This iconic, award-winning gingerbread house was hand-crafted by champion gingerbread architect, Pat Ashley Howard. Believe it or not, it was the first gingerbread house she ever built.
As the entry entitled “A Woodland Winter,” Pat Ashley Howard‘s masterpiece was awarded the 2006 Grand Prize Winner of the Grove Park Inn’s National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina. It was also featured on ABC’s talk show, Good Morning America. The design was inspired by the Fernie Castle Treehouse in Fife, Scotland. Many years later, Pat Ashley constructed a jumbo version of this design for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! That version can be seen here: Giant Gingerbread Cookie Cabin.
Pat Ashley Howard made her own impression mat to create the wood grain pattern on the walls.
She made the windows out of gelatin sheets. The interior was filled with miniature furniture and accessories made of gumpaste, including a cat snuggled on a braided rug in front of the fireplace, a decorated Christmas tree and more.
Pat Ashley Howard cut the shingles out of spinach tortillas then stained them with brown food coloring.
Pat Ashley Howard’s Story
Chapter 1 – The Birth of Inspiration
As a young child I had a favorite place in the woods beyond our home in Virginia where I believed there lived an enchanting guild of fairies. It was a beautiful clearing where the sun streamed through the long needle pines that towered above. Over the years old tree trunks had fallen and were now blanketed with cushions of soft green moss. I would sit there for hours on a warm blanket of pine needles, certain that I would eventually behold a fairy or two.
In 2003, I saw a television show on the Food Network about a competition for creating gingerbread houses. But these were no ordinary gingerbread houses. They were architectural masterpieces; colorful and fanciful with every charming adjective you can think of. These beautiful, completely edible, little houses and the talented people who created them fascinated me. I taped the show and watched it over and over again. To be specific, it was the National Gingerbread House Competition held at the Omni Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa in Asheville, NC since 1993. I’d been there once, briefly, and pledged I’d be back someday. So now here was my excuse to visit the Grove Park Inn again.
Finding the Courage to Compete
Who knew it would take me three years to finally get up the nerve to actually create my own little masterpiece? I spent three years reading everything I could find on gingerbread house construction. I bought books and went to the library in search of more books. I studied architecture, royal icing, dough making and more.
You see, I had never actually made a gingerbread house before. Not even as a child. Not even one made of graham crackers.
The Gingerbread House Competition Rules
The rules of the competition state that every aspect of the entries, except for the board it stands on, have to be completely edible, and no larger than 24“ x 24“ x 24“. There are five very specific criteria for judging at the National Gingerbread House Competition. They are overall appearance, originality and creativity, degree of difficulty, precision, and consistency of theme.
Selecting an Original Design
After all my research, I was finally inspired by the design of a house that I found in a book called Tree Houses, a View from the Top by John Harris. It’s actually a real tree house that looked like it was from the set of Lord of the Rings, built on the grounds of the Fernie Castle in Fife, UK.
The Hard Work Begins
The competition was held in mid-November and I started building my house in mid-August. Little did I know that I was going to spend over 650 hours creating it. The fairies that I imagined in the woods of my childhood were my Muses.
Initially, I tried to put my gingerbread house in a tree like the one at Fernie Castle, but it was just too unstable and might not survive the road trip from Florida to North Carolina. So I resigned myself to setting it on the “ground”. It was a good move, since I later witnessed other entries that didn’t fare too well on the trip to the contest.
When my entry was completed, I loaded it into my PT Cruiser for the 10-hour drive to Asheville with my sister, Laura. Upon arrival at the competition there were lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” as we wheeled my house into the resort, which seemed to be an encouraging sign. But then I noticed that the onlookers pretty much did that for all of the entries that rolled in.
The Big Arrival
The next morning, we delivered my house to the ballroom. There were rows and rows of hundreds of beautiful structures and I suddenly got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. All I could think of was what could I have been thinking? To believe that I could, just out of the blue, with no experience, make a gingerbread house, and actually have any kind of chance of competing against all these people, many who were past winners and seasoned veterans? My house was brown, like gingerbread. Not a lot of pretty bright Christmas colors, unless you look real close. The ballroom was an ocean of colorful creations and in the middle was my little brown spot. My entry.
At this point all of my confidence was gone and I just wanted to leave. I kept telling my sister, “let’s just pick up my house and go”. But we didn’t. We sat in the crowd and watched the judging all day. It was pure torture. (Note: they no longer allow anyone to watch the judging.) By the time they were ready to announce the top 10 I was a total wreck. But, lo and behold, out of that ballroom filled with fabulous structures I had made it into the top 10.
Next they judged the top 10 to decide the winners. The judges were all well-known professionals, and some of them are regularly seen on the Food Network. We scrutinized every look and every move the judges made. Finally the time came to announce the winners. First they called out the fourth runner-up, and then the third, and then the second. I was inconsolable. They kept calling other people’s names, not mine. I wasn’t even going to place. I just wanted to run out the room. But my sister made me sit and be a good sport and clap for those who were walking away with colorful prize ribbons and big smiles.
Stealing the Show
Finally the winner was announced. “Pat Ashley Howard of Winter Springs, Florida.” I was shocked beyond belief. All I could say was “No way, no way. You have got to be kidding me”.
After I regained my composure I made my way to the stage where I said something into the mic, which I now regret. The first words out of my mouth were “I’ve never even made a gingerbread house before.” I made this announcement to all those people who have entered many times over the years and had paid their dues. Hopefully I didn’t offend too many people but nevertheless most seemed to think my gingerbread house was worthy of the grand prize and I was on cloud nine. Back then the grand prize winning house was driven to New York City and featured on ABCs Good Morning America before Christmas. Not me, just my house.
Now, one might think that would’ve been enough for me, but I was hooked. I just couldn’t wait to build another one and enter again.
Email Pat Ashley Howard: firstname.lastname@example.org
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