- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - For the past few weeks, construction has been going on at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center on College Street. At the hotel, walls have been raised, roofs have been laid and panes have been placed in window sills.

Rather than your average bricks and mortar, however, the builders have chosen to go a sweeter route.

“It takes about 250 pounds of gingerbread. About 100 pounds of royal icing, 75 pounds of candy,” Chef Alex Hoefer said, rattling off the construction materials needed to build the most sugar-coated attraction in Auburn each holiday season.

On Dec. 10, The Hotel at Auburn University unveiled its annual Gingerbread Village, a display of 11 to-scale models of real-life Auburn buildings made almost entirely out of edible delights.

“That’s pretty much the gist of that - it’s all icing and gingerbread,” Hoefer explained.



Hans van der Reijden, managing director of hotel operations and educational initiatives, explained that the Gingerbread Village tradition at the hotel started seven years ago, at which time the village comprised only three buildings - Samford Hall, the Auburn University Chapel and Hargis Hall - on display in the hotel’s lobby. The village has always been unveiled on the night of the annual Auburn Christmas Parade, coupled with hot chocolate, cookies and a bell choir.

“The response was so overwhelming, we thought, ‘OK, this is cool, we’ve got to do this every year,’” van der Reijden said.

Not only did the village grow in number of buildings, but also in skill level with which the buildings are constructed. The hotel started partnering with Auburn University’s Department of Building Science and Dr. Paul Holley to craft gingerbread-covered structures that impressively mimic their larger, non-edible counterparts. Graduate students use 3D scanning equipment to scan the actual buildings and scale them to an appropriate size, after which the students construct the small-scale models out of wood.

“There’s a lot of gingerbread villages out there,” van der Reijden said. “There’s very few who mimic actual buildings, because that’s extremely hard to do, so having that partnership with the school of building science allows us that really unique opportunity.”

Chefs at the hotel’s restaurant started recently making 30 or 40 pound batches of gingerbread, the molasses-based recipe which intends for it to turn out strong structurally, as well as the icing made from scratch. Chefs rolled the gingerbread to a desired thickness and then baked it in sheets that are easy to cut and work with. They then covered the wooden structures crafted by the Department of Building Science with gingerbread to serve as walls and other flat surfaces. Gum paste and icing act as joining agents for the gingerbread.

“After that it’s really decoration,” Hoefer said. “So the first thing that goes on is the gelatin sheets for the windows. We basically hot glue them to the surface so they stay, so it’s not completely edible.”

A cow in the Samford Hall bell tower, a ghost in the Auburn University Chapel and a fire truck next to Hargis Hall give nods to local lore and history. Roofs tiled with Sixlets and Nilla Wafers, sour strip flooring and gummy grass landscaping are only a few features that add to the charm of the exterior of the village’s structures.

Challenges of constructing a building out of candy and gingerbread include maintaining consistency in baking, according to Hoefer, as well as time constraints.

“Really it’s just a scale thing and the fact that we have a very short amount of time to do a lot of work, so we rely heavily on volunteers,” Hoefer said. “I walked in the other day to check on it, and our entire accounting department was hovered around one building. Once people start on it, they kind of take ownership of it. So it’s real cool to see that.”

Van der Reijden echoed Hoefer in explaining how the village’s construction is an all-hands-on-deck effort.

“So it’s not just the pastry chef that gets completely worn out for a month and has a breakdown,” he joked. “It’s really - I have people from accounting, from human resources, from sales, from the front desk, from housekeeping. And basically what happens, you have groups of friends in the hotel, they kind of adopt a building, and it’s like their building.”

The hotel has also made it a tradition to add a building to the sugary display each year, which has led it to grow from the three in the inaugural year to the 11 in this year’s village. It has also outgrown the lobby since the first year and was moved to the middle of the conference center space last year.

This year’s new building in the Gingerbread Village is Storybook Farm, which has also been the hotel’s chosen charity for the past 12 years.

“It’s a great partnership, so it’s nice to be unveiling the big barn at Storybook Farm this year,” van der Reijden said.

From country to city to campus, Hoefer said he believes that fans of both the university and the town seeing a new take on their beloved buildings is part of the charm of the Gingerbread Village.

“I just really enjoy the town, and the campus has a lot to do with that, and I think it’s really neat that we take all these buildings that have their own history in Auburn and sort of like immortalize it in gingerbread,” he said. “I think that’s really neat. People that come see it - they already have a special attachment to the town, to the university.”

Van der Reijden encouraged both local patrons and out-of-town visitors to stop in from a shopping trip or swing by the village after lunch or a cocktail to experience a must-see Auburn holiday tradition.

“What I love about it, it has truly become part of the community as part of a, ‘I can’t miss this for the holidays,’” he said.

The Gingerbread Village will be on display through Jan. 1.

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Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, https://www.oanow.com/

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