Martina Berger did not set out to win a blue ribbon in last year’s Gingerbread House competition at Discover Portsmouth. Her edible entry, a labor of love, was a precise scale model of the Portsmouth home her 94-year-old grandfather had designed and built. William E. Gindele, an architect, acted as her consultant.
“I have all these memories of being in that house,” Martina says. “I always considered it sort of my second home. I was going over most mornings to have coffee with my grandpa. It was a nice tradition. We had a lot of conversations about philosophy, about architecture, and about life in general.”
“I had wanted to enter the contest for a few years,” she continues. “My grampa and I had talked about it. But I’d never made a gingerbread house. And I really didn’t have the bandwidth to devote the time I wanted to put into it until last year.”
Berger, 26, recounted her gingerbread journey last week in a phone interview from her New York City apartment where she is a first-year law student at Columbia University. She grew up in the Portsmouth school system and graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and Middlebury College, before working three “stressful, hectic years” doing legal data work and legal research in Boston.
“We talked about doing the gingerbread house together,” Martina says of her grandfather, “but I knew, in the end, it would just be me.”
Gindele provided her with a floor plan from the original design of his house and they scaled it down to fit the contest rules.
“I wanted it to be as accurate as possible,” she laughs, “because I knew my grandfather was a stickler for details. I knew I’d be critiqued.”
Martina immersed herself in the project for a week last fall. With its gently slanted roof and rooftop balcony, her grandfather’s house presented a structural challenge. All 20-something windows were created by pouring melted butterscotch candies into cut-out spaces. The translucent panes, enhanced by an interior light bulb, gave the house a warm, lived-in glow, Martina says.
She experimented with confectionery techniques to create the trim and siding, railings, and brick foundation, plus surrounding trees, bushes, a brick walkway, and other details. She placed a candy snowman in the yard and edible reindeer on the roof.
“I sort of Googled around for certain ideas and other things I made up depending on what I saw in the grocery store,” she recalls. “I think it’s important to give the house character, but also it should be whimsical and fun to look at.”
Among her fondest childhood memories, the burgeoning lawyer recalls, were trips to the many Portsmouth historic houses with her grandfather. The 1715-era brick Warner House on Daniel Street was their favorite. It was a gingerbread model of the Warner House at an earlier contest, in fact, that inspired Martina to memorialize her grandfather’s Clinton Street home.
Gindele, who fought in the foxholes of Europe in World War II, was a graduate of the Columbia School of Architecture. The father of five daughters, he retired to Portsmouth to live next door to his only two grandchildren, Martina and her brother Cristoph, and built his house nearby.
Gindele loved the architecture of “the Old Town by the Sea” and built his house with the traditional style that suited the city, Martina says. He admired the quality of materials people used around here back in the day, and the time invested in building something both beautiful and functional.
“I think he lamented that such thought and such technique were often not practiced anymore,” she says.
As the deadline loomed, Martina spent much of the last few days decorating her gingerbread entry at her grandpa’s home.
“The final evening before I turned it in, I was up pretty late trying to get the roof to stay put,” she says. “He was trying to keep me company, but he fell asleep on the couch. He saw the final product the next morning.”
Portsmouth is famous for moving real houses around town. Stoodley’s Tavern, the Daniel Webster House, the Goodwin Mansion, the Oracle House and the Joshua Wentworth House, for example, are no longer on their original foundations, what architects call “in situ.” Moving is also the most dangerous part of gingerbread house construction.
“That part was scary,” Martina agrees. Her model house, built on a wooden platform, was delicately covered in a cardboard box. “For the transport, I sat in the back of my mom’s car holding onto it and she drove, because I was too scared to let it sit there alone.”
The competition among makers of all ages, as always, was impressive. Martina stopped by Discover Portsmouth a couple of times during the holiday season to check on her entry.
“I was trying to hear what people said about our house,” she admits, “but eavesdropping is harder than you might think.”
She was at the exhibition with her mother and aunt the night the winners were announced. Martina won first prize in the adult category, then returned with her mentor. His joy, she says, was the greatest prize of all.
“I got a blue ribbon, which I gave to my grandpa. He was so happy. We took the gingerbread house home afterwards and had it as a centerpiece for Christmas dinner,” she says. “He liked to look at it and he would invite people in, like the mail woman, to see it.”
It was the last holiday the family would spend with Gindele. He passed away in March, just shy of his 95th birthday, in the Portsmouth house he designed and built.
There are rare moments, if we’re lucky, when the past, present, and future seem to coalesce. This was one of them. Today, Martina talks about her grandfather’s life and legacy comfortably, happily, and with pride. In retrospect, she says, reconstructing Gindele’s house out of candy and cake was the perfect thing to do at exactly the right time.
Today, Berger is focused on getting her law degree. Her dream, she says, is getting a job in the field of federal education policy, or mental health policy or climate change. She’s still working out the details.
Does the future lawyer have any advice for this year’s gingerbread house contestants? She’s still a novice in that field, Martina says. Her winning was only “a fluke,” a happy accident.
After a thoughtful pause, she sums up. “I guess I’d just say – pick something you’re passionate about. The more invested you can be in it from a personal or emotional standpoint, the better. I mean, in hindsight, it seems like such a small thing.” But it was no small thing at heart, she knows. Not a small thing at all.
J. Dennis Robinson is the author of a dozen books including his most recent illustrated history of Portsmouth’s landmark Music Hall. He writes about history every week for the Portsmouth Herald.
GO & DO
The Portsmouth Historical Society is seeking entries to its 30th annual Gingerbread House Contest. The suggested theme this year is “Home for the Holidays.” Entrants of all ages may choose to recreate a local historic house, their own home, a favorite downtown spot or a bit of unique architecture. Several houses will be displayed in the windows of downtown businesses. Entries must be registered no later than Nov. 9. Completed gingerbread houses must be delivered to the Discover Portsmouth Welcome Center Nov. 13 to 16 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For entry guidelines, registration, tips and updates, visit www.PortsmouthHistory.org or call (603) 436-8433.