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Chris Rosenblum: Hottest local hangout might just be a real, life-size backyard igloo

A mold used to make the estimated ten pound blocks to create the igloo. The finished igloo sits in the Corr backyard on Thursday, February 12, 2015.
A mold used to make the estimated ten pound blocks to create the igloo. The finished igloo sits in the Corr backyard on Thursday, February 12, 2015. CDT photo

Let others grumble and grouse. Anne Quinn Corr likes winter just fine.

Nose-numbing, teeth-chattering, finger-stiffening cold doesn’t bother her. Falling temperatures raise her spirits.

As long as it’s frigid, she’ll have the coolest clubhouse around.

Corr and her husband, John, these days look out from their College Township home to an Arctic vision in their backyard — an honest-to-goodness igloo.

With the help of their friends, the couple last week finished building the 16-foot-wide dome with the classic arched entranceway. While others long for warmer days, they have no quarrel with groundhogs seeing their shadows.

More wintry weeks mean more time to enjoy their unique seasonal retreat.

“It totally changes your mind about the weather,” said Anne Quinn Corr, a culinary instructor, cookbook author and Centre Daily Times food writer.

It’s actually their fourth igloo, but the first one since 2004, thanks to all the material Mother Nature generously supplied this year. Now that the igloo is back, a natural question arises: What will they do with a dome 8 feet high at its peak and capable of accommodating a large party?

They’ll throw parties.

That first year in 2000, they tried the whole polar hunter thing, sleeping inside. Once. It wasn’t romantic. It was freezing, slippery — just what you might expect from a night in an icy bungalow.

“We don’t have that dream any more,” Anne Quinn Corr said.

Instead, they’ve gone with the Club Igloo approach. As with their previous versions, they’ve made an elegant, curved interior bar with the same compacted snow blocks that comprise the walls. An ice countertop created with a mold provides ample space for refreshments.

And they need every inch: Past parties have set a high standard to live up to this season. Think “Nanook of the North” meets “The Great Gatsby.” One of the first igloo bashes featured 22 guests, Champagne and vodka in ice decanters, and a Scandinavian-themed feast of smoked salmon, shrimp, herring, reindeer stew, Arctic rabbit, Danish pea soup and sausages in currant sauce.

Dessert for the children was, of course, Eskimo pies.

“We have parties every night,” Anne Quinn Corr said. “It’s the responsibility of the igloo ... You love it, and you want other people to love it.”

But initially, it wasn’t their idea.

Larry Hammer, a friend, metal artist and all-around free spirit, asked one day if he could build an igloo in their flat backyard. How could they say no? But the Corrs had two conditions: He had to build it big enough for entertaining, and the project was strictly his deal. They had no time for such inspired madness.

Then they found some.

Hammer, after a little experimenting, built a rectangular, sloped mold from Teflon-coated wood for the snow blocks. Equally important, he created an ingenious measuring device — two metal 8-foot radial arms with flat, oval disks at their ends — to ensure an even dome and assist with the construction of each “course” or layer.

With the tools came labor. The Corr family, then with three children, admired Hammer’s work so much, they couldn’t resist pitching in despite their original intentions.

These days, Hammer has moved away, but his implements remain, as invaluable as ever. The basic construction hasn’t changed. Raw snow is mixed with water in a wheelbarrow for the “mortar.” Once at the right consistency, it’s packed into the wooden mold.

From there, blocks are carefully set in place, the first one of each course propped up by a radial arm oval disk until an icy bond forms.

Patience is key in the igloo-building business. It’s best to let the lower courses cure and solidify before proceeding.

The Corrs learned this the hard way.

In 2003, they awoke one morning to the rumbles of their second igloo roof imploding — victimized by the mercury climbing past 40.

They concluded that, in addition to the mini heatwave, their own hastiness was to blame. In their eagerness, their igloo-mania, they rushed ahead without allowing the individual blocks to melt under the sun, freeze overnight and then be repointed with mortar snow in bricklayer fashion.

That way, the dome can become strong enough for a person to stand on top, as Hammer once did.

“After a while, it becomes one solid block,” John Corr said. “It all melts together.”

This year continued another tradition: the warmth of igloo camaraderie. About a dozen friends gathered on Wednesday for a construction party, Motown playing from the back deck, laughter cutting through the bitter air, everybody lending a gloved hand before sitting down to a bone-thawing dinner.

“It’s a kind of festive thing; beat the winter blues,” John Corr said.

For the next two or three weeks, weather cooperating, the good times will continue to roll on the straw floor inside. One night, someone will bang on drums. There will be singing, maybe a barbershop quartet this year. Igloo acoustics are fantastic.

As the Corrs realize full well, time is short for a Pennsylvania igloo staring at March. So they’re going to make the most of theirs, share it as much as possible. Their philosophy is come one, come all — and all ages, too.

This weekend, Anne Quinn Corr planned an igloo party for her visiting nieces and neighborhood children. Her theme was — what else — the movie “Frozen.”

But by now, she knows that everyone who crawls inside tends to feel young at heart.

“It’s like being a little kid again.”

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