Not even Harry Potter could have pulled off this kind of magic.
Using little more than cardboard, Styrofoam and a whole lot of imagination, a mother wanting to give her daughter a special treat has transformed her two-story Minnetonka office building into Hogwarts Castle, Diagon Alley and other familiar landmarks described in the popular fantasy book series.
Walking through the space is an otherworldly experience.
Guests are greeted at Ollivanders wand shop by guides in wizard robes. Train tickets stamped with “Platform 9¾” offer access to the “train,” a staircase that leads upstairs to a dark hallway elaborately decorated with framed portraits of legendary wizards at Hogwarts School.
The hallway leads to the “Great Hall,” a cavernous room with tea-light candles flickering overhead and long benches and tables for eating. This is also where the “sorting hat” determines in which house you belong: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or, gulp, Slytherin.
After the sorting, peek inside Prof. Snape’s potions classroom, where glass vials fill the towering, wall-to-wall shelves. Beware of Snape’s withering glance as you exit. Head next to the Gryffindor Common Room, the study lounge for students to relax in front of a “fireplace,” in which the face of a character appears and speaks.
As you head back for the returning “train,” you may notice a wailing sound from a nearby bathroom. Not to worry — it’s just Moaning Myrtle, a recorded voice that echoes in the bathroom.
And to think all this was done by a woman who had previously been immune to the charms of Harry Potter’s world.
For Soulaire Allerai, owner of Soulful Journey Wellness Center in Minnetonka, the inspiration to re-create the magical scenes from the popular book series came from wanting to throw her daughter, Lorawai Allerai, 23, the ultimate Harry Potter-themed party to celebrate the young Potter fan’s graduation from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Lorawai has been a superfan since she began reading the books by J.K. Rowling in first grade.
The project was no simple undertaking. For five months, Soulaire and her friends toiled to convert the rooms inside the Wellness Center into the Great Hall, the wand shop, Prof. Snape’s potions room and Gryffindor Common Room.
Finally, on a Friday night in late September, it was time for the big reveal. One of Soulaire’s burly friends dressed up like Hagrid, the gentle giant who befriends Harry Potter. He showed up at Lorawai’s front door in Shakopee, his motorcycle parked out front. He picked up a surprised Lorawai and off they went.
When they arrived at the center, Lorawai entered the wand shop and received a train ticket aboard the Hogwarts Express. She was overwhelmed.
“It’s kind of like your fantasy world came to life,” she said. “To walk in and see this world, I was just blown away.”
Since the September graduation party, the whimsical display has bewitched hundreds of Potterheads of all ages, who have toured the castle as part of an ongoing charity drive. This month, the castle is decked out for the holidays with a 9-foot-tall Christmas tree in the Great Hall. Tours will be held on select dates, starting Dec. 15.
Labor of love
Soulaire is artistic and has dabbled in theater and stage design. But nothing could prepare her for the massive undertaking that the Hogwarts project became.
“I did it for the love of Lorawai,” she said. “I knew she would appreciate the art and energy that went into it.”
Soulaire surfed the internet for decorating ideas for a Potter-themed graduation party, but did not like what she saw. She wanted something more immersive.
“I wanted her to feel that she was literally walking into the Great Hall,” she said.
“All of a sudden I started building this whole big room. I was just going to do the great room. Then, I realized we could do Gryffindor Common because that’s where Harry Potter hangs out. It became bigger than just my daughter’s graduation party. It became an idea of doing good and taking the proceeds from it to help as many people as we can.”
‘A fascinating journey’
To date, about 600 people have come through and donated roughly $1,700. That’s short of the $5,000 fundraising goal set by the Living Faith Spiritual Community, a nonprofit to which the proceeds go to pay for blankets, backpacks and other supplies distributed to the homeless.
“It was a fascinating journey with people,” Soulaire said of the redecorating project. “I have a friend who works with me, who did all of the intricate paintings for me. Gringotts at the end of the hall. She also painted the Gryffin Door. I helped with the three-headed dog.”
Others volunteered as actors. “We had 37 people who came in as characters,” she said.
None is trained in acting, including Soulaire, who plays the dour and enigmatic Prof. Snape. But during the tours, she and the others follow the thespian mandate to stay in character no matter what happens. During one tour, the sorting hat went kaput. Soulaire looked at the children lined up waiting to have the mechanical hat announce their house assignments and improvised. “The hat has become enchanted,” she told the group. “Hagrid sat on it.”
Lorawai, who plays Harry Potter and sports a fake scar on her forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt, said having others enjoy the magical experience with her adds to the fun.
“They’ve all entered into this world now,” she said. “I’ve never had anyone to experience it with before.”
And watching the expressions on people’s faces as they see it for the first time has its own rewards, Lorawai said.
“I love it because I can relate to them so much — the Potterheads, the little kids who are just fascinated, the parents who don’t quite know what’s going on,” she said, laughing.
“I love to see they’re getting to experience what I got to experience.”