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Christmas comes early to Corona

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Jon Lovitch shows off some of the structures he has built for the Gingerbread Lane display coming to Corona's New York Hall of Science. Photo by Kevin Zimmerman
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Jon Lovitch covers his gingerbread houses in white icing and various types of candies. Photo by Kevin Zimmerman
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Besides houses, the Gingerbread Lane display includes businesses, a school and this ice skating rink. Photo by Kevin Zimmerman

Like a lot of people itching to get into the holiday mood, Jon Lovitch often pops “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” into the DVD player, then cranks up the air conditioner to combat the heat and humidity.

Because unlike most of us, Lovitch, 37, finds himself needing a kick of Christmas cheer in July and August as he hits the half-way point in the creation of his massive GingerBread Lane village of sugary and spicy structures, trees and even lakes.

Although this is his 20th season of building the gingerbread town, this year’s display at the New York Hall of Science, 47-01 111th St. in Corona, is expected to be certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest gingerbread village.

“In recent years a lot of people have been claiming the title of world’s largest,” Lovitch said. “For the most part I ignored them, until they started to get a lot of press saying they had built the world’s largest.”

So, Lovitch contacted the Guinness people in London to find out just who had created the biggest gingerbread village in the world. As it turns out, Guinness only had a category of world’s largest gingerbread house and nothing about an entire candy and cookie village.

Guinness suggested if Lovitch wanted to claim that title, he would have to follow a few basic rules: there had to be a minimum of 100 houses; each structure had to be at least 6 inches long in any direction; everything had to be made of gingerbread, icing and candy; and to qualify as a village at least 10 percent of the structures needed to be something other than a house.

When the display officially opens Thursday, Lovitch hopes to have the Guinness declaration of authenticity in hand.

“If I get it in 2013, and I think I will, the record will be mine for a while, whatever a while means,” Lovitch said. “I work solo, so I’m sure somebody will break it.”

Lovitch approached the New York Hall of Science to see if it would be interested in hosting GingerBread Lane this year.

“Jon sent an email and it landed on our president’s desk,” Liz Slagus, director of public programs at New York Hall of Science, said. “She passed it on to me and said this seems pretty cool.”

Slagus said the project fits into the museum’s mission of celebrating design, creativity and achievement.

“This is perhaps going to be the world’s largest gingerbread village,” Slagus said.

Slagus has already scheduled a couple of gingerbread house workshops where visitors will design and create their own house to take home.

Back in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., Lovitch entered a gingerbread house competition while still in high school. He didn’t win, but the experience offered him a crash course in the ins-and-outs of the competitive baking world.

“Nobody was a chef. Most of the women, and there were very few men, were craftspeople,” Lovitch said. “And nobody had made a house. There was a Noah’s Ark and a manger scene. They were beautiful but amazingly nobody made a house.”

By the following year, 1994, Lovitch had landed a job cooking in Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency Hotel and decided to create his first GingerBread Lane village of 12 houses to display at the hotel during the holidays.

As Lovitch’s career took him to hotels in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, GingerBread Lane traveled with him. Each year, it got a little bigger and included a new layout of the neighborhoods: Gum Drop Row, Peppermint Central Park, Candy Cane Place, Egg Nog Bay and, new this year, Ribbon Candy Ridge. It eventually outgrew the various hotel spaces and Lovitch ventured out to more unique locales, including the Smithsonian Institute, Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital and Rockefeller Center.

Now living back in New York, Lovitch has turned his South Bronx apartment into the GingerBread Lane workshop.

He begins the construction work in late February or early March. That allows him plenty of time to complete the nearly 200 structures in the village while providing him with some time off for other things.

“This way I can have a life,” Lovitch said.

That time frame also takes into account the summer lull, when the heat and humidity take their toll on the gingerbread, making the pieces much harder to work with and forcing Lovitch to slow down production.

It takes him about one week to build each piece, so at any one time, he’ll have several houses in various stages of completion.

He combines brown sugar, fat and corn syrup and heats it to just below a boil. Then, he adds the liquid ingredients to the dry items including flour, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.

“I use an incredible amount of spices,” said Lovitch. “Because some of the pieces will be months old, you need to add a lot of spices to keep them aromatic and smelling like gingerbread.”

He’ll roll out the dough, cut it into the shapes he needs, then bakes the pieces. After cooling, he assembles the pieces using icing to hold everything together.

Lovitch estimates the entire 300-square-foot display contains about 2,100 pounds of icing and roughly 400 pounds of candy and 450 pounds of gingerbread.

Objects that are mostly icing, like the white chocolate lake, can carry substantial weight and even become dangerous in transit.

“One time I was moving an icing lake and knocked myself in the head and got a concussion,” Lovitch said. “So, I’m in the ER and they’re not believing me. They’re saying, ‘So, a cake hit you?’”

Moving day offers plenty of its own challenges. Lovitch figures it will take him about 24 hours and six or seven trips to carry the village’s pieces from the Bronx to Corona.

He’ll spend about a week fixing anything that may have broken during the drive and covering the wooden base that displays the village with icing and candy. Visitors can get a sneak peek as Lovitch completes the finishing touches beginning Sunday.

“People really enjoy it,” Lovitch said. “Thousands upon thousands of people will come through and see it and connect with it. I get to brighten the holiday season. That’s really good.”

After the display closes on Jan. 12, 2014, Lovitch will give each structure away during a free raffle. He’ll take a couple weeks off, then start work on next year’s village.

“Every year I have this conversation with myself, ‘Am I really doing this again?’” Lovitch said. “But, you know it’s a quick conversation and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m doing this again.’”

Contact news editor Kevin Zimmerman at kzimmerman@cnglocal.com or at 718-260-4541.

If you Go

Gingerbread Lane Village

Where: New York Hall of Science, 47-01 111th St., Corona

When: Nov. 17 to Jan. 12, 2014

Cost: Free with museum admission, $11/adults, $8/children, students and seniors

Contact: (718) 699-0005

Website: www.nysci.org

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