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The Art Of Building An Ice Palace


For more than a hundred years, people in Saranac Lake in New York's Adirondack Mountains have been building palaces out of ice. This year, the village had to cancel most of its winter carnival because of the pandemic, but volunteers still turned out to build the palace block by block. NPR's Brian Mann found that this generations-old tradition that persists through coronavirus grew out of a fight against a different disease.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The morning is shimmering, bright and cold as a meat locker. Nancy Bernstein (ph) is down on her knees next to a waist-high wall of blue ice.

NANCY BERNSTEIN: I'm slushing the blocks.

MANN: Using bright-red rubber gloves and a trowel, she packs dripping slush into cracks between blocks of ice the size of college refrigerators.

BERNSTEIN: Can make them freeze together and bond together. We use a mixture of water and snow, kind of like mortar.

MANN: Bernstein works in the middle of a construction site at the edge of a frozen mountain lake. That's where the ice comes from. The blocks are quarried from the lake's surface each morning and hauled up on bulldozers. Men in spiked boots perch on one of the castle turrets, two stories high. The towers, too, are built entirely from ice. Using big, metal ice tongs, they slide the fresh blocks into place, sort of like a massive Lego project.

DEAN BAKER: This is my 14th year being in charge. It's my 39th year building.

MANN: Dean Baker, the palace foreman, says learning how to work safely with 600-pound blocks of slippery ice required a long apprenticeship.

BAKER: Well, this morning, we had a piece of ice break off with about four guys standing on it. And luckily, we got them all off in time.

MANN: Baker says there was talk of canceling the project this winter because of the pandemic. There have been winters during the World Wars and the Great Depression when it didn't get built. But his group wanted to keep the tradition going.

BAKER: Matter of fact, the guy that I took over from - he said, you got to get the palace built. It's a centerpiece.

MANN: To promote social distancing, Baker and his volunteers kept the design simple. Picture a medieval castle big enough to fill a hockey rink. It turns out this tradition began because of another deadly disease, tuberculosis. A sanatorium devoted to treating tuberculosis opened here in Saranac Lake in the 1880s. Historian Caperton Tissot says the winter carnival was a way to cheer people up during a cold, dark season.

CAPERTON TISSOT: It went right along with their belief that people had to get out in the fresh air. It was good for them. It was good for curing tuberculosis. That was very a much part of the start of these palaces.

MANN: The builder of the village's first ice palace in 1898 was a famous architect, a guy named William Coulter, who came here when he caught tuberculosis. After Coulter, Tissot says, the craft needed to build this massive structure passed from generation to generation.

TISSOT: To build a palace like this, you have to know a lot about ice and how it works. It's a very technical thing to know.

MANN: On this day, Sue Abbott-Jones, a retired schoolteacher, is one of the volunteers braving the cold, carrying buckets of slush up from the lake.

SUE ABBOTT-JONES: I love this weather. I'm a winter person (laughter). This year, I'll do it every day just to get out with people, you know?

MANN: When it's done, the Ice Palace is illuminated. And most years, it shines at the heart of the village until first thaw. This winter, the decision was made to take it down after just two weeks to limit crowding during the pandemic. Brian Mann, NPR News, Saranac Lake, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAIT'S "SIREN SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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