Shortly after his work made its magazine debut in June 2010's Architectural Digest, America's premier birdhouse master builder Tom Burke received a piece of (electronic) fan mail that read approximately thusly: "My name is Mellody. My boyfriend likes your birdhouses. Can you build a birdhouse for me?" Burke remembers it: "I responded, 'I'm glad you have a boyfriend and I'm glad you like my birdhouses.' I thought she was 10 years old."
Mellody, it turns out, was willing to shell out more than $10K for a bird mansion. She wanted one that was seven-feet wide, and heavy enough to require a forklift. The replica assignment? Northern California's Skywalker Ranch. That boyfriend (now husband) of hers? Yeah, that would be Star Wars creator George Lucas.
Before and since that project (above) wrapped, Burke has essentially become the country's principal purveyor of avian manors—sculptures that weigh as much as 500 pounds and residences built for the Larry Ellisons and Roman Abramoviches of the bird world (blue-capped ifrits and great crested grebes, perhaps?).
For Burke, it started the way many artists find their calling—trying to impress an old girlfriend. How long ago? "10 years." Pause. "Maybe 15 years." Pause. "99 years I guess, I'm not sure." OK, so somewhere between 1915 and 2003, Burke was working rehabbing old barns for folks living in Delaware and the Pennsylvania border towns. A longtime subscriber to Architectural Digest, Burke started drawing up blueprints for a birdhouse version of Ralph Lauren's ranch mansion, and others that splashed across the covers of the glossy he received each month. Soon after he absconded with barn wood salvaged from demolitions and began building.
As his skills advanced, buyers and inspiration came from all sides. (Indeed, as we spoke he picked up a Louis Vuitton stiletto he found on the street, dubbing it a token of inspiration for his upcoming "line" of women's fashion birdhouses, still in creative development.) For a while afflatus came from the works of famous American painter Andrew Wyeth, someone Burke knew personally (they were both homeboys of Chadds Ford, Pa.) and an artist Burke admired enough to emulate, ultimately recreating the home from Wyeth's most famous piece, Christina's World (↑). Martha Stewart's mansion—"she hasn't bought it yet"—took him five years just to research, having seen only slices of it in AD. "I couldn't call her up and ask her to 'please send me pictures of your house.'"
Over the course of his career, Burke has built a chapel from Chadds Ford and done up old Southern sprawls in North Carolina. He's built the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia (↑) and Santiago Calatrava's 80 South Street skyscraper in NYC. Actually, his 18-foot-tall Calatrava model is still in pieces in his condo in Wilmington, Del.; when it was being installed down on the riverfront in downtown Wilmington (where many of his works are displayed), he made them stop putting it together after five of 12 boxes were assembled. "You should stop," he said. "It'll kill somebody."
And that wasn't his only deviation from colonial clapboard: the skyline piece he did for The New Yorker (↑) was bought sight-unseen by his "main patron," an art collector who has spent more than $30K on Burke's houses. In fact, that same client called Burke this week with a request for a birdhouse rendition of his most recent real estate purchase: Alex Rodriguez' ultra-modern Miami spread, which sold in May for $30M. "Honest to God, it's going to be the best bird house [...] it's going to be absolutely massive."
No matter the scale, each birdhouse starts the same: blueprints and "a whole bunch of exterior-grade plywood." Unlike many miniaturists, Burke doesn't sweat the exactitudes, preferring "whimsical birdhouse scale" even if it means "I'll lose a window once in a while." He uses scrapwood from friends in the demolition world and other odds and ends he finds along the street or in Dumpsters. "The only stuff I buy are the plywood and nails," he says. Each house takes about two months—"don't quote me on that, it's probably going to take longer"—minus installation.
What's in the works for Burke now? Well, besides the aforementioned women's fashion houses, he's got a handful of private requests on the backburner, as well as his personal projects: a Andy Warhol-style Campbell's soup can, Monopoly houses and hotels, among others. His end-goal? Getting his houses onto NYC's Highline Park. "That's my dream. That's my ideal."
Still, it's all for the critters, right? Ah. No. His main client, in fact, asks that the Lilliputian creations be, well, closed up. "He doesn't like birds," Burke says.