The Valley of the Architects
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Written by Peter Oliver
Over the past half century, a large number of unusually talented architects have settled down to work in the Mad River Valley.
The houses of Prickly Mountain rise from the gentle, wooded hillsides of East Warren like showpieces of abstract-expressionist sculpture. With a kind of crazy-quilt look, they exude a stylistic eccentricity that flies in the face of many architectural norms. Simply put, they are unique. But they are also importantly emblematic of a phenomenon that has emerged in the Mad River Valley over the last half-century: the coming together of an unusually large number of unusually talented architects, who have applied their skills in often unusual ways.
For decades, the Valley has been a landing spot for architects, who are now disproportionately represented in an area with a year-round population of about 5,000. They have settled here for various reasons, not least being the Mad River Valley’s Arcadian beauty. But they have also been drawn by the allure of a vitally creative community, the opportunity for collaboration with like minds on new ideas, and the opportunity to experiment with new design concepts on Vermont’s open canvas.
They have not gathered here because of some singular architectural style or theory associated with the area, like a congregation of worshippers drawn to the same religion. Stylistically and philosophically, Mad River Valley architects are all over the place: experimentalists, traditionalists, historic preservationists, apostles of sustainability and carbon neutrality, and site planners. Sometimes, individually, they are a mix of many of those things at the same time. No unified Mad River Valley school of architectural thought or singular style has coalesced from the influx of architects who have settled here, although the concept of “design-build” has been a pervading theme. More on that later.
In looking for a living progenitor of this clustering of talent, you’d probably turn to Bob Burley, now ninety, who set up shop in the Mad River Valley in 1964. Burley was a classically trained architect, a graduate of the Columbia University School of Architecture and a colleague of Eero Saarinen, one of the godfathers of architectural modernism.
Burley came to the Valley for the reasons that have inspired so many others: he was a skier, and he was awed by the area’s natural beauty (the panoramic view from his home, across the valley of the Sugarbush basin, speaks volumes on that score). Burley says simply, “This was where I wanted to live.” Despite his background in modernism, he came to Vermont “with my own style, very much influenced by Vermont and New England.”
The Pavilion Hotel in Montpelier, which now houses the office of the governor, after a reconstruction overseen by Bob Burley
In fact, a project that he is particularly proud of, the faithful reconstruction of the Pavilion Hotel in Montpelier (now housing state government offices, including the office of the governor), was primarily a work of historic preservation. The former hotel’s mansard roofs and balconies with fluted balusters evoke the architectural stylings of the Victorian era. The Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, also a Burley design, was a somewhat modernized take on traditional alpine-chalet architecture—no Saarinen influences there. Yet he also designed a Waitsfield home on the Mad River that cantilevers from rock ledges over the river and evokes a Frank Lloyd Wright feel. In short, his is an eclectic portfolio not dictated by any rigid sense of style.
Following Burley, the sluice gates opened for the next decade or two. Like the Mad River in flood stage, architects came streaming in: Malcolm Appleton, Dave Sellers, Jim Sanford, Ellen Strauss, Bill Maclay, Mac Rood, John Connell, Jim Edgcomb, Jeff Schoellkopf, and others. Most of them brought impressive credentials from elite design schools like Yale, Penn, and MIT. They came, and most stayed; it has been widely speculated that there are more architects per capita in the Mad River Valley than anywhere else in America.
Their mission wasn’t just to apply their skills and creativity locally; their portfolios include projects both near and far. But there was something about the Valley that made it an irresistible place to practice an artistic profession. As Schoellkopf says, “I was inspired by the creative community of artists, craftspeople, writers, poets, philosophers—so many people doing interesting work.” This was a land of creative soil in which an architect could plant the seeds of an idea and see them germinate, a place to find a creative context to test innovative designs, whether applied locally or elsewhere.
Certainly a seminal moment in the evolution of the Valley’s architectural scene was the arrival of Dave Sellers and others in the late 1960s to launch a revolutionary design-build concept at Prickly Mountain in Warren. Customarily, architects create designs with detailed drawings that they turn over to building contractors to follow precisely. The client signs off on virtually every detail before ground is broken. Little is left to improvisation or chance.
The Bundy Modern gallery, designed by Harlow Carpenter in the early 1960s
Sellers and his original partner, Bill Reinecke, and soon Jim Sanford and others—all newly minted architects just getting their feet wet in the field—decided to tear down any barriers separating the design and construction processes. Their pre-construction models and drawings were malleable imaginings, and once the building was in progress they made design changes on the fly.
Unusual circumstances allowed them to follow through on that approach on the land they bought on Prickly Mountain: they were, in effect, owners, clients, designers, and builders all at the same time. There was no need for client approvals of last-minute design changes, no need to appease contractors disgruntled by having to deviate from original plans. The land—totally undeveloped, a virtual wilderness—was cheap, and local building codes at the time were minimal. Sellers and company could pretty much do what they felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it.
The result was a decidedly different set of structures, including the Tack House and the Dimetrodon, that were a jumbled collision of building materials and shapes. And they were in sharp contrast to an architectural icon of the early ’60s in the Valley—the boxy Bundy Modern gallery, designed by Harlow Carpenter, with its Bauhaus-influenced brick, steel, and glass angularity. At Prickly, wood joined forces with plexiglass and stone; curves and twists mixed with right angles and steep slopes. The design-build process was like the organic growth of a tree; who knew where the next branch might appear, at what angle or of what size?
On the Sellers-designed Tack House, for example, a plexiglass-faced dormer shaped like a quartered ice cream cone protrudes from a steeply sloping roof. The collision of shapes and angles at first seems incongruous, but somehow all of it, the whole as the sum of its parts, works. The Dimetrodon, a group design effort spearheaded by Sanford, looks almost more like an Olympic ski jump, with its six-story tower and long-sloping roofs, than the multi-unit housing structure that it is.
National magazines and television networks took notice, perhaps because design-build appeared to tap into the zeitgeist of the ’60s; here seemed to be an architectural expression of the free-spirited, back-to-nature iconoclasm of the time. But Sellers insists it was not so. “No drugs, no hippies, no back-to-earth guys,” he says adamantly.
Having found in the Valley affordable land and an affordable building process—they were creating structures on $20,000 budgets—they were “architects setting themselves free to try new stuff,” as Sellers puts it. Their approach may have appeared loosey-goosey, but it was done with the professional and artistic integrity you would expect from architects trained at some of the country’s greatest design schools.
Prickly Mountain may have exposed the Mad River Valley to the national architectural scene, but the design-build process didn’t exactly take over as a national or global trend. After all, not many clients are willing to give architects the kind of free rein in design and implementation that Sellers and company were able to give themselves. But Prickly was an important mile marker in the collective efforts of the Valley’s burgeoning architectural community.
Architects arriving in the Valley in the 1970s and ’80s had a rich creative vein to tap into. Drawing largely on the design-build way of thinking, they could explore new ideas in increasingly important areas of sustainability, site planning, and climate resiliency.
“Holistic” could be a word that applies—architecture was, as Edgcomb puts it, “much bigger than just the building.” Pure design aesthetics might play a subordinate role to resource efficiency, carbon neutrality, integration with the surrounding landscape, an emphasis on using local building materials, and other factors.
The design-build concept morphing into a more holistic design approach has essentially been the modus operandi of Yestermorrow, the Mad River Valley’s unique design school. John Connell arrived in the Valley more or less by happenstance to set up a design practice and to found Yestermorrow in 1980. The school, says Connell, “was an idea I came up with in the last minute of architectural school. It was a harebrained scheme.” Harebrained, perhaps, but also unprecedented and innovative.
The original Yestermorrow vision was decidedly design-build inspired, and the school continues to fly its design-build banner proudly, providing a hands-on building education for designers. Put another way, Connell says, the idea was and is to make designers comfortable with “putting on a tool belt.”
But Yestermorrow over the years has become much more than that. More or less a garage project in its infancy, the school has gradually expanded to its current campus on Route 100 between Warren and Waitsfield, with a curriculum that includes courses on energy efficiency, sustainability, “green” and net-zero planning, and designs with the resiliency to withstand the structural challenges brought on by climate change. As Edgcomb, an instructor at Yestermorrow since the early days, puts it, “It’s now more like a university program.”
The Dimetrodon, on Prickly Mountain (Photo: Jesse Lenz)
While Connell is no longer actively involved in the management of Yestermorrow, he remains closely linked. He continues to teach an online course in affordable prefab green design, a passion of his embodied in one of his companies, 2Morrow Studio, a natural outgrowth of Yestermorrow.
Edgcomb and Schoellkopf, both with strong Yestermorrow connections, brought a holistic approach to the design of the recent Rice Brook and Gadd Brook projects at Sugarbush. One theme that has guided their local design work, as it has guided the designs of many other Valley architects, is an appreciation for Vermont traditions. Call it “Vermont vernacular”—clapboard farmhouses, red barns, a farm-and-forest landscape.
“We are master planners, not just architects,” Schoellkopf says proudly, explaining a complete site design they composed for Sugarbush that is intended ultimately to include six buildings and the surrounding open spaces. (The dovetailing of architectural design with site planning is also in evidence in Edgcomb’s and Schoellkopf’s extensive work for the town of Lake Placid, New York, including its conference center, and for the Green Mountain Club, based in Waterbury.)
The idea was “to design buildings that are rooted in their place but aren’t retro,” says Schoellkopf. “We didn’t want a period piece.” The exterior might exude Vermont vernacular traditions, with pitched roofs, clapboard siding, and lots of stone, but the interior, according to Schoellkopf, was designed to be “very contemporary, with airy, light social spaces.” That was a divergence from centuries-old Vermont buildings, with their segmented interior spaces and smaller windows.
Despite the seeming overflow of architects in the Mad River Valley, a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect has generally trumped competition. These architects all know each other and have, at one time or another, worked on projects together, from Prickly Mountain to Yestermorrow to Sugarbush.
Perhaps no structure in the Valley embodies that collaborative spirit more than the Pitcher Inn, rebuilt in 1997 after a fire destroyed the original. The building design, with a Vermont vernacular exterior, was the shared effort of Sellers and Rood—commissioned by Win and Maggie Smith—and the unusual approach to the inn’s interior design took collaboration a step farther. Eight designers (Connell, Sellers, Rood, Sanford, Duncan Syme, Courtney Fisher, Anne Schaller, and Art Schaller) were contracted, each given considerable latitude in the design of the inn’s eleven rooms and suites.
Each room, with its murals, wainscoting, wall hangings, furniture, lighting, and other accouterments, has its own theme. The Ski Room, the Trout Room, the Calvin Coolidge Room, and so on—no two alike, all guided in large part by the designers’ whimsy, brought to life in such throwback decor as wood-and-sinew snowshoes and memorabilia from the 10th Mountain Division in the Mountain Room and old ski racks and hurricane lamps in the Ski Room. Indeed, the results of this shared effort are the Pitcher Inn’s principal calling card, setting it apart from the many other inns of Vermont.
The design-build ethos continues to touch the work of the next generation of architects who have made the Mad River Valley their base camp. Karyn Scherer, believing that her college design courses in the 1990s were deficient in teaching the nuts and bolts of building, first came to take design-build courses at Yestermorrow, returned after graduation as a Yestermorrow intern, and then worked for Schoellkopf, Sellers, Appleton, and Maclay before opening her own firm.
While she has not pursued the kind of experimental, improvisational work that characterized the early design-build movement, she says that her knowledge of the rudiments of building “definitely influences the way I think about design.” She adds, “It’s easier to work with builders when they know I have a sense of how to put things together.”
The Ski Room in the Pitcher Inn
There are other aspects of her career that she and her generation share with their architectural forebears in the Valley. She skipped the large urban design companies and moved directly from college design school to a rural environment. (“Some of that is balking at authority,” she says.) And she settled in the Valley not necessarily because of the career opportunities it offered but “because I fell in love with the area. It is the lifestyle that has kept me here.”
From Bob Burley, and even Harlow Carpenter before him, to next-gen designers like Scherer, the Valley has proven to be a hard habit to kick. The many architects of the Mad River Valley could be successfully practicing their profession elsewhere, but instead they have chosen to stay. They have gained something from this Arcadian place. And because of that—because of their evident creativity embodied in buildings throughout the Valley—the community has gained something too.