Saturday, December 15, 2012
In rural Chester County, Pa., about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, thick fog swirls around the trunks of knotty trees. This piece of 18th-century farmland could, by all outward appearances, be one of the misty forests of Middle Earth, the setting of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fantasy novels.
The Hobbit, a prequel book with a new film adaptation, follows the adventures of hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who lives in an underground home with round doors and windows.
Here in Chester County, at the request of lifelong Tolkien fan Vince Donovan, architect Peter Archer has designed just such a structure -- a tiny stone cottage of Hobbit proportions.
"I hadn't even read the book," says Archer. "But ... as we were doing this, [we] went through a lot of the illustrations that Tolkien had prepared, just for inspiration."
The result is a building of only 600 square feet, set into a hill behind an old stone wall. The roof is shaped in whimsical curves and covered with clay tile. The showpiece is a distinctive, round, hobbit-sized door that pivots on a single, wrought-iron hinge.
Of course, this little dwelling is not completely up to hobbit code.
"It's not an underground structure by any stretch of the imagination, but it is built into the grade," Archer says. "We'll do a round door, but other than that, I didn't want to be cartoonish in any way. I wanted to make something that's very handmade, a combination of stone, timber; [to] try to find the craftsmen and let the craftsmen use their skills."
Archer also made sure to include a man door in his construction, as required by code -- man code, that is.
Crafting 'The Hobbit' In Real Life
The cottage was made to house owner Donovan's collection of all things hobbit, amassed over 40 years. There are pipes, swords, hundreds of figurines and lots of Tolkien novels, from dime-store paperback editions to gilt-edged box sets. It's cozy, quirky and completely handmade.
The walls were set by a stonemason who used rocks from the 12-acre site where the cottage stands. The timber arches supporting the roof were steamed and bent into a half-circle, then put into place with wooden pegs.
And the massive iron hinge that supports the round, 200-pound mahogany door was crafted by Matt Harris, a blacksmith from Maryland.
"This project was a lot of fun," Harris says. "Normally, you know, I'm contacted to build things like gates and railings for residents that are normal, if you will. This work was a little bit more fanciful, kind of childlike, in keeping with the books and movies."
According to Archer, the craftsmen went beyond what they were paid to do.
"Everyone got it," he says. "They were asking questions: 'Well, can we do this? Can we step it up to this level?' A lot of these things they were doing without asking for money to do it. It was amazing how they put their efforts into this project."
Made For A Hobbit
Of course, the house can be fanciful because it doesn't have to be practical. The $150,000 cottage has no bathroom, no kitchen, no bedroom and no plumbing. The only thing to do in here is imagine.
Like Bilbo Baggins, the house is quiet and modest; and so is its owner, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Donovan will soon have some competition for attention. Archer is now working on a similar building for another client, but instead of 600 square feet, it's going to be 5,000 square feet.
"Someone had seen this and wanted to build a proper house, and it's under construction in Tasmania, the other side of the world, as we speak," Archer says.
There are other hobbit houses in the world, built more faithfully to Tolkien's description, but few are made for the sole purpose of sitting comfortably and thinking about great adventures, just like a hobbit should.
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