Portrait of Jon by Keith Hodan, adapted by 6sqft
Chef Jon Lovitch is no amateur when it comes to building gingerbread houses. In fact, every year Jon constructs an entire village called GingerBread Lane that takes nearly 12 months to make. It’s a holiday tradition he first started twenty years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, with just 12 houses, and he’s since grown the project into an epic display of sweets shown everywhere from Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and now New York.
Two years ago, GingerBread Lane found a local home at the New York Hall of Science in Corona, Queens, where Jon’s villages set Guinness World Records in 2013 and 2014 for the world’s largest gingerbread exhibit. This year’s village just set another Guinness record on November 17th with its 1,102 houses. But beyond seeking a world title, Jon hopes his labor of gingerbread love inspires kids and adults of all ages to get creative and start building projects of their own.
6sqft recently spoke with Jon to find out the history behind this tasty tradition, and what it takes to build an enormous gingerbread village each year.
When did you build your first gingerbread house?
The first time I made one I was already cooking for a living. I’d never actually seen a gingerbread house in person until I made that one and I had no idea what I was doing. I literally went to the grocery store, bought a box of gingerbread mix and tried to bake the gingerbread house. The first village I made in 1994 was the first time I rolled out gingerbread.
What inspired that very first GingerBread Lane in ’94?
In 1993 I had done a gingerbread house competition and I lost. I was really bitter, but not from the loss, but because instead of doing houses, people were doing entries like Noah’s Ark, the Old Lady and the Shoe—and they weren’t even using gingerbread! The very first time I did GingerBread Lane was 1994 in Kansas City, Missouri, and I did a small 12-house village in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Crown Center.
And you kept going from there?
Yes, the next year I took it to Washington, D.C. and made 38 houses. I was then in my third year and looking for some place to put it in D.C. This was pre-Internet, so I was looking through the yellow pages looking for a library or a museum. Being little ’90s me who grew up in Kansas City, I sent a letter to this place called the National Museum of American History. I had no idea that meant the Smithsonian.
They responded and were very interested, so that year it went from 38 houses to 104 at the Smithsonian. It stayed that size for about 15 years. But it was about four years ago that in a typical guy fashion I went “Is mine bigger than yours?”—I couldn’t handle the pressure of somebody else saying their gingerbread house was bigger than mine. So I approached Guinness and they gave me all the requirements—and they’re very detail oriented—and in 2013, I got my first record at 157 houses. Last year I built 1,040 houses. This year I built 1,102.
With 1,102 houses this year, is there anything new or different?
Everything in GingerBread Lane is unique because nothing is based on reality. However having said that, I do try to let it take on the style of where it is obviously in New York City, a very urban environment. It’s my third year in New York City so I’ve tried to add more storefronts, streetcars, street lamps, gas lamps on the buildings, an ice skating rink with the giant Christmas Tree for Rockefeller Center and a large railroad station a la Grand Central Station.
This is an enormous undertaking. How far in advance do you start planning?
I’m about 2-3 weeks away from starting a plan for 2016. I’ll make my sketches, buy my candy for next year, and literally the week I tear the current village down, I restart the process for next year.
All the preparation is done at your apartment. Does it take over your home?
I do it all at home and then move it piece by piece. Until the first of November, it would be hard to tell I even did it. I do a lot of stacking on long tables and I can quite easily fit 1,000 gingerbread houses in my apartment.
Your apartment must smell amazing while you’re doing this.
Everybody else says so but I don’t smell it because I do it for 10-and-a-half months. In January/February I really smell it, but by St. Patrick’s day I don’t notice it anymore. People come over to my house in June and July and tell me how amazing my house smells, and all I smell is how the garbage needs to be dumped.
How much gingerbread, royal icing and candy did this year’s village require?
The gingerbread was 682 pounds, I think candy finished at 793 pounds and the royal icing is just under under 4,000 pounds. I make the icing in two pound batches. Funnily, I don’t really like the taste any of it. When you’re around the stuff every day, you have zero desire to eat it.
What’s the set up at the New York Hall of Science like?
Right now it’s been open for 10 days and I still probably have 20 houses that I’m repairing and putting back together. It’s not easy to move these things; you’re moving year-old cookies in icing is what you’re doing. They don’t like being touched, and gingerbread and royal icing are not friends—they are both very dry in nature. The moving process is very tedious and laborious. You work so hard for so long and about half a million people see it in person and even more see it online, it’s really hard to just let it go and stop. Literally on Christmas day I’m like “I’m done.”
What makes the New York Hall of Science a great fit for the village?
When I moved back here in 2012, I was looking for a place that is interactive, where they try to teach. This is a place that really fosters learning. Nowadays kids do everything with iPads and iPhones and don’t actually use their hands.
When Gingerbread Lane closes, what happens to the village?
On January 10th, when we close, we give it away for free to whoever wants it. In New York City, if you say something is free, people will line up—they don’t care what it is. So we give the village away piece by piece. We get about 290 people in line. Last year we had 1,040 houses and gave away about 790. You can preserve them with shellac or a resin and you can keep them indefinitely. I have a house that sits next to the village; it’s a 40-year-old gingerbread house that belonged to a woman who passed away from cancer last year and was donated to me. I make it part of the exhibit so people can read about the house.
For New Yorkers who want to build their own gingerbread houses, do you have any tips?
The trick to a successful gingerbread house is a lot of icing and a lot of time. If you try to build it in one day, you might be successful or you might not. If you’re willing to work on it over the course of a weekend, or a little each day, you’ll make a tremendous gingerbread house that will stand the test of time.
What does sharing GingerBread Lane with people of all ages mean to you?
I feel like this is my one contribution I’m doing in terms of encouraging people to do stuff with their hands and minds versus electronic devices like their phones. It’s kind of fascinating that the media drives people to see this, and then for that one moment in time, they’re not on their phones. They want to go home and make one of these.
GingerBread Lane runs through January 9, 2016 at the New York Hall of Science. For more information on attending, check out the official site here.
Images courtesy of Jon Lovitch/GingerBread Lane
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