St. Paul Winter Carnival, Minnesota

by Frank Anderson

The Saint Paul Winter Carnival is the oldest winter festival in the United States, dating back to 1886, when Minnesota held a festival to spite a few east coast newspaper reporters who had reported that our climate was uninhabitable. We were determined to show the world just how much fun we could have outdoors in the winter.

The tradition of building ice palaces goes back even further. In Russia in the winter of 1739, Empress Anna ordered the first ice palace made to celebrate Russia’s victory over the Ottoman Empire. The architect was Pyotr Yeropkin.

2004 Ice Palace


Since 2000, I and my fellow designers and engineers at LEO A DALY have been involved in this venerable tradition. In 2004 we designed an ice palace 75-feet-tall at its peak, constructed using 27,000 400-pound blocks of ice. It took up a city block and changed colors via a high-tech light show inside.


Other years have been more modest. In 2003 and 2007, we created an ice maze. And this year, it’s the Royal Courtyard, the design of which reflects the byzantine lore of the Carnival. (It involves a King named Boreas, a Queen of the Snows, a 21-member royal family, and coup d’etat.)

For the past six months, working with the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation, I’ve led a team of volunteers from LEO A DALY’s Minneapolis office through a series of late nights designing the Royal Courtyard. It’s an intimate structure featuring a fire pit, ice throne, projection wall, an ice slide, and a tunnel for kids. It also serves as a dramatic backdrop for the ice-sculpture competition, which is another of the Carnival’s great traditions.

2015 Royal Courtyard rendering


Designing and building with ice presents a number of interesting challenges.  I like to say it’s a lot like working with masonry, except that the bricks vary in size (due to the varying depth of ice on the lake where it's harvested)—and the fact that they’re 400 to 500 pounds. It takes a certain amount of creativity and improvisation by the builders to make sure the coursing is consistent and results in a flat plane all the way around.


With the 2004 Ice Palace, structural integrity was a concern. The ice could melt, or shift, and become dangerous. As a safety precaution that year, we installed markers (like bike reflectors) at regular intervals on the ice walls. Each day, a surveyor would go to the site and check that the reflectors hadn’t moved. Fortunately, it was a cold winter, and the Ice Palace remained sound.

This winter is a little warmer, but the structure is much smaller and more manageable. Still, we took precautions with regard to the tunnel and slide. A concrete culvert, donated by a local construction company, was used to reinforce the tunnel and prevent any threat of a cave-in.


In construction, the warm weather made the job easier for the union volunteers who harvested ice blocks out of Lake Phalen. Usually the harvesting process is tricky, since you have to worry about the water from the lake flowing back into the cuts and re-freezing. This year that wasn’t an issue. Using saws with 44-inch diameter blades, the 25-person crew got 1000 blocks of ice out of the lake in about 11 hours.

After the ice harvest, the Royal Courtyard took about 4 days to complete. Volunteer builders from various trades used skid loaders to lift the blocks, and small propane torches to bind the rows together.

All the labor, materials, and equipment was pro-bono. At the end of the day, that’s really my favorite thing about the Winter Carnival, and the reason I’ve chosen to be involved the last 15 years. I love how it brings together volunteers from across the Twin Cities for a common purpose.

This year’s Royal Courtyard was the result of hundreds of hours of donated labor. Many of my colleagues from LEO A DALY helped with the design. About fifty tradespeople from different unions harvested the ice, hauled it to Rice Park, and put it together. Xcel Energy donated the trucks and gas. Truck drivers donated their time moving the ice. A lighting designer donated all the lights and programmed them to make the ice glow at night. Carnival members put together a slide show to project on the ice. And ice carvers carved out a throne for the king and a slide for the kids.


As an architect, I'm passionate about seeing how systems fit together and operate as a whole. The St. Paul Winter Carnival is just that kind of system. It’s incredibly gratifying to see all these people come together to make something great happen—doing it all out of the kindness of their hearts and the desire to make something great for the community. When all the ice has melted, that’s something I can hold onto.