The Last Ice Palace of Saint Paul

[Plans for an ice palace that will never be built.]
The forecast high temperature today, on December 4th in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is 58 degrees. That might seem unusual, but it shouldn’t.

The warm air reminds me of a little-noted event that happened a few weeks ago. It was the announcement, made by a group of civic boosters, that despite the upcoming Super Bowl, there would be no ice palace in Saint Paul this year.

Here’s what one report said:
Even if they’d gotten the money, however, organizers also faced the challenge of having a place to harvest the ice. In the past, it could be chopped out of area lakes but too often lately the lakes don’t freeze early enough.

The planners envisioned an ice palace reaching 170 feet at its apex, which would break a current world record of 166 feet set in Minnesota in 1992 — also during a Super Bowl.
Though no fan of the Super Bowl, the story stuck with me because the plain truth is right there. There will never be another Ice Palace in Saint Paul.


That’s a crazy and absolute word, but it’s true. Saint Paul’s lakes will never freeze thickly and quickly again. People will never harvest blocks of ice, never again build a fantastic palace of frozen water. A tradition that's as old as anything in this city is dead forever.

[The 1887 Ice Palace in Central Park, built from 30,000 blocks if local lake ice.]
The first Saint Paul ice palaces were built in a park that no longer exists, Central Park by the State Capitol complex. The park was partly funded by a distant relative of mine, a wealthy merchant who built a mansion on its northeast corner in 1880. A few years later, in defiance of the long cold relentless winters, they began the Winter Carnival, an annual celebration of the city's most infamous season.

A few decades later, F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up in Saint Paul, and wrote an early story based on the Saint Paul ice palaces. It tells the tale of a southern girl named Sally Carrol who moves north for love, and quickly becomes alienated by the winter’s cold. The tale centers on the ice palace:
After another ten minutes they turned a corner and came in sight of their destination. On a tall hill outlined in vivid glaring green against the wintry sky stood the ice palace. It was three stories in the air, with battlements and embrasures and narrow icicled windows, and the innumerable electric lights inside made a gorgeous transparency of the great central hall. Sally Carrol clutched Harry's hand under the fur robe.

"It's beautiful!" he cried excitedly. "My golly, it's beautiful, isn’t it! They haven't had one here since eighty-five!"

Somehow the notion of there not having been one since eighty-five oppressed her. Ice was a ghost, and this mansion of it was surely peopled by those shades of the eighties, with pale faces and blurred snow-filled hair.
The story does not end well.

[The 1896 Ice Palace, built the year Fitzgerald was born.]

In the 1940s, they again built ice palaces in Saint Paul, designed by a man named Cap Wigington, the city’s African-American civic architect. Compared to the utilitarian buildings he was normally tasked with, the mercurial ice palace designs became elaborate dreams. The palaces were a chance for him to create the incredible, to capture the hopes of the city in ephemeral blocks, frozen for but a moment in time. Wigington made six ice palaces, and each of them melted crazily in the springtime.

[Wigington's 1937 Saint Paul Ice Palace.]
Growing up, I remember going to the Ice Palace as a kid. It was in 1986, when I was seven years old, and I  recall the cold smell of the crowd that lingered in the air, the dry scrape on my feet from the corners of the walls. The thick blocks, the lights shining in pastel colors, the monumental towers and the sheer impossibility of the building stick in my mind like a barely remembered dream. To me, that palace was the most fantastic.

A few years later, for another Super Bowl, they built another one, with cleaner modernist lines.

[The world record 1992 Ice Palace, that bankrupted the Winter Carnival. The record might never be broken.]

[The 2011 ice wall, a shrine to the lost past.]
In the remaining years, whatever was left of any Winter Carnival ice had shrunk to the size of a simple wall erected in a downtown park. A candle seemed to flicker alongside the ice as people strolled past, the light glowing like a shrine.

That was the end of the Saint Paul ice palaces. I saw them, and they are gone forever.

Climate change is typically viewed as an event horizon. By 2100, so they say, the seas will rise and Miami will flood. But in fact, climate change has already taken place. A major piece of culture that I personally remember has gone extinct, and Minnesota winter itself rapidly follows suit.

As I write this, the annual ice fishing show has just wrapped up at the downtown arena, but it’s hard to envision much future in that endeavor.  So too with cross country skiing, outdoor hockey, dogsledding, and snow forts, all things that will disappear on my watch, reduced to nothing by our collective climactic failure.

Years from now, when I am old, I will tell children about Saint Paul's ice palaces and they won’t believe me.

“When I was your age, we walked on lakes in the wintertime,” I will tell them. “We even drove trucks across them! People would build houses on the lakes and stay out there for weeks on end. And the snow covered the ground for months and months without melting.”

“We don’t believe you,” they will say. “That’s not possible!”

“When I was young, there was a blizzard on Halloween,” I will tell them. “Snow plied up to the windows, and everyone stayed home from school. In January, when I was your age, it got so cold that your nose hairs froze, each tiny little hair, frozen like a popsicle! When I was little, the air got to be twenty below zero! Once I took a pot of boiling water outside, tossed it the air, and it froze immediately. It disappeared and never hit the ground.” 

"You're lying to us!" they shriek.

“No I am not," I insist with a smile.

"When I was little, there were huge castles made of ice, right here in Saint Paul in the wintertime,” I will say. “I saw them with my own eyes. I went in one! When I was your age, I walked in a ice palace that was over a hundred feet tall. It had towers and lights and stairs of frozen water.”

They will say, “Are you telling the truth?”

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