Bob Olsen would like to get one thing straight: He’s an authority on St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palaces, not castles.
“A castle is a fortification,” he clarified, “a palace is a residence.” Not that Olsen is a dour or pedantic guy, far from it. The longtime Falcon Heights resident just plain loves ice palaces, has since he was a boy, and is an expert on all 20 that have graced the Winter Carnival, most recently in 2004.
(Olsen will talk about them when he addresses the Falcon Heights/Lauderdale Lion’s Club at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26, at Falcon Heights City Hall, 2077 Larpenteur Ave. W. The public is invited.)
“I’ve always loved the ethereal nature of these structures and how they fit in with the mythology of the carnival,” he said. “An ice palace is a transitional thing and captures the feeling that we have as a northern people. Winter can be a dark time, but it will pass.”
Olsen said the earliest known ice palace was built by a Russian monarch in the mid-18th century. The next one was built in 1883 for Montreal’s Winter Carnival.
St. Paul’s Winter Carnival began in 1886, at least partially in response to the jibe of a New York newspaper reporter who declared the city to be “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.”
Photos of that carnival’s inaugural palace show it to be a remarkably large and ornate structure, one that would dwarf those that came later. Olsen estimated that it would cost $3 million to $5 million to build such an edifice today.
“The biggest modern hindrance to constructing ice palaces is obtaining insurance,” he said. “This is despite the fact that there’s been one associated injury in the whole history of the carnival” — a worker who’d been drinking and fell to his death from the top of the 1887 palace.
Olsen has been an “unofficial/official” historian of the carnival palaces since 1967. While attending St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., he asked carnival officials if they were thinking about having a palace for the 1975 event. “Why don’t you do it?” was the response. Olson agreed and handled everything from fundraising to organizing the construction on Harriet Island.
Is there another ice palace in St. Paul’s future?
Olsen hopes so and thinks one might be an ideal addition to festivities associated with the 2018 Super Bowl.
“Sure, these things cost a lot of money, but they also provide memories that you’ll never forget,” he said.
Clarence “Cap” Wigington was chief design architect for the City of St. Paul from 1915 to 1949, and the nation’s first African-American municipal architect.
He designed a host of public buildings around the city, including the Highland Park water tower, Holman Field airport terminal, the Palm Dome extension of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Regional Park and Chelsea Heights Elementary School, 1557 Huron St.
Wigington’s work also included several Winter Carnival ice palaces, and Bob Olsen thinks the Art Moderne lines of his 1937 effort echo those of the school.
Roger Bergerson is a local historian, journalist and regular contributor to the Park Bugle.