Architect, Landscape Architect, Urban Designer, Land Use Planner, Environmental Observer

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lately It Occurs to Me ... What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been -

The Prickly Mountain Project -

In 1965 David Sellers and Bill Rienecke, freshly graduated from the Yale School of Architecture, came to Vermont looking to build something. They were attracted to Vermont as much by the skiing and partying as the opportunity to build without the restrictions of zoning regulations or planning commissions. They discovered 450 acres, mostly abandoned farmland and unimproved forest that they were able to buy for $1,000 down apiece. The name came when another architect friend, John Lucas, sat down on a raspberry bush and—ouch!—Prickly Mountain was born.

Sellers, amazed that so much land could be tied up with so little money, immediately began to think big. He returned to Yale and did what he has so often done throughout his colorful career – he got people excited about his vision.

The problem, as Sellers saw it, was that “Architects didn’t learn to build things in school, but only to draw pictures.” The opportunity to actually build something, he told classmates, was too good to pass up. Come to Vermont, he said, and we can build things all summer. We’ll find you a place to live, feed you, and even pay you $500.

Thirty students took the offer. Sellers rented a house, hired a cook, and arranged for credit at the local lumber yard and the IGA food store. (He still smiles when he thinks about how he managed to pull this off.) His motley crew, long on energy and creativity but short on cash and experience, began building houses. The theory was that by the end of the summer the houses could be mortgaged and the debts settled. Decades before Nike ever made it a slogan, Sellers developed the philosophy of “Just do it.”

The crew was intoxicated with a combination of energy and trust and went to work with hammer and nail. As the buildings went up and then as the building season wound down, Sellers hit the road to recruit others from other architectural schools.

The national media took notice. First The New York Times, later Life Magazine, but most influentially, Progressive Architecture gave credibility to the developments on Prickly Mountain. The trickle of pilgrims to Prickly Mountain became a march.

At the time, the cultural revolution of the 1960s was in full-swing (some might even say out of control). This was a time when Stewart Brand, in Berkeley, Calif., was re-inventing book publishing with the Whole Earth Catalog. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were pounding up and down the West Coast in their psychedelic bus. John Todd, in Woods Hole, Mass., was mulling over the concept that would become The New Alchemy Institute. Greenpeace and Public Citizen were gleaming in the eyes of their founders. And in Vermont, David Sellers was leading bright, wide-eyed, would-be builders to the edge of the building envelope in the appropriately named Mad River Valley.

The houses that were built were beyond unconventional. There were no blueprints. Plans were scratched in the dirt or scribbled on the plywood and 2x4s being assembled. The houses soared into the surrounding forest, some of them resembling ships more than homes. The landscape, once virgin forest, then cleared pasture, then scraggly hardwood/softwood mix, had witnessed another evolution. Windows and decks appeared where they wanted to be. Solar and renewable energy were part of the gospel.

- from Wishtank here's MY side of the story -

In May of 1966, I was finishing the last year of my Associates degree in Construction Technology at the State University of New York at Delhi (NY). I picked up a copy of Progressive Architecture and it contained a story called "Architecture Swings Like A Pendulum Do". It had a picture of the Tack House (see photo below - this is a very enlarged version of what was built at the beginning), and a sketch of a site plan labeled "Prickly Mountain Project, Warren, Vermont". I tossed in a letter, with that simple address, asking if they needed help for the summer. They said simply "come on up, we'll give you food and housing and $500 for the summer. I don't even remember how I got there, but I arrived.


Warren was a town of 50 in the middle of nowhere Vermont. I had never heard of it. But nearby was Sugarbush ski area. I had heard of that (seemed like I heard of it in connection with "snow bunnies from New York City"). I made my way up the road to the "Tack House"

and met the two partners Dave and Bill (called Ringo because of the physical likeness to a popular drummer at the time). They told me I could stay at an old farmhouse down the road and there would be a cook fixing meals. It was an OLD farmhouse...early 1800's, I would guess now.

There I met four other architectural students that I would work and live with for the summer. One was from the University of Illinois, one from Columbia University (he came with his girlfriend and lived elsewhere) and two were from the University of Pennsylvania. I was already accepted at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Our cook was a lovely young woman named Nans (Dutch from Quebec), who made incredibly hearty breakfasts and delicious soups every evening!


There was a large hole in the floor next to the kitchen. An old (75 plus or minus) man was down there every morning. His name was Mr. Livingston - and his job was to single handedly rebuild the old stone foundation below the farmhouse and put in tie rods to straighten the frame. Totally Yankee - I thought!!!. Every morning was the same with Mr. Livingston - we would say "Good morning, Mr. Livingston!". He would reply the usual way - "Good morning - that is, if it doesn't rain!" We would then agree. Mr. Livingston told us he had one more project to build - he promised a friend he would build him a new barn. We assumed that meant he would do it alone.


We would walk every morning after an amazing breakfast cooked by Nans (I had a great crush on her) up the dirt road to the building site past the Tack House. This was a three story ski house that was designed by Ringo. There were no plans. He laid a cardboard model on the ground and the foundation was laid out. While others were doing some rough framing, I remember he had a big rectangular metal tank welded up. I was dipping wood siding into the creosote filled tank and then stacking the wood to dry.


Later, I helped on the rough framing and then went on to put up the siding using flimsily constructed scaffolding. I remember that the scaffolding was so bouncy, that I complained to Ringo. I must have weighed about 120 pounds. I think Ringo was close to 200 and he walked on those flat 2x's like a cat, and said a real construction worker likes the "bounce".

We would frame the house just like the model. Sometimes Ringo would walk up and look at where we were in the rough framing. He would see a great view on the second or third floor, grab a Skil-saw and cut an opening through the just nailed wall studs, instructing us to order a window and finish framing the opening.


The Ringo crew decided to have a plywood carrying contest. I said that with my body frame, I was not entering. The architecture student from Columbia University was a large African-American man. He put three sheets of plywood over his head at once, carried them away and won the contest.


David was up on the mountain doing some work and we all heard him screaming as loud as he possibly could -


very Sellers ....

David was on the Mad River Valley Planning Commission or something like that, and they were about to hire some New York person to develop a plan for the Mad River Valley. He stopped them and said that they should interview this incredible man from the University of Pennsylvania named Ian McHarg.

Mr. McHarg spent a day meeting the commission and an evening at the Prickly Mountain Project. He sat with all of us over dinner and explained his process of planning with the environment. There may also have been some wine drinking involved. They agreed to hear him, but decided not to hire him - I think they were intimidated by his brilliance.


At the end of the summer, Dave and Ringo decided to throw a big barbeque. Dave said "let's roast half a calf". We dug this deep pit, lined it with stones and built a fire.

Since we were all city kids, Dave decided that we had to go to the farmer down the road, pick a calf and watch it killed (YOU SHOULD KNOW WHERE YOUR FOOD COMES FROM, I think he said). We did just that. The farmer took us to the herd, we picked a sweet looking calf, and he led it to his butchering shed. One smack with a ball peen hammer to the center of the forehead and the calf dropped and started shaking. In two minutes, he stopped. The farmer tied the calf's feet and raised him with a winch. He slit the belly, cut the head off and pulled all the guts out. After the bleeding stopped he pulled the skin off and sawed the body down the middle. We wrapped half the body (the farmer froze the other half in his walk- in freezer) and brought it back to Prickly Mountain to cook.

We had a great barbeque.


When the summer came to a close, I found a 1960 Ford Falcon station wagon to buy in Warren for $100. It was white with big black splotches on it where there used to be rust spots. We all called it the "spotted heffer". I started to drive across country to California.


That itself is a long story, but I'll give a quick summary:

I picked up a college friend in upstate New York. We then drove to Fallingwater House, near Ohiopyle (yes!), Pennsylvania to see Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece. I drove my buddy to Lawrence, Kansas where he attended the University of Kansas and then I continued on my journey across the country. My car broke down in the middle of the Mojave Desert between Needles and Barstow. I sold the car to a "desert rat" type of guy for $25 (left most of my belongings in the car) and flagged down the bus to Los Angeles and continued on to San Luis Obispo.


Oh, I did get to see Nans (Kelder) and her brothers in Montreal the next summer for Expo 67 (the World's Fair).

(you get extra points if you can tell me the song that the title of this piece is based on - Larry)

. . .

1 comment:


Recommended Books

  • - Precedents in Architecture
  • - City Comforts
  • - A Pattern Language
  • - The Architecture of Happiness
  • - Architectural Composition
  • - Design Language
  • - Elements of Garden Design
  • - Chambers for a Memory Palace