Winter could not come soon enough for Brent Christensen. He needed Twin Cities weather to be cold -- freezing cold.
"I was checking the weather almost four times a day," he said. "It was very nerve-racking."
Christensen, 50, designed and constructed the Ice Castles at Mall of America, a two-acre attraction that opened Monday in the shopping center's north parking lot.
The frozen architecture more resembles a forest of icicles, with bone-cold walls shooting to the sky and jagged archways delicately hanging overhead. Construction was slated to begin in early December, but above-average temps pushed the schedule back, forcing Christensen's team to work around the clock to finish. As it was, the castle opened before some of the spires had reached their full 40-foot height, a process that will take another few days to complete.
"It's like being inside a glacier," said Ian McCabe, who admitted that he doesn't see a lot of glaciers in his hometown of Daytona Beach, Fla. But he does have a reference point. "It's like what you see on the Discovery Channel. It's very canyonesque."
Sue Anderson of Eagan was equally impressed, but her reaction came with a caveat. "It's a bit claustrophobic," she warned.
Ice castles are not new to the Twin Cities. The St. Paul Winter Carnival has featured frozen palaces in the past, but those spectacles were typically made of ice blocks.
There's no ice carving here. Christensen and his crew of 20 workers grow the icicles on "ice farms," a series of on-site metal frames where the ice can root and mature. They then "harvest" the icicles by carefully removing them from the frame and fusing the pieces with an intricate irrigation system. The build-out used almost 4 million gallons of water.
"People sometimes freak out when they hear that number, especially since they say the country is in a drought," Christensen said, adding that once the castle melts the water is reusable.
A Californian ice master
This is Christensen's fourth winter of designing ice castles. Originally from Walnut Creek, Calif., he began experimenting with icicles when he moved to Utah in 2002, first by building a skating rink, then constructing an ice castle in his yard. It was an attention-grabber.
"We had people driving over from other counties to see it," Christensen said. "The following year we decided to expand it, and it has been growing every year."
He has built others in Utah and Colorado, where his ice castle company is now based. Christensen hopes the archways, tunnels, throne rooms and towers will draw big numbers here.
Beyond the icy architecture, the castles feature a snow area for kids and a concession area to warm up with hot chocolate.
Looking for a cold date
When work on the castle is complete, LED lights will transform the facade from a crystal-blue color in the daytime to a moody glow at night with shades of red, purple and green.
Christensen said the colorful ambience lends itself well to a romantic date. Each winter there are a few wedding proposals inside his castles, he said.
"We've already had our first one here," Christensen said. "They got one of my guys to let them in, and he proposed right in the middle of the castle."
Before lovebirds (or anyone else) head to the castle, Christensen advises, they should dress appropriately. "We want people to have a good time, and not have to rush through it because they are cold," he said.
For Monday's opening, with temperatures dipping into single digits, visitors were well-bundled. But once they got inside the castle, they seemed to forget about the chill.
"It's really cool," said Gretchen Freed of Spring Lake Park as she made her way to the exit.
And she wasn't talking about the weather.
Staff writer Jeff Strickler contributed to this report.
Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028 Twitter: @amatos12