A construction crew in Stillwater this week hoisted 300-pound ice blocks into place and then, with chain saws buzzing, cut and shaped their frozen creation into a towering ice maze.
The parking-lot-sized maze filled with ice sculptures and an ice slide was opening to the public Friday evening, but how it came together was something of a leap of faith, said Bil MacLeslie, production manager for the Zephyr Theatre in Stillwater's north end.
Faced with a winter without shows or audiences, the Zephyr joined the city's effort to make outdoor winter attractions to keep crowds and add a bit of life to the usually thriving downtown.
That's how, with no experience building anything remotely like it, the theater staff settled on some kind of ice adventure, using the St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palaces of years past as inspiration.
"We're figuring out how to do stuff," said MacLeslie. That's been the theme at the theater for months now.
The theater usually does more than 100 performances of six plays in a year, along with 20 to 30 concerts and children's shows. All of that came to an end with the pandemic.
Even though most of their revenue was gone for the year, the staff and Executive Director Calyssa Hall dreamed up ways to stay in business.
This summer it was Shakespeare in the Park … ing Lot, where actors pulled off a socially distanced version of "As You Like It." A beer garden boosted revenue. The theater also did 30 outdoor concerts over the summer using a stage set up on the front steps.
"It's been completely topsy-turvy and no way to predict what's coming next," MacLeslie said.
As the theater's managers looked over their schedule, the winter loomed. No concerts or outdoor theater performances would work, and schools weren't calling for any in-school programs, another winter staple.
So when some downtown businesses began talking about dressing up the city to draw wintertime crowds, the Zephyr wanted to take part.
Settling on the ice maze idea, MacLeslie and Hall turned to staff member and architect Franz Hall for help with the design. Sponsorships covered a quarter of the cost — a little over $100,000 for ice and labor — with a big boost from the Stillwater Commons and Explore Minnesota.
Minnesota is hallowed ground when it comes to things built out of ice.
The state's first ice palace was built during a smallpox epidemic. The illness was spreading in Montreal, home to earlier ice palaces, and local boosters in St. Paul hoped to take advantage of the moment by building a local ice palace to give tourists an alternative destination.
The St. Paul Winter Carnival boasts a record going back to the 19th century of some 37 palaces, usually in years that coincide with major events. The 2018 palace rose in the same year Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl. The tallest on record was the 1992 palace, at 166 feet. The 1887 palace hit 140.
Stillwater's ice maze won't break any height records, but it's more interactive with its winding passageways, dead ends and one true route to the finish. Two ice slides wait at the maze's end, but people can walk around them if they prefer.
The theater wanted to use ice cut out of a northern Minnesota lake, but the person they originally tried to hire couldn't do it at the last minute, said MacLeslie. Their search ended near Detroit with a company that sent 15 trucks filled with massive blocks of ice weighing 300 pounds each. The ice isn't clear, like Minnesota lake ice, making it better for the maze, MacLeslie added.
Work started a little more than two weeks ago. Concrete contractor Andy Norling said his crew of seven workers had to learn how to work with the ice. The blocks may look straight, but construction work requires perfect alignment and exact measurements, and Norling said it's not possible to get that with frozen water.
"You kind of learn to accept what it is," he said.
Still, with some last-minute shaping on Friday, the maze was on track to open at 5 p.m. A ticket gives its holder one hour to explore. Ticket sales are limited to 100 people per hour to keep the crowds somewhat thinned out.
The maze, which MacLeslie said is already sold out for the first few days of access, will stay open through Feb. 14, weather permitting.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for kids and can be purchased online.