How Sweet It Is: A Gingerbread McKim, Mead & White AAR Building is Constructed in Rome

The American Academy in Rome building on the Gianicolo hill (1912-1914) is one of just a handful of  structures outside of the United States designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White—by any reckoning the most prominent designers of the Gilded Age. As it happens, firm partner Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909) was among the founders of the Academy and President of the AAR when the building was first conceived. The building has a clear Renaissance inspiration (which it shares with the MM&W north and south wings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC), with a five-bay facade, a ‘piano nobile’, and an interior courtyard with a Paul Manship (FAAR’12) fountain in its center. It also contains most of the living and working quarters for the Rome Prize Fellows, the Library, a gallery and administrative offices, plus public rooms for many of the Academy’s events.

And now, thanks to the efforts of current Fellows Kiel Moe, Jon Calame, and a host of helping hands, the Academy’s MM&W building has been realized for the 2009 holiday season in gingerbread and gumdrops. It’s something approaching 1:100 scale, carefully constructed from the original plans. The universal reaction so far from Academy alums and friends: “Don’t eat it!”. Here’s a photo essay on how this sugary architectural wonder—all dedicated to the Academy’s Kitchen staff—came to be. Photo thanks throughout: Jon Calame and Pamela Keech (FAAR’82).

Jon Calame explains the genesis of the project. “At the very outset Kiel Moe developed a fully accurate, 3-d CAD model of the building, in order to generate plan and elevation drawings that would be just the right size for tracing onto raw gingerbread dough—the initial image is a still from his rotating wireframe model of the Academy.”

“The whole structure”, continues Jon Calame, “was scaled as large as possible with two key constraints: the size of the elevator down from my studio (small) and the size of the Fellows’ kitchen oven (which determined the maximum size of facade ’tiles’ that were ultimately glued together like a big, sticky jigsaw puzzle).”

Left: Jon Calame; right: Kiel Moe

“You might be interested to know”, says Jon Calame, “that we used more than 19 pounds of gingerbread dough and 6 pounds (!) of powdered sugar (needed for the mortar, which holds like superglue and is nothing more than sugar, egg whites, and cream of tartar).”

“The front gate is black pasta dyed with octopus ink—not bad, right? In keeping with [Rome Sustainable Food Project Executive Chef] Mona Talbott’s dictates, all these materials are sustainable, local, and compostable…”

The non-edible version of the American Academy in Rome McKim, Mead & White building, under construction ca. 1913


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