowl. The dome and cookie roof panels were then covered with fondant icing dyed slate gray. Shannon sculpted the cupola, window arches, balconies and other details from white fondant. She and Lisa painted the cupola and roof flashing with copper-colored food paint. Bits of Hershey bars became paneled doors.

The front steps and sidewalk were made with graham crackers. The lawn was green-dyed coconut. We also added a few holiday touches: Candy cane columns, gumdrop pillars, Pez stair railings and peppermint circles for clock faces.

Thanks to good planning, skill, experience and just the right amount of bourbon, everything turned out well. One of the biggest challenges was keeping our grandchildren, ages 6 and 2, and Shannon’s cat at a distance during construction. “Don’t touch!” “No, it’s not a dollhouse.” “Please don’t run through the dining room!”

Depending on this winter’s humidity, our masterpiece may last until spring. Until then, Holly is finding it a new home so others can enjoy it as much as we have.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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