Fifty years ago this year, a small gang of freshly minted architecture graduates decided to do something radical, something they'd been told they'd never actually do for themselves in the course of their careers: build a house with their own hands.
It was the beginning of a modest revolution in the way that architecture and construction can coexist, and the launch of David Sellers's dizzying adventure of a career. From his base of operations in Vermont's bucolic Mad River Valley, he's designed everything from sleds to electric trains to towns, all following no other guide than his own curiosity and sense of play. At 76, he's just as talkative and energetic as he must have been in 1967, when Life magazine photographed him climbing the living-room wall in his experimental ski lodge and labeled him a "way-out Orpheus."
The pool at the "Archie Bunker."
Everything in Sellers's world has a personality, and usually a nickname. His newest project, the "Archie Bunker" outside Warren, VT, is based on a series of concrete arches and pillars, which during construction looked "like one of these bunkers on the coast of Normandy—like we're building it to protect ourselves from the invasion of the Canadians or something," Sellers says. The "Bunker of Arches" became "the arches of bunker" and, eventually, the house got stuck with the name of the legendary TV curmudgeon. It was designed to be similarly inflexible. "I wanted to do a building that would last for 500 years, with no maintenance and no fuel bill, no electric bill." A shallow, spring-fed swimming pool laps up to the edge of the house, and the entire back wall is designed to slide away so you can walk straight from the living room into the water. The interior is full of joyful details, like a spare bed that pulls out in a huge wooden drawer under the staircase; bell-shaped lampshades carved out of wood (with the bark left to form a lacy edge); a molded concrete model of the Chrysler Building perched above the stacked wood for the stove; that removable wall. And outside, a six-inch-high mirror that runs around the base of the house, about a foot off the ground, so that in the snowy winter, the whole structure seems to float.
Across the lawn behind the house is the "Temple of Dindor," or just the Temple, Sellers's soaring-ceilinged workshop, where he and his team work on one-off projects—furniture, fireplaces, immense carved doors—that are shipped all over the world. It's also where they kick back and celebrate the completion of each new project: there are swings slung from the high rafters, and a low bench snakes around and between a nearby clump of trees, forming a natural picnic spot. Sitting on the terrace next to the pool, Sellers revisits a story he's told plenty of times, but still can't seem to believe is true: the accidental beginnings of this creative community.
The sliding wall of the Bunker.
In 1965, when Sellers and his friends graduated from Yale School of Architecture, "we were convinced that our education wasn't complete," he recalls. "We had to make something. Didn't care what it was." The only other options were to keep studying, or to join somebody else's firm, which meant carrying out somebody else's vision. Instead, the young graduates wanted to follow their own aesthetic instincts. "We thought, let's design something that is really free-flowing, coming out of our sense of light and color and texture and materials." So the five students came up with a simple-sounding plan. They'd each chip in $2,000, buy a piece of land, build a house on spec, and sell it. "You know, I think about it now, it was kind of wacky," Sellers admits. "But there wasn't really any other choice."
Sellers's work as featured in Life in 1967.
Figuring that "nobody would hire a bunch of students out of college to do their permanent house," the students looked for land in popular vacation spots. But brokers selling ocean land near New York laughed, flatly telling them they were 75 years too late to get anything at the price they could offer. Undaunted, Sellers reconsidered, developing a new theory that was equal parts practical and whimsical—a combination that still defines his work. "My theory was it would be somebody out of Manhattan who was smart enough to have a lot of money and was open minded enough to try something different," he explains. "Manhattan is a man-made mountain, so if you're in that world and you want to get out, you want a valley the size of Manhattan, a natural valley." It turns out there are two such valleys in New England: one in Maine that's owned by a lumber company, and the valley we're in, carved by the Mad River through the heart of Vermont.
The ceiling of Sellers's workshop, the Temple.
The area was already popular with skiers, who "all wanted a jillion dollars" for their land. But Sellers, a natural salesman, convinced a local farmer to part with 400 acres with a thousand dollars down. He went triumphantly back to his four friends—three of whom then made the mistake of consulting their parents. It was left to Sellers and his partner Bill Reinecke to start the revolution from their spread of land on what became known as "Prickly Mountain" (named after somebody sat on a particularly spiny raspberry bush). They offered their fellow students $500, plus room and board, to come for the summer and help them build the first three houses. The local lumber yard and the grocery store each agreed to extend 90-day credit, and the serendipitous, distinctly Sixties project was underway. The houses, built mostly from plywood, evolved from their setting, with windows and walkways designed to make the most of the mountain views. The architects pushed each other to try out new ideas, guided by only the most rudimentary sketches, and designed as they went along. They left edges raw and pipes exposed. The houses were fun to explore, full of surprises (and occasional hazards), and all designed with abundant windows and balconies to make the most of the mountain scenery.
At the end of the summer, however, the students had to go back to school, the generous creditors wanted their money, and the banks refused a mortgage. A savior arrived in the form of an adventurous Canadian who'd read about the nascent community and asked the architects to build him a house on their land for $30,000. "We didn't have to pay ourselves, we didn't have to pay for the land, we didn't have to pay a design fee, so we survived on that budget," Sellers says. Publications from House Beautiful to the New York Times visited Prickly Mountain, amused by the radical idea of architecture students putting their education to the test by actually building houses. The bank eventually agreed to lend the money to finish the three in-progress buildings, and the wacky idea turned out to have legs. "This whole Prickly Mountain thing became a community, and other architects wanted to do what we were doing," Sellers says. "So we made land available very inexpensively for other students who wanted to try their hand at doing it."
In 1969, Sellers was invited to teach design at the progressive Goddard College in Plainfield, VT, a position he accepted on the condition that it wouldn't be "a normal school with drafting boards and stuff like that." Instead, he and his students literally built their own department: first finishing a design center, then an arts building, then three more buildings, which the college is currently fundraising to renovate and preserve. Today, Sellers teaches classes at the proudly hands-on Yestermorrow design/build school in Waitsfield, established in 1980 by architect John Connell. His educational theories spring from the same basic principle as his architecture, that theory and practice are intertwined, and don't always have to come in that order. "If you know how to make something, then you can design it."
Sellers's unconventional approach has made his work a natural fit with other creative thinkers. For the past twenty-five years he's collaborated with the physician (and Robin Williams movie subject) Patch Adams, building medical clinics in El Salvador and Haiti. In Vermont, the Prickly Mountain community continues to collaborate, or as Sellers puts it, "do cool stuff together"—like building elaborate Fourth of July parade floats and staging Christmas pageants. The financial sustainability of the community, however, has always been a challenge. Apart from skiing, there's no industry and not much employment in this part of Vermont, so over the years, the architects have branched out and gotten entrepreneurial. "A windmill company started up, and a stove company, and a solar company and a dozen little companies making things," Sellers says. "These were all part of the idea that if you're designing something, it doesn't just have to be a house, it can be a chair, or light fixtures, or cars, or whatever you want." Or perhaps a cult-classic sled, the Mad River Rocket, one of Sellers's own inventions.
The Tack House, right, is one of Sellers's early Prickly Mountain creations.
Today Sellers lives in Warren Village, at the heart of a slightly bigger community, but where he can walk to the post office and general store across a little bridge behind his Victorian house. "I still believe that there's a real value in not having to drive anywhere," he says. The modest village is also home to the Pitcher Inn, a luxury hotel that looks as though it has been a part of the village since the 19th century, but is in fact a new David Sellers creation, built on the site of an older building that had been destroyed by fire. With a limit on the number of rooms that could be fitted into the space, and always keenly aware of his budget, Sellers realized that the hotel couldn't break even unless its 13 rooms were spectacular enough to fetch upwards of $600 a night. The rooms—three designed by Sellers—are themed in ways that convey the passions of the area (the "Lodge" is outfitted with antique skis, while the "Trout" room is bedecked with vintage fishing paraphernalia.) Overlooking the stream that runs behind the hotel, a lawn is shaded by Italianate grape-vine trellises and dotted with Sellers's take on the Adirondack chair, which has a slimmer back and wider arms, on which you can comfortably rest a wine glass, a dinner plate, or your legs.
Inside the Madsonian Museum.
Although Sellers doesn't name any direct aesthetic influences, he's passionate about preserving ingenious industrial design. He's created the Madsonian Museum (its name suggesting the Smithsonian of the Mad River Valley) to house his idiosyncratic collection of midcentury Eames and Saarinen chairs, along with all manner of household objects: irons, mangles, washers, children's toys, kitchen implements, and light fixtures. Parked in the center of the floor are a motorcycle and a rare, pristine navy blue DeSoto Airflow, which Sellers drove to Canada to buy from a guy who turned out to be Dan Aykroyd's father. The museum is housed in an old farmhouse Sellers bought from two elderly sisters, who cared only that he wasn't a ski bum. Stripped back to its early 19th-century bones—layers of wallpaper peeling in the upstairs closets, wide plank flooring underfoot—the museum's shell, as much as its contents, is a celebration of the kind of anonymous, impeccable craftsmanship that it takes an eye as sharp as Sellers's to appreciate.
The "mountain" and "ski" rooms at the Sellers-designed Pitcher Inn.
But the museum itself isn't the miracle—it's what's in the bank. A few years ago, a pair of wealthy San Francisco investors approached Sellers with the idea of building a "House of the Future." After a few meetings, he realized that their ambitions were far too big—"I said, guys, we're not going to try to provide housing for everyone on the planet." His modest proposal of a single experimental house didn't appeal, and the project seemed dead, until he got a call from his bank about a mysterious wire deposit. Although the Silicon Valley dreamers had decided to move on, they'd left a tax-deductible donation to the nonprofit museum, of a half million dollars—his own private genius grant. Which, to a creative thinker like Sellers, represents far more than money: it means freedom to do as he likes. "It's infinitely recycling funding for experimental designs," he says: He can build what he wants, sell the result, and replenish the money, over and over again. "I don't have to say, what do you think about a marble door? Because nobody approves anything except me."
The Archie Bunker is the first manifestation of the miracle, the result of saying "screw it, I want to go back and do exactly what we did at the beginning—experiment with it, evolve the design as I'm making it." The concrete is part of that experiment, a gospel he's been spreading in his Yestermorrow class, "The Joy of Concrete." "The liquid comes in a big bucket, and you dump it in the mold, next day: stone. It's just amazing," he says. "It'll last for thousands of years, and you can make it into any shape you want." The huge brick fireplaces at the Pitcher Inn had been built with the help of curved plywood molds, which Sellers brought up to his workshop instead of discarding. He and the students poured concrete on the curves to create a series of arches, then a small pavilion—and eventually, this surprisingly warm and enveloping house.
The Archie Bunker, outside and in.
A short drive away from the Archie Bunker, the next phase of the concrete experiment is well underway. On the way up to the new site, we pass the Tack House, one of Sellers's creations from the early days of Prickly Mountain, a blocky but still elegant pile of curves, angles, and sloping metal, weathered to mottled grey and rust-pink streaks, with a vintage gas pump standing outside as the architect's quirky physical signature. The work-in-progress house might be quite different in its materials and aims, but there are elements that connect the buildings: that love of swooping arches, for one, and the way the building is designed to maximize the pleasures of the mountain views.
At the work-in-progress house (nickname yet to be determined), Sellers introduced a few members of his team—they included a Harvard junior on his summer break, an industrial designer who'd spent several months biking across the country before dropping off his business card at the Madsonian Museum, and his senior partner Scott Baker, who's been working with Sellers since 1999 and described himself as "the yin to his yang—and he's got a lot of yang."
Sellers's in-progress building.
The bones of the building soar cathedral-high like the ribcage of a giant whale, canopied with clear tarps. Up a set of wooden steps Sellers points out the space where a living jungle will be built into the structure of the house, under its thickly insulated roof, making it possible to step out of the bedroom and pluck a banana right from the tree as you admire the view from your balcony. The house will be a little bigger than the Archie Bunker, but still a modest 2,000 square feet. And it will go even further than the prototype in being totally energy neutral, selling energy to the grid in the summer and buying it back in the winter, leaving zero fuel costs even in the Vermont mountain snows.
Several of the wacky ideas that have defined David Seller's half-century in the architectural vanguard now strike us as pure common sense: sustainability, community, design that respects and celebrates its immediate surroundings. But there's an even simpler principle underlying the Prickly Mountain experiment, which might be what's helped to sustain it all these years. "If you're not having fun doing it, you shouldn't really be doing it at all," Sellers says with a shrug. "You should be doing something else."
Editor: Sara Polsky
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