'Building the Ice Palace': Artist Hans Gilsdorf reflects on challenges of construction
Local residents who haven't yet taken the opportunity to pay a visit to King Isbit's Ice Palace on the Detroit Lakes City Beach, take note: This weekend will be the final opportunity to see the palace fully lit at night, though the structure itself will be remaining intact for a little longer than first anticipated.
"The palace will come down on Friday, Feb. 23," said its lead designer, local artist and sculptor Hans Gilsdorf, during a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on "Building the Ice Palace" that was held this past Wednesday at the Becker County Museum.
Gilsdorf noted that demolition of the palace, originally slated for this Monday, Feb. 19, had been delayed slightly due to a scheduling conflict with some of the participants.
During his one-hour, 15-minute presentation, Gilsdorf reflected on both the challenges and triumphs associated with the ice palace project, which started as an offshoot of the 2017-18 Detroit Lakes Ice Harvest.
The ice harvest project — which was the first to take place on either Big or Little Detroit Lake since 1971 — was initiated when Detroit Lakes was approached about supplying all the ice for construction of a record-breaking ice palace that would form the centerpiece of the 2018 St. Paul Winter Carnival.
Gilsdorf, in turn, was approached by Amy Stoller Stearns, one of the early members of the Ice Harvest Steering Committee, about designing a smaller-scale ice palace for Detroit Lakes.
"I said yes," Gilsdorf said — though he joked that he had "no idea" he was saying yes to at the time, or the challenges that he and the rest of the volunteers who agreed to take on the project would face in the months ahead.
One of the biggest challenges, Gilsdorf said, was that he had never worked with ice as an artistic medium before — though now that the palace and its surrounding "Palatial Playground" are complete, that is clearly no longer the case. He added that the project wouldn't have come to fruition without the expert assistance of experienced ice sculptors such as local resident Eric Rotter, not to mention the nine-person crew from Wee Kut Ice in Spicer, Minn., who were hired to lend their expertise to the ice harvesting process.
Another challenge the palace's creators faced, Gilsdorf said, was the fact that they had to design many of the tools they used, many of them from scratch. He gave a specific shout-out to Accessories Unlimited of Lake Park, who created not just one, but two sets of customized ice tongs to be used for moving the 900-pound blocks of ice into place.
"The first ones they built weren't big enough," Gilsdorf said — which was another of the major challenges they faced.
Originally, when Detroit Lakes was to supply the ice for the St. Paul palace, the sheer volume of ice that would need to be extracted for the record-breaking structure meant that the Wee Kut crew would need to begin their work on Dec. 15, and continue harvesting non-stop over the next month.
When funding for the St. Paul palace did not fall into place as anticipated, the Detroit Lakes Ice Harvest group decided to move ahead with their plans to harvest ice for a local palace, and upgrade the plans a little in the process.
Since they would no longer need the large-scale staging area needed for extracting and loading the ice blocks for shipment to St. Paul, organizers decided to move the site for the local palace from the Peoples Park volleyball court to the City Beach, immediately adjacent to where the ice would be extracted from Little Detroit Lake.
Also, because so much less ice would need to be harvested, the Wee Kut crew could complete their work in just a couple of days rather than the 3-4 weeks originally anticipated — so they decided to move the dates for the ice harvest to Jan. 11-12. This simple change in the schedule, however, created some unanticipated difficulties.
"On Dec. 15, the lake ice was 12 inches deep," Gilsdorf said, noting that this was the minimum depth needed to construct an ice palace.
By the first week in January, the depth had grown to 18 inches — which was still well within parameters, he added — but then there was an unusually long stretch of days with subzero temperatures.
"On Jan. 11, the ice was 25 inches thick," Gilsdorf said, which meant that the weight of the blocks rose from about 600 pounds to roughly 900 pounds each, and the dimensions of the blocks were also altered significantly — thus the original design of the palace needed to be adjusted accordingly.
Another challenge posed by the 20-30 below temperatures, Gilsdorf said — aside from the need to wear many layers of protective clothing — was the extraction of the ice from the lake.
The temperature of the water underneath the ice was still above freezing, he said, so when it was cut and pulled to the surface, the exposure to the subzero air temperatures would cause the blocks to crack, break apart, and even explode.
"They were really brittle," Gilsdorf said, so taking the advice of those more experienced in working with ice, the all-volunteer crew charged with building the palace decided to let the blocks "rest" for three days, allowing the ice to settle and re-harden.
As for how they managed to get the blocks to stay in place without some sort of glue or mortar to hold them together, Gilsdorf said, it turned out all they needed to accomplish this was gravity.
"Due to sheer compression, the blocks fuse together," he said. "The whole structure becomes monolithic." Because the structure is so solid, however, it will likely take several strikes with a wrecking ball to bring it down, Gilsdorf added, noting that while some people may like the idea of leaving the palace up until spring, safety precautions necessitate its removal.
Ultimately, he said, despite all the challenges they faced, the project came together quite successfully.
"No one was injured," he said, though many of the volunteers did experience some frostbite (including himself).
Gilsdorf said the entire experience "was a total blast" for everyone involved, and they are already making plans for another ice harvest next winter — though rather than completing a full-size palace, the blocks will be used for an ice sculpting competition.
"We're planning to build a palace every 3-4 years," he added.