Picture it: a triangular wall of windows and a sleeping loft; sliding glass doors out to a terrace; deck chairs, a barbecue grill, a picnic table, a dinner bell to call you in from the forest, the lake, or the beach.
With a braided rug on the floor and heart-shaped cutouts on the balcony balustrade, the house is all ready for a Sunset magazine close-up—until your child folds that terrace up, trapping the Play Family inside, lifting his Fisher-Price A-frame up by its convenient carrying handle. Getting home from vacation was never so easy.
This A-frame dollhouse looms large in the imagination of children of the 1970s. Manufactured only from 1974 to 1976, the house, described in the catalog as a “ski-chalet,” was the company’s first set to include bunk beds and a picnic table, the furniture avatars of a leisurely lifestyle, as well as one of the first to be entirely made of plastic, lightweight and low maintenance.
From its accessories to its portability, the toy A-frame closely resembles its full-size inspiration, a house that continues to serve as a symbol of an era when leisure—and second homes—was available to a much larger swath of the American population.
Though I’ve snooped A-frames from Mount Hood to Fire Island, the Fisher-Price is the only one I’ve ever owned: once in the 1970s, and again today, when I re-bought it as a gift for my daughter. The contemporary flat-roofed modern dollhouses all seemed too precious and expensive, while the humble A-frame had already stood the test of time.
The A-frame, both doll- and human-sized, is back, and for all the same reasons that made it a phenomenon in the first place. Pattern books from the 1960s abound on Ebay, while Gibbs Smith is publishing a photo-driven book called The Modern A-Frame next spring. Instagram, on which everything photogenic becomes new again, served me mutiple A-frame vacations this summer, as did T Magazine’s feature on minimal vacation homes. These houses fall right into the overlap between fans of the popular—and earnest—Cabin Porn Tumblr and those whose homes might end up on the snarkier Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table Tumblr.
In his definitive 2004 book on the A-frame, architectural historian Chad Randl writes that the popularity of these houses coincided with the era of “second everything.” Second TVs, second bathrooms, second cars, and, eventually, second homes. Between 1955 and 1965, the wage for the average worker rose 50 percent. Construction of new highways, including Interstate 70 into the Rockies and Interstate 80 from San Francisco to Reno, as well as the creation of new dams, lakes, and reservoirs across the country, opened up the wilderness as a weekend destination.
The Tennessee Valley Authority created more than 10,000 miles of new shoreline between 1933 and 1968, with room for at least 12,000 vacation homes; the Bureau of Land Management created 200 reservoirs between 1946 and 1968, primarily in the western states. “Every family needs two homes!” read one ad, “one for the work week, one for pure pleasure.”
The A-frame, in its purest sense, is a house shaped like an equilateral triangle. Its distinctive peak is formed by rafters or trusses that are joined at the top and bolted to plates or floor joists down below. The roof covers the rafters and goes all the way to the ground. The cross-piece of the A is created by horizontal collar beams, intended to stabilize the structure, which typically support a sleeping loft.
And that’s it: A-frames meet the earth on rubble or cinderblock walls, concrete or wood columns, but their essential nature is to float slightly above their environment, a viewing platform for an expanse of nature. Instagrammers who emphasize the angles of the A against whispering pines or blue sky, from inside or out, are rewarded with a lot of likes a la @cabinlove.
A-frames did exist before the 1950s. Randl finds evidence for pitch-roofed structures in China, where they covered pit dwellings, and in traditional farmhouses on Shirakawa, Japan to Polynesia, where the roofs of such “great houses” were said to resemble the sails of boats. In Switzerland, where actual chalets typically had side walls, the gable roofs tend toward a much wider, flatter slope. The invocation of historic precedent, then, mostly serves as cover. The modernist can install rush matting and low cushions, while the traditionalist can opt for a gingerbread balcony and wood paneling. Coziness, your way.
The shape-shifting nature also eased the path of the A-frame past restrictive covenants. One of the first all-roof vacation homes was designed by Rudolf Schindler in 1934 in Lake Arrowhead, where the homeowners’ association declared all new houses had to be in the “Norman style.”
Schindler’s design, in the tradition of his former employer Frank Lloyd Wright, made much of the triangle. The front of the wood-framed house was all glass, cross-hatched with thin wood mullions. Inside, the plywood walls and rafters were left exposed, while the rubble foundation crept inside as stone. A double-height living room took up the whole front of the house; in the rear was a loft with a bunk room and bedroom. His client, costume designer Gisela Bennati, decorated with Schindler’s own furniture.
That plan, which makes the most of the open space created by the overarching rafters, and stuffs the kitchen, bedrooms, and bathrooms into the dark end of the A, has proven to be surprisingly durable. Owners try to get right-angled rooms under the roof through dormers and shed roofs, doubled-As and dugout basements, but the truth is, it is an awkward form. Staying low, and furnishing minimally, is the best way to take advantage of an abundance of floor and a pittance of wall.
Schindler’s A-frame was a one-off, but other well-known architects tangled with the form. Andrew Geller, known for his box-kite and bow-like postwar vacation homes in the Hamptons, had his first success with an A-frame he designed in 1957 for Betty Reese, George Nelson’s powerhouse PR executive. Reese had a budget of only $5,000, which Geller exceeded by 40 percent. When completed, she made sure her house made it into the New York Times and other magazines, in articles that emphasized the ease of living in her “Playhouse on a Budget.” Her living room may only have been 13 by 22 feet, but with a built-in banquette and a fireplace silhouetted between windows, it looked luxurious. Suddenly Geller had plenty of clients.
The A-frame seems to generate such publicity wherever it appears, and most of those originating during peak popularity, 1950 to 1975, were built architect-free. Pattern books, building kits, and mail-order plans generated by manufacturers of plywood and homasote combined to make the A-frame seem like a short step up from home improvement.
The Douglas Fir Plywood Association paid pediatrician David Hellyer for his personal A-frame plans, giving him free plywood in exchange for documenting his building process and reproducing his plans. After publishing photos of Hellyer’s completed cabin in 1957, the DPFA sold 12,000 copies of the working drawings.
San Francisco firm Campbell & Wong promoted their Leisure House as “your vacation in a kit,” and built a full-scale version indoors for the 1951 San Francisco Arts Festival. The firm initially sold the plans for $25, then created a precut kit with a local construction company. Drawings of the house published in Arts & Architecture in 1951 as “A Small Hill Camp” show two single-story A-frames joined by a trapezoidal deck. The larger is the living-dining space, the small one has bedrooms and a bath. It’s all one could need—no more.
As I looked through plan after plan, I began to see that awkwardness as part of the A-frame’s appeal. Who wants a second home as high-maintenance as the first? Every time I think about wanting a getaway, I remind myself of the lengthy to-do list in the one home we are lucky enough to own. In an A-frame, there are few closets, so it must remain eternally Kondo-ed. In an A-frame, there’s little privacy, so the family has to gather around the fireplace or run around outside. Indoor-outdoor living and informal entertaining were the style of the day in the 1950s, as they are now, and you cannot be any other way in an A-frame. Leisure is part of their very character. The A-frame obviously shares DNA with the tent, but offers just enough comforts of home to the camping-phobic like me.
Los Angeles photographer Bonnie Tsang visited the Yosemite-adjacent A-frames marketed under the Instagram account @far_meadow this summer. Admiring her images, I was curious to know more about their origin. Were they 40-somethings made new? Or was someone making A-frames again? Owner Heinz Legler bought the property a decade ago with Veronique Lievre. The pair runs vacation rental site Boutique Homes and owns the equally alphabet-inspired V-Houses in Yelapa, Mexico.
At an altitude of 7,000 feet and an annual snow load of 10 to 16 feet, the pitched roof and modular construction of the A-frame was a no brainer. “We were able to pre-build the whole structure in the Mojave Desert and ship it,” he says, for rapid assembly on-site. The houses each have a big open room in front and a loft with bedrooms in back, just like the Schindler house. Between construction of the first and the second structures, Legler decided the stairs took up too much room, and switched out a straight run for a spiral. Plan books from the past inspired him to pre-build the structures, and since he’s had them for rent he’s gotten a lot of inquiries about buying his plans: history repeats itself. He built a third A-frame on the site and had it approved by the building department, but he’s not sure he wants to become a professional A-frame promoter.
Last year Canadian architects Scott & Scott built a new A-frame in Whistler, another ski community where 1970s A-frames were thick on the ground. The architects updated the form with a poured-concrete base, a tilted gable, and a thin metal handrail—no gingerbread here—but the overall look, and use, aren’t far from Campbell in the 1950s and Schindler in the 1930s. They, too, receive frequent requests to sell their plans.
“There is this nostalgic idea of going to the cabin and playing board games and everyone being in the same room together,” says David Scott, who owned a Fisher-Price Farm and Jeep in his youth. “Your only task should be lighting a fire,” adds Susan.
“What remains appealing is the simplicity of them, or the perceived simplicity of them,” says Randl, who has gone on to research other high-low designs including revolving restaurants and shag carpeting. “They had an incredible burst of popularity among a certain economic group and, after their cultural moment, became an object of ridicule.” But young families shopping for vacation homes today don’t remember the jokes. They see the same light, angles, and dream of the minimalist vacation their grandparents did. A-frames are like tiny houses without the sustainability lecture.
I talked to Amber Bravo, a creative lead at Google Design who, along with her graphic designer husband Geoff Halber, bought a Catskills A-frame and its contents two years ago, a second home the same size as their Brooklyn rental apartment. The sellers had painted the interior white and put in hardwood floors—previously the house was a 1970s paradise of “wood” paneling and linoleum—and since then, they’ve been slowly subtracting.
“The interesting thing about the A-frame is you become so in love with the form of it, and while you would like to have a better bathroom, you don’t want to disrupt the purity of the line,” she says. “There is one dormer with a picture window that looks out at the woods, so the only thing we can do is enlarge that dormer. We’re unwilling to do anything that would mean you wouldn’t see that triangle anymore.”
The beds for the two small first-floor bedrooms are from Muji, with storage underneath to augment the minimal closets. Though designers have lots of posters, there are hardly any walls to hang them on, so the couple bought a graphic rug. Only now is their 3-year-old son allowed up the steep steps to the house’s loft. “It’s not the kind of place where you can steal away; you are all in.”
These are the other rewards, especially for parents watching their child grow in awareness of the world. “He associates the house with very simple geometry. If he sees a triangle, he says, ‘the cabin.’”