No elves at this Twin Cities Christmas workshop, but lots of concrete

Christmas decorations made of concrete.
Concrete Christmas trees and winter-themed decorations are an annual tradition for a fall session at the cement masons and plasterers union training center in New Brighton.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

When life gives you concrete, make a holiday out of it.

That’s how they see it at the Cement Masons, Plasterers & Shophands union hall in New Brighton, where it’s become a seasonal tradition for the apprentices to build a holiday village on the floor of their indoor, gymnasium-sized training shop — out of concrete.

Think of a holiday lights display or a creche, but one that starts from the back of a cement truck.

A man is standing in front of a concrete snowman.
Jerry Grob is one of the instructors at the cement masons and plasterers union training program in New Brighton.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

“They got to have fun with it,” said Jerry Grob, one of the union instructors.

He and his fellow trainers come up with a different plan every year, featuring walls and steps and ornamental concrete, projects the apprentices will work on eventually in their trade. Lath and plaster are sketched out as gingerbread houses and other structures.

Apprentices build it and then throw a union Christmas party on it.

“We have contractors and the finishers come,” Grob said. “We want to show them we’re teaching these guys, and here they can see what they can do.”

This year, there’s a 12-foot snowman sitting on a giant red and white mint lozenge — er, highway roundabout — 20 feet across.

There are intersecting sidewalks shaped and colored like peppermint sticks, and about a dozen tiny concrete Christmas trees coated in plaster. They’re molded in plastic traffic cones.

The Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant sidewalk and curb cuts are stained holiday white and red. Instead of a sleigh, a mannequin Santa rides a power concrete trowel.

There’s a tiny snow-tinged mini golf course and a giant plaster book, opened to the first page of the “Night Before Christmas” poem. A rain garden curb feature is lined with tiny pine trees and Santa lights.

The whole display takes about a month from start to finish, said union office coordinator Shannon Rotz. This is the 12th year of the project.

After a toast to the enduring utility and presence of concrete work, they take a jackhammer to it. The concrete is smashed up and recycled to make room for the next practice projects.

Said Grob: “We gotta have all of this out of here by Friday.”

Correction (Dec. 5, 2019): Jerry Grob’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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