Photos by Cheryl Landes
Every year since 1971, the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland has displayed a snowy scene in its lobby with a large building made from gingerbread to celebrate the holidays. These beautiful creations range from famous faraway castles to local landmarks. All are built to scale, and the buildings and scenes are entirely edible.
For the past 28 years, Chef David Dieffendorfer has used his culinary and architectural skills to design and create these delicious works of art. Each hand-crafted display takes 300 hours to prepare, along with approximately 100 pounds of gingerbread and 50 pounds of white chocolate and marzipan. The tools Chef Dieffendorfer and his team use range from a large band saw to a toothpick.
Chef Dieffendorfer graduated from the Western Culinary Institute, studied industrial design at the Art Institute of Portland, and has a degree in geography. He also taught baking and pastry at the Western Culinary Institute for eight years before coming to the Benson Hotel. His gingerbread masterpieces at the hotel attract visitors from around the world.
I learned about this annual tradition two years ago during a broadcast on KOIN-TV in Portland, and that’s when I started visiting the hotel to enjoy these amazing creations.
Corvin Castle (2018)
Corvin Castle is a Gothic-Renaissance castle located in Hunedoara, Romania, and among the largest castles in Europe. The Anjou family built the castle at the site of a former Roman camp. The castle was a fortress until the mid-14th century, when it became the resident of Transylvania’s voivode (an Eastern European term meaning “local ruler” or “governor”).
More than 150 pounds of homemade gingerbread, 20 pounds of chocolate, 50 pounds of marzipan, and many buckets of icing were used to replicate the castle. The Zlaști River is made from sugar, the stained glass windows from Jolly Rancher candies, and the trees from sugar cones.
When I stopped at the hotel to see this display, a staff member said that Chef Dieffendorfer moved some of the miniature people and other characters to different places in the display every day.
A Tribute to Portland and Its Union Station (2019)
The 2019 gingerbread masterpiece was a replica of Union Station in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown, a train station that opened in 1896. The signature piece of the station is the 150-foot-tall Romanesque Revival clock tower. The neon Go By Train and Union Station signs were added to the tower in 1948, and both signs still function. Union Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
More than 200 pounds of homemade gingerbread, 30 pounds of white chocolate, 15 pounds of dark chocolate, and 30 pounds of marzipan were used to build Union Station and two other famous features of Portland: the White Stag sign and the Steel Bridge.
The 2019 gingerbread display was part of a special exhibit at the Benson Hotel, where the staff created a mini-museum in the Italian marble stairwell. Twelve stairwell landings featured more than 100 framed photographs dating from the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Each stairwell landing had a theme, which provided a brief historical overview of the hotel’s beginnings, hotel founder Simon Benson, U.S. presidents who stayed at the hotel, and other fun facts about Portland. Two of the floors were dedicated to landmarks in Portland, including Union Station.
The Benson Hotel opened in 1913 on SW Broadway between SW Oak and SW Harvey Milk Streets in downtown Portland. The European-style hotel features crystal chandeliers from Austria, Italian marble floors, and Circassian walnut wood from the imperial forests of Russia. Celebrities, dignataries, and the majority of U.S. presidents have stayed there throughout the past century.
For more information about the Benson Hotel or to make a reservation, go to bensonhotel.com or call (503) 228-2000.
Learn more about Chef Dieffendorfer’s gingerbread masterpieces at gingerbreadcities.com.