Hidden Treasure

Visit Roy Blakey's Thai Palace and IceStage Archive.

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In Roy Blakey's living room is a huge triangular carving to the right, covered with gold and inlaid mica similar to those found in Buddhist temples in Thailand. (SHNS photo by Joel Koyama / Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune)

There's nothing regal about the setting: a nondescript commercial building on a busy Minneapolis street. But tucked inside is an exotic jewel of a home, studded with carved and gilded artifacts from the Orient.

These are artifacts that Roy Blakey collected in his travels in Asia. (SHNS photo by Joel Koyama / Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune)
These are artifacts that Roy Blakey collected in his travels in Asia. (SHNS photo by Joel Koyama / Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune)
Roy Blakey lives in a home that friends refer to as the "Thai Palace." Here are hand-carved teak temple doors. (SHNS photo by Joel Koyama / Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune)

"My friends call it the Thai Palace," said Roy Blakey.

That's an improbable nickname for an urban loft, but it's an apt one, given Blakey's Bangkok esthetic and soaring 14.5-foot ceilings, built to accommodate the massive carvings that adorn his walls.

"I don't like little things," he said with a laugh. "Only parts of temples."

The former figure skater retains a trim physique and buoyant energy suggesting that, at age 74, he could still execute a jump if he felt like it. His home, in contrast, exudes stillness and serenity.

The space, which formerly housed a computer-graphics business, was gutted and refashioned to create Blakey's unusual dwelling.

Once inside, the piece that immediately draws the eye is a huge triangular carving covered with shiny gold and inlaid mica, and lit so that it glows like firelight. Blakey has seen similar walls on Buddhist temples in Thailand. "They're so gorgeous, sparkling in the sun," he said.

But he prefers the quieter beauty of pieces that have been aged and weathered to a soft brown, like the one that fills his adjacent wall. "I'm sure the whole background was once mirrored and gilded, but the monsoons have erased that."

Hand-carved teak temple doors lead to his pantry, his bathroom and even his electrical box. A huge wooden dragon that once greeted Burmese orchestra patrons now oversees Blakey's living room.

Even his furniture evokes long-ago rituals in faraway lands. An ornate Chinese wedding bed serves as a sofa. A Japanese palanquin, an enclosed litter designed for carrying priests to the temple, houses Blakey's TV. An Indian howdah, built for riding atop an elephant, is now a crimson-cushioned settee.

How Blakey, an Oklahoma native, came to create his Midwestern shrine to the Far East is a story that reinforces the Buddhist belief that all things are interrelated. In an oddly roundabout way, it was a Norwegian figure skater, Sonja Henie, the Olympic gold-medalist-turned movie star, who provided the inspiration.

As a teen, Blakey saw one of Henie's films, which were known for their elaborate skating production numbers, and was struck by an image that altered his life. Skaters, dressed in white, were gliding over black ice, covered with a film of water that reflected like a mirror.

"It was just magical," Blakey recalled. "I thought, 'I have to do that. I have to get on ice skates and get in a show.' "

But there were no ice rinks in tiny Enid, Okla., so Blakey had to become an expert roller skater instead. As he'd hoped, his skill on wheels eventually helped him make a smooth transition to blades. While serving in the Army in Germany, Blakey found himself in tantalizing proximity to a nightclub with an ice-skating show. He wangled an audition and ultimately a contract, which led to a skating job at the Chicago Hilton, then an offer to tour with Holiday on Ice.

Blakey saw the world: Moscow, Tokyo, Buenos Aires -- and Bangkok, where he felt a deep and immediate connection to the art, architecture and people. "Something very profound happened to me. I fell in love with Thailand. Keri (his niece) says I was Thai in a past life," he said. "I don't study the Buddhist religion. I'm not that deep a person. I'm a visual person. There's something very special about the delicacy of the art."

While on the road, Blakey also laid the groundwork for his second career: photography.

Blakey moved from New York to Minneapolis in 1993 to share a studio with his niece, photographer Keri Pickett.

"Roy believed in his artistic vision," said Tennessee-based author-photographer Reed Massengill. That clarity is reflected in his home environment. "It's almost a spiritual retreat," Massengill said.

Many photographers surround themselves with photography, he noted. "But there's very little, if any, photography in (Blakey's) own space. His home is a reflection of his inner self -- centered, focused and at peace."

An Archive of Ice-Skating Memorabilia

When Roy Blakey talks about his "museum," he isn't referring to the Asian artifacts that fill his Minneapolis home. He's talking about the IceStage Archive, his vast collection of ice-skating memorabilia.

Crowded into one room in his home are thousands of items, ranging from 1910 hand-tinted German postcards to recent dolls and other products honoring contemporary skating stars.

Many of the costumes, posters and photos celebrate shows, including well-known touring productions and the lavish hotel skating shows that were popular during the 1940s and '50s. There are other collections that emphasize figure-skating as a sport, Blakey said. "But I'm the only one collecting the theatrical aspect of skating."

He has no idea what his collection is worth, but he does have a dream: to find a home for it where others can see and appreciate the history of theatrical skating. "I'm working hard to find the proper place for all this," he said.

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