Holiday house

By Judy Riley

Nothing ushers in the holiday spirit quite like the aroma of freshly baked ginger confections. Sam and Dana Boyster turn the lowly gingerbread cookie into stunning houses and surround them with a village. It is easy to see why Hansel and Gretel were attracted to the gingerbread house in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of old. In fact, the tradition of baking gingerbread houses dates to 16th-century Germany.

Photos by Mike Kemp

The Boysters live in a Charles Thompson-designed home originally built for Little Rock businessman Gustave Lyon and family. The house was built in 1904 in what is now the Governor’s Mansion Historic District in the Quapaw Quarter of downtown Little Rock. It is the perfect backdrop for the gingerbread houses and accompanying village they construct each year.

The Boysters began their tradition of baking gingerbread houses when they lived in Germantown, Tenn., and continued the effort when they moved to Little Rock in 2010. Why gingerbread houses in particular? Sam said his mother was a home economics teacher, and he fondly remembers baking with her during the holidays. “I was intrigued by the notion of baking holiday decorations for our family, and by the uniqueness, scarcity and long history of gingerbread houses,” he said. “We have always had an interest in history and historic preservation, so finding a custom to reintroduce was fun for the family.”

Sam and Dana grew up in different towns in the Arkansas Delta but met at the University of Arkansas. Both have master’s degrees: Dana in industrial engineering and Sam in operations research. Their combined expertise plays out in their creations. Dana supervises the layout of the village, using as much natural material as possible while managing size and scale. She uses boxwood and yaupon holly branches out of their yard for trees and fashions fences and shrubbery out of twigs and moss. Sam, with his meticulous attention to detail, oversees baking and decorating the houses.

As one would expect, these are not your garden-variety gingerbread houses. The Boysters originally bought a John Wright cast iron mold, Gingerbread Chateau, from Williams Sonoma. They are currently not available from Williams Sonoma but can sometimes be found for purchase online. The Boysters prefer these molds because of the details baked into the gingerbread, like tiles on the roof and stones on the chimney and edges of the houses. The windows, doors and drooping shingles all pop with detail once the completed houses are dusted with a final “snowfall” of sugar before placing them on a plate or within the village.

Because they share houses with an increased number of family and friends, they invested in additional molds, using the original recipe found with the first mold. They alter the recipe slightly, adding more cinnamon and ginger to increase holiday aroma. The baking and decorating are no small tasks. Including baking, cooling and decorating time, one house takes about 5.5 hours over four days. They now do the baking in stages over a couple weeks. Rooftops and dormers get the extra touch of layers of snow with Royal icing. All houses in the village are lit with LED string lights, which are hot-glued to the eaves. Battery packs are hidden in the landscaping.

The village has become as much a tradition as the houses they gift. A stately church with an accompanying tower and trees stands at the end of the long dining table. Houses are interspersed within the village with period cars, trucks and people. At the end of the table, villagers board an electric train on the way to church for caroling. The village covers the entire table with goodness.

Receiving one of their creations is quite a gift. Most recently one of their houses appeared in the Governor’s Mansion. What motivates this couple to do such detailed, creative and short-lived work every single year? In a word, it is love, love of family and friends and love of sharing their creations!