With each region of America comes a distinct architectural aesthetic; with each aesthetic comes a design system for college campuses.
Explore the Pacific coast and you’ll find mission-style stucco buildings of pastel orange, timber and even a bit of cast iron. Venture to the northeast and you’ll encounter nearly-Victorian, brick, tightly clustered buildings nestled around an asymmetric, forest-green quad. Up in the Green Mountains and Adirondacks, white wood architecture comes to roost.
But come to the mid-Atlantic corridor states – big campuses like ours, UVA’s, and William and Mary’s – and the red brick/white trim, classical revival, practically-Jeffersonian architecture is everywhere.
On my dining room table in eastern Massachusetts, that style-set made an appearance in an entirely different medium than brick and mortar: gingerbread.
Over winter break, I undertook a pet project of sorts to recreate Somerset Hall, where I live, in cookie and candy form. Somerset, home to the CIVICUS living and learning program, sits on North Hill overlooking the back of McKeldin Library. It is a symmetric brick building with two side wings and – I counted on satellite view – fifteen roof gables.
After analyzing each wall and roof piece, I began planning measurements and angles before transposing the components onto stencils made of tracing paper. All in all, there were nearly fifty individual blocks to be made – of course, that required a triple recipe. Fifteen cups of flour, two pounds of brown sugar and more molasses than a sane soul would care to admit.
Let’s take a side note, shall we: Gingerbread houses as a finished product are things of beauty– pristinely iced wall lattices, candy-shingled roofs and a coziness that can only be described by the German word gemütlichkeit. While in progress, though, especially when made from scratch, they can be a little less perfect.
First of all, absolutely nothing is flat. Every single edge and surface warps during baking, expanding and contracting with just enough consistency to negate the original measurements but not enough to even out to new ones.
Secondly, a perfect Royal Icing must rest precariously on the edge between solid and liquid. Too dry and nothing will stick to it in the first place. Too wet and pieces will stick but fail to stay. With that said, let me be the first to acknowledge that I did not make a perfect Royal Icing.
To remedy this, I enlisted the help of my mother along with prepared Royal Icing mix from the craft and party store. After adding water to the already-proportional mix, my mother and I lathered up the edges of the gingerbread pieces and formed them into the body of Somerset Hall.
The pieces fit nicely-enough as stalwart wine bottles held them up while drying.
When building an actual house, everything must be as close to level and straight as it can for the design to form; but even wood, brick and mortar builders rarely achieve this in its entirety. When it comes to cookies and icing, this doesn’t happen. Period.
While we did a little bit of corner touch-up by filing with a knife, the pieces invariably came together off-kilter. We fixed this with a bit of extra icing, but there’s only so much that can be done.
All in all, the structure was sound, and it was time to move on to the best phase of gingerbread house-building: the decorating.
If there’s one thing American culture does well, it’s candy. While time constrained me a little bit, I used a variety of sweet nothings to ornament my magnum opus.
Rectangles of Hershey’s bars created the doors, and “blazing blue” Fruit Roll-Ups accomplished the windows. Finally (and with most difficulty), eight-or-so sleeves of Massachusetts-made Necco wafers alternated with each-other to shingle the many roofs.
As I picked up broken Neccos and washed my hands of icing for the umpteenth time, I also followed the final hallmark of modern American craftiness: I took a boatload of pictures to post online (and show off on the Somerset Hall Facebook page).
Those of us who live there know that Somerset Hall is, in the words of the CIVICUS website, more a home than a residence hall. It is a place to live, to learn and to meet new friends.
Now, at least until it goes completely stale or moldy, Somerset Hall is even good enough to eat.
Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.