Strong foundations

Building holiday traditions in Portsmouth, one piece of gingerbread at a time

NH Weekend Editor
November 30. 2016 1:04PM
In a previous Gingerbread House Contest in Portsmouth, this “Sweet Retreat” earned a judges’ award in the family category. Submitted by Sophia and Mike DeChristofaro, the log cabin featured decorative corner posts, a stone foundation and chimney, and a shingled roof with a coating of fresh snow. 
If you go...
WHAT: 26th Annual Gingerbread House Contest

WHEN: Kick-off party from 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 2; display on view through Dec. 23

WHERE: Discover Portsmouth, 10 Middle St., Portsmouth



So, you know how Godzilla, even when well-intentioned, tended to cause a lot of architectural damage whenever he came into the city? (In his defense, it was tough for a radioactive dinosaur with huge feet to avoid stomping on a storefront or punching a hole through a skyscraper when in full stride.)

Well, something like that happened in Portsmouth a few years ago. Except the “creature” was a kid and the crime mostly involved mass destruction of cookie and candy product. It still stands out as a dramatic moment in the history of the long-running Gingerbread House Contest in the Port City.

When it comes to creating structures out of pantry supplies, it’s a given that there will be some adversity — gumdrops that refuse to stay put, icing that fails to “glue” together walls, and smushed or smeared corners from where (giant) people and pets have bumped into the miniature scenes on their way through the kitchen.

Epic fail?

“The most spectacular ‘fail’ I can recall was not the designers’ fault at all,” said Karin Scott, who is on the 2016 judges panel. “It was our first year, and one of the entries was a model of the Memorial Bridge. It was so well done we decided to feature it in the window on the low windowsill. About a week into the show, a toddler escaped his mom and tore apart the center span.

“The artist was very understanding, so we decided to have fun with it,” Scott said. “We printed a mock-up of a newspaper with the headline that read, ‘Giant toddler attacks historic bridge’ and placed it among the wreckage. People loved the story, and it got quite a few votes for People’s Choice that year.”

Under the umbrella of the Portsmouth Historical Society, Discover Portsmouth, a welcome center with museum and gallery, will give the public a first peek at this year’s entries in the 26th annual gingerbread house contest from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday. Part of the citywide Vintage Christmas celebration and promotion anchored by The Music Hall and Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, the gingerbread house display will remain on view through Dec. 23 on the first floor at 10 Middle St.

Scott, who this past spring purchased the downtown Celtic Crossing store, 112 Congress St., previously served as visitor services manager at Discover Portsmouth.

“The event was handed over to us from Strawbery Banke in 2013,” Scott said. “They had hosted the event for 20-plus years, and after remodeling their visitor center they no longer had space for it.

“The first year, we had approximately 40 houses and created a gingerbread village within the confines of the museum shop,” she said. “It was a little cramped, but we used the window sills in the front of the building and made it work. It was such a success for us the next year the executive director and the board decided to move it to the downstairs gallery space, and it’s continued to grow from there. This year I’m told we have around 90 entrants registered so far.”

Construction phase

Entries are being submitted in four categories: adult, family, youth/youth group and business/non-profit. The finished pieces will be tucked into a winter wonderland landscape at the center, with large-format photographs by David J. Murray of scenes from previous Vintage Christmas events in Portsmouth and trains in wintery New Hampshire landscapes by Andy Dolph.

For Jennifer Walichnowski, part of a team representing The Maids of Southern New Hampshire cleaning service, the contest has become a yearly tradition.

“Our first entry was back in 2008, and we have done a creation for Portsmouth every year (since then), except for 2014, when I had my daughter in November,” said Walichnowski. “After seeing how much fun we had getting creative with our first gingerbread building party, we knew it would be something we did each holiday season.”

The trickiest part, she said, is the design phase.

“Deciding on and sketching the template for the house itself is the hardest part for me,” Walichnowski said. “You have to account for the dough baking to a different size than what you sketch, and, of course, you must bake all your pieces without burning them! I have used parchment paper for baking and easy transfer after the baking is complete, and that has been a game changer.”

Her favorite creation thus far was a French landmark.

“Hands down, our Eiffel Tower,” Walichnowski said. “I had gone to Paris for my honeymoon in 2013, and I was inspired when I got back.

“I heard after the contest that there was a little girl that asked to take it home with her,” she added. “That was the best compliment ever.”

Without giving away too many design details, Walichnowski said this year’s entry will celebrate team members’ love of animals.

“We are going to do a classic style this year with lots of white piping and silver, but incorporating our love for our animals. We haven’t gone in that direction before, and it’s going to be another fun construction party,” she said.

Making an impression

Jill Breneman, whose family business, the G. Willikers! toy shop, has been a Portsmouth fixture since 1978, joins the judge’s panel this year.

“I think what I’ll be looking for as a judge is creativity, going the extra mile in adding an unexpected touch and houses that are true to the theme of the exhibitor,” Breneman said. “Scale will also be an important element. For instance, I would hope to see people and pets that can fit through the front doors.”

Breneman, who is joined in her business by two of her three children, has a good perspective on kid-related concepts.

“I’ve always been fascinated with architecture and anything miniature, whether it be doll houses, fairy houses or gingerbread houses — an, of course, those elaborate electric train displays that everyone used to have,” Breneman said. “I think a whimsical outlook on life is what originally drew us to the idea of opening a children’s store. We had long collected antique toys and loved most of all the design and construction of good toys. Books which have become a large part of our store have always been a love of mine.

“It does keep me young at heart to be involved with the store and to interact with and observe kids all day long,” she said.

Design tips

Though Scott said she and her daughter attempted a gingerbread house only once — “it was so much harder than I’d imagined it would be, and I’ve never attempted it again” — she has picked up design tips from overseeing the contest in years past.

“I’ve heard there are a few ‘rules’ that can help if followed: Give yourself plenty of time. Bake the gingerbread in advance and let it harden. And use really strong frosting; I think they call it Royal Icing — you can make from household ingredients. But most of all I think contestants should just have fun with it.

“I definitely like themes or houses that tell a story,” she added. “I will probably be looking for ones that make me feel nostalgic or show amazing attention to detail. Sometimes that can even be a cute little house built out of graham crackers.

On the more intricate side, a favorite of hers over the years was a replica of a Market Square landmark.

“(It) was a spectacular replica of the North Church,” she said. “It won Best In Show and the Peoples Choice Award in 2014. It was illuminated so the windows looked like stained glass, and even the clock tower was lit from within! It was pretty special.”

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