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Prickly Mountain

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1965–1971, David Sellers and others. The Loop, 0.75 miles south of Fuller Hill Rd on Prickly Mountain Rd.

The cluster of tall, angular wooden houses on wooded Prickly Mountain is a significant manifestation of the improvisational, design/build spirit of the 1960s. In 1965, recent Yale graduate David Sellers determined to become a hands-on architect rather than a drawing board theorist. Attracted to Washington County by cheap land and an absence of building codes, he acquired more than four hundred acres of wooded land in East Warren. After arranging credit with a local lumberyard, Sellers teamed with fellow Yale graduates William Reinecke, Louis Mackall, and Jonathan Hall to create a speculative community of “wacky vacation homes” originally intended “for New Yorkers eager for a change from the city.” The diagonally sheathed Tack House (1965), a collaboration with Reinecke, has a gabled roof that breaks upward at one corner into a tall pyramidal crow's nest sleeping loft. It served as office, drafting room, and dwelling. Its angled improvisational forms and use of found materials caught the attention of the national press, and the publicity attracted other experimental young designers to Warren, turning Prickly Mountain into some thing of an architectural retreat. Exemplary is the Dimetrodon project (1971; Dimetro Road, off Prickly Mountain Road) conceived by three students from the University of Pennsylvania (James Sanford, Richard Travers, and William Maclay) as a sustainable condominium megastructure. Its angular frame of plywood box trusses establishes sixteen-foot bays that individual owners could build out as personal spaces, all serviced by a cooperatively maintained energy system utilizing a catenary-arched woodstove, windmills, and solar collection. Working from a model, but without working drawings, and utilizing found materials, the designers learned as they built, producing five units and a rental tower that, with the arrival of resident families, effectively became the first co-housing community in the United States.

The Tack House, which burned and was rebuilt as Sellers's residence in 1970, has evolved so completely that its famous profile is today almost unrecognizable. Sellers's much-reviewed (for example, Progressive Architecture in May 1966) Bridge House (1966), a tower-like structure entered from the hillside via an eighty-foot wooden bridge, was also destroyed by fire. However, more than a dozen sculptural wood- and slate-sheathed structures remain, with some gradually rebuilt into more permanent homes.

The impact of Prickly Mountain extended well beyond the limits of the original development as Sellers went on to found a short-lived design/build program at Goddard College (WA13), and to teach at Yale, MIT, and the University of Washington at Seattle. From his base in Warren, he has pursued a career of continual innovation, as well as dedication to anti-sprawl, smart growth, and regional craftsmanship. Sellers's Yale associate John Connell founded the nearby Yestermorrow Design/Build School, which offers hands-on experience to building professionals and amateurs alike. The original residents of the Dimetrodon still live within a mile of their creation, and some 15 architects practice in the 600-person town of Warren. Other residents of Prickly Mountain have developed successful enterprises in cast-iron stoves, wind power, computer electronics, high-design recreational equipment, and instant water heating. Architecture and ideas rooted in the 1960s fed a valley culture of innovation, self-sufficiency, and sophistication that has come to be embraced as a part of Vermont's contemporary identity.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson
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Citation

Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson, "Prickly Mountain", [Warren, Vermont], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/VT-01-WA51.

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of Vermont

Buildings of Vermont, Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013, 321-322.

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