Ice Palace Cometh: Frozen Jewel Tops a Winter Carnival

Times Staff Writer

It’s the tallest ice structure of the 20th Century.

Maybe of all time.

“Pure fantasy!” “Looks like something Walt Disney would do.” “We’re looking at history.” “You kids will remember this as long as you live.”

That was a sampling of observations from the thousands of spectators who had come to a four-acre island in Lake Phalen in northeastern St. Paul to view the 128.9-foot-high twin-towered Ice Palace.

It was a scene out of Currier and Ives: horse-drawn sleighs and hundreds of ice skaters gliding by the glistening castle of ice while a huge crowd stood in awe behind snow fences gazing at the gigantic Ice Palace, which was fashioned from 10,000 blocks of ice, each two feet wide, 3 1/2 feet long, 22 inches thick and weighing 700 pounds.


Towers Topped With Spires

On Thursday night a switch was turned on and the Ice Palace was officially dedicated as it was bathed in a stunning, eerie glow from 1,400 red, blue and green lights strung inside the flying buttresses, turrets, curved walls and two soaring towers topped with spires. One spire reaches to almost 129 feet, the other to 90 feet.

The Ice Palace is the frosting on the cake for the centennial of St. Paul’s winter carnival, an annual celebration of life in an ice box.

It took eight weeks for an army of 400 union tradesmen who volunteered their time to put the Ice Palace together block by block.

The structure was to be completed by Jan. 22, opening day of the carnival, but delays held up work on the project for 15 days. It was finally dedicated just before Sunday’s close of the ice and snow festival.

But the remarkable structure will remain lighted each night through Feb. 19 with a computer blending a symphony of songs with a myriad of dancing colors from sundown to midnight.

A Rare Feat

To create a massive building entirely of ice blocks is a rare engineering feat. It has happened only a few times in history, the first recorded time in Russia in 1740.


Montreal, Leadville, Colo., and Japan have had ice palaces. And, St. Paul, without question, is the capital city of the capricious castles, with a dozen constructed during the past century as highlights of winter carnivals.

America’s first ice palace, an Arabian Nights fantasy, the keystone of the first winter carnival in St. Paul in 1886, soared 106 feet. The last ice palace erected in this country was 37 feet tall, built in downtown St. Paul at the 1976 winter carnival as a salute to the nation’s bicentennial.

“We believe this is the biggest and tallest building entirely of ice ever created by man,” said Bob Fletcher, 52, the project’s chief engineer and chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers design branch here. Like everyone else connected with the unusual endeavor, Fletcher is a volunteer.

He explained: “History tells us the 1888 winter carnival ice palace was 137 feet high, the largest and highest ever built. But on carefully checking photographs we count 92 stacks of 15-inch-thick ice blocks, giving an accurate measurement of 125 feet. It was topped by a high flagpole.

“The claim has always been the 1888 tower was 137 feet high. No (architectural) drawings of the structure remain. They counted the flagpole as part of the height of the building. We have an American flag flying from this Ice Palace on a 10-foot pole, but we’re not counting the flagpole.”

Charlie Hall, 55, chairman of the Ice Palace project, and most others connected with it consider the structure an impossible dream.


Construction was held up from the start by a series of mishaps.

First there were three weeks when work on the Ice Palace came to a standstill because a $1-million insurance policy costing $50,000 was required and no insurance company could be found that would take the risk.

When it looked like there was no hope, an insurance company stepped forward and Joe Franzegrote, president of WUSA-TV, Channel 11, donated $50,000 for the policy as a Christmas present to the city.

Work had originally commenced in mid-November with the construction of a 90-by-90-foot concrete and steel foundation two feet thick suspended over 412 pilings driven 30 feet into the frozen ground. Enough to support 10 million pounds of ice.

When workers began “cementing” the ice blocks into place with a mortar of slush late in December, a subzero cold spell with temperatures dipping to 20 degrees below held up the operation. A couple of weeks later an unexpected thaw set in with the mercury soaring to the high 30s and the palace began to drip.

The ice blocks were sprayed with carbon dioxide and wrapped with blocks of dry ice and plastic to try to stop the melting. Slush mortar disintegrated and had to be replaced. When St. Paul’s normal zero to 20-degree temperatures finally returned, the entire city seemed relieved.

Cold, ice and snow is what St. Paul is all about in mid-winter, not scorching temperatures in the high 30s.


Five old-time icemen were credited with being the backbone of the whole operation: Ed Chaput, Gordy Sherrard and Gordy Diedrich, all 73; Russ Chaput, 71; and Mike Graske, 67.

They harvested the ice blocks from frozen Lake Phalen using a 1920-vintage ice saw powered by a 1929 Model-A engine that hadn’t been used since 1959. The icemen constructed a conveyor that enabled the transfer of the blocks of ice from the lake to the Ice Palace 100 yards away, where the 700-pound blocks were lifted in place on the structure by a 150-foot crane.

“It’s like old home week,” Diedrich said. “None of us have harvested ice since before World War II. Refrigerators put us out of business,” Ed Chaput added. “This will give our grandchildren something to brag about,” Sherrard said.

“The beauty of this entire project is nobody is making a dime out of it. We did it because it needed to be done. It is a gift of talented trades people of all strata and levels of the construction industry working together as equals,” noted Tom Keller, 36, president of Keller Construction Co., which provided equipment for the project.

Ellerbe Associates Inc., a large construction firm, contributed the design and drawings. John Bona, 34, a pipe fitter, spent 700 hours on the job as a volunteer. If he had been getting paid, he would have earned $15,000.

“We figure it would have cost $1.5 million to build the Ice Palace,” Fletcher said. “As it was, it cost $200,000, which has been paid by ordinary citizens buying $10 ice certificates as souvenirs.”


It was a New York newsman who indirectly was responsible for the first winter carnival when he wrote an article in 1885 describing St. Paul as another Siberia unfit for human habitation. The city reacted by staging a winter carnival to demonstrate the assets of a cold climate, ice and snow.

Every year thousands of people from throughout the Midwest head for St. Paul to frolic in the ice and snow. They jam the streets for a huge parade, during which temperatures almost always hover around the zero degree mark.

Thousands turn out for an ice-fishing festival at Big Bear Lake, and every day there are outdoor sporting events like golf and volleyball in the snow, softball and auto races on ice.

This year’s Ice Palace is in a park with no other structures in sight. It will continue to stand until it melts or it will be blasted apart by dynamite and a 1,000-pound wrecking ball. That decision is yet to be made.