John Learner is a dentist with his own practice in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who signs each email—even those to people 1,000 miles away—with "keep flossing." His bread and butter is root canals, bonds, veneers, and general check-ups—but his decadence? Gingerbread, frosting, candy canes, rootbeer barrels, Pop Tarts, and hundreds upon hundreds of sticks of gum. To Learner, dentistry is nothing but "the bothersome, time-consuming job that keeps me from making gingerbread houses 24 hours a day," and he's dedicated to making the most immense and ostentatious architectural replicas in the country. Each house—many of which take two men to carry and some of which top out at around 85 pounds—is based on a real-life building or architectural trope, but with thousands of punchy, sticky-sweet details to make each project look like holiday decor on a mind-bending sugar high.
Take, for example, his replica of the Carson Mansion, a grand Victorian home in Eureka, Calif. His version, above, takes the already fanciful and detail-heavy façade and pushes it into near-insanity with a rock-candy and waffle cone turret; Swedish Fish gables; a Ring Pop and candy cane wraparound porch; and a Fruit Roll-Up-wrapped colonnade. Each inch is crowded with detail, from dots of pea-sized jawbreakers to tiny butterflies and hearts punched out of stick gum. He takes pride in the minutia, the textures, and the sheer size of his houses. "I like my gingerbread houses to be three feet tall and too big to wrap my arms around," he says.
What Learner doesn't like? Surprisingly, the part involving actual gingerbread. In fact, he finds it so tedious that, early on, he struck up a bargain with a patient: if she agreed to churn out the hundreds of pounds of gingerbread he needed, he'd fix her family's teeth in a straight exchange. The trade frees up time for him to perfect the particulars; and he's obsessed with making each detail just right, hitting up candy stores while on vacation and taking hundreds of photos of a project he's interested in replicating. He's particular—so particular, in fact, that he still hasn't forgiven "the stinkers" at Wrigley's for changing the color of the brand's Double Mint gum midway through his Carson Mansion project. See, Learner needed 100 more sticks to finish up the shingles on its roof, and was more than miffed to discover that the gum was no longer a gray-tan, but rather a shocking, and un-matching, shade of white.
Learner's smaller works take about five months to create, and his larger pieces take up to nine months, depending on the level of complexity. But all previous projects are small apples compared to what he's working on now: a colossal, years-long remake of Stan Hywet hall that stands seven feet long, three feet wide, and two feet tall. The Tudor Revival-style estate in Akron, Ohio, will celebrate its centennial in 2015—also Learner's deadline. "It's slow-going because, you know, in my spare time I have to do root canals ... there's that time-consuming day job again," he says. Once the Stan Hywet is complete, he'll move straight on to a passion project that's been on his mind for years: a gingerbread model of NYC's flatiron building.
So how does a dentist discover a full-fledged obsession with architecture crafted from baked goods? Learner's been building model ships since he was in 8th grade—"they're a lot harder to do then gingerbread houses"—but he didn't make his first cookie home until he was a parent. Sick of wasting bottom-of-the-box pretzels, cereal, and graham crackers, he thought he'd convince his daughters to make a gingerbread house with him. The girls helped until they got bored ("about 20 minutes") but Learner didn't stop until he had created a gingerbread house of leviathan proportions. He was hooked. "I've always loved houses and architecture," he says. "It's only my good sense keeping me from owning an old house and fixing it up. I avoid doing it in real time. I only do it in gingerbread-time."