Forget the library cooling center. The best place to chill in Forest Park last week during the record-breaking heat wave was the walk-in freezer at Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures – converted into a party room for 30-40 people.
As the mercury outside climbed toward the 90s, Saturday afternoon, guests gathered in the back of Nadeau’s, where sandwiches and desserts were piled high, along with beverages stored in antique ice chests collected by owner Jim Nadeau.
Then over the head went the “sherpas” – insulated party ponchos – and guests entered a winter wonderland in July: Nadeau’s walk-in freezer.
“Ice is endless,” says Nadeau. “It tests your imagination and how far it can go.”
Frosty imagination could be found everywhere in the freezer, which also serves as a showroom: a life-size fireplace, for instance, created completely from ice, topped by a running mantle clock and an actual burning fire – behind a sheet of ice. Children and teenagers at the party shot hoops at an 8-foot basketball backboard with frozen Chicago Bulls insignia. Kids took turns seated on the grand ice throne. A sushi bar had several large whole fish frozen inside.
Nadeau has spent 30-plus years creating magic out of frozen water.
“When I started, everyone wanted a swan,” he says.
In fact, his fascination with ice began in 1975 while watching a chef carve a swan with hand tools on the loading dock of the Mariott Hotel in Boston, where he worked as a line cook. A business trip to Chicago brought the Albany, N.Y. native to the Midwest, where he started his business in 1980, specializing in ice sculptures.
“I saw a business model there,” he said.
Hand tools gave way to power tools, chainsaws and routers, which made creation go much faster. Nadeau’s even has two CNC computerized ice carving machines – all stainless steel because early models rusted.
“You can carve something in a couple of minutes, but it takes three hours to program it,” he said.
He has created Eiffel Towers of ice. His sculptures have appeared in movies, such as The Fugitive and My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Nadeau often freezes commercial products inside 300-pound blocks of ice, kept crystal clear by a four-day freezing process at 22 degrees where water is paddle-agitated to release air bubbles. The company creates roughly 95 blocks a week in 45 tanks. “We never, ever stop making them.”
“Divorce parties, funeral lunches, Bar Mitzvahs. We have LED lights, holes for wine bottles to chill, champagne luges. We try to blow people away,” said Nadeau, who teaches ice sculpture at Kendall College in Chicago.
In 2010 during the NHL Chicago Blackhawks mania, Nadeau’s created a midnight guerrilla marketing campaign for the Blackhawks as ice sculptures of the Stanley Cup popped up all over Chicago.
“We almost got arrested at 2 a.m. putting up these sculptures,” Nadeau recalled, laughing.
For 20 years, the man behind the chainsaw has been sculptor “Hawk” Ramirez of Lombard. To carry a 300-pound block, Ramirez uses 100-year-old ice tongs and leather straps from the pre-refrigeration days of ice delivery. “These were made by a real blacksmith,” he noted.
Whimsical images come to life in a blizzard of flying ice. Ramirez uses cone rasps, arrowhead routers and grinders. Hand tools carve out the details. He uses a laundry iron and plates of heated steel to sear pieces of ice together, an arm, for example, on a statue.
Ramirez also has a side hobby as a chainsaw artist carving wooden sculptures. “With wood, you can pause the project,” he said. Ice carving has to be completed within roughly 90 minutes.
Ramirez competes in contests sponsored by the National Ice Carving Association.
“I am always learning about new techniques,” he observed, “and then I try them myself. This business is changing all the time. You have to challenge yourself to be the best.”
The white plaster igloo atop Nadeau’s at 7623 Roosevelt Road was left over from an Adidas shoe shot.
“We were hired to create an igloo with a 16-foot dome in southern California, built of ice blocks that each had an Addidas shoe frozen inside,” Nadeau said. Fearing that the balmy California climate might create an unstable structure, he bought a hollow dome form from a silo company and constructed the igloo around it.
“We use it for storage now.”
He used to do lots of commercial work in Chicago – products like beer exploding out of ice chunks – but computer animation is eating into that business, he said. The weak economy is taking away his customers on both ends of the economic spectrum.
“Some of my customers can’t afford an ice sculpture, and some of my customers can afford one, but they don’t want to appear ostentatious, so I’m getting hit from both sides,” he said, laughing.
In response, he’s lowered some of his price points by letting customers pick up sculptures instead of charging for delivery.
And he’s thrown three of these freezer parties.
“Ice has its place in a party,” he said. “It’s like nothing else. And it’s something everyone remembers.”