Fit for a Hobbit

Cottages & Bungalows

Debra Prinzing

01 February 2009

In 1937, a Britist author named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a children's story about the fantasy world of a three-foot-six-inch tall hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. The Hobbit tells of Bilbo’s adventures as he journeys through Middle-earth with a band of 13 dwarves and one wizard on a quest to discover and protect a magical ring. A perennial favorite with youngsters and grownups alike, Tolkien’s epic begins in a faraway land called The Shire, the description of which resembles a rustic hamlet in the English countryside. Bilbo resides in a luxurious hobbit hole called Bag End, a storybook abode complete with a round, hobbit-sized door. The story of Bilbo the hobbit might easily be dismissed as the stuff of legend and lore but for the vivid imagination of one Tolkien devotee, his creative architect and a cadre of talented artisans. For while most of us would read The Hobbit and picture Bag End in our mind’s eye (or more recently, rent DVDs of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and see the filmmakers’ depiction), a passionate Tolkien follower living in Pennsylvania turned fantasy into reality in his own backyard.

Designed by Peter Archer of Archer & Buchanan of West Chester, Pennsylvania, the 600 sf stone cottage evokes mystery, magic and flights of the imagination. Its owner, an avid collector of Tolkien memorabilia, fancied a cottagelike hideaway to house his assortment of manuscripts, early editions, original drawings, figures and other Lord of the Rings artifacts. He calls it the Hobbit House. “He called and said, ‘I’d really like to create a separate building where I can keep and display these items, to be in solitude and be contemplative about them,’” Archer says. In essence, he wanted a private museum. Constructed of native Pennsylvania stone, including rocks reused from portions of 18th century fieldstone walls, the diminutive cottage has a timeless, otherworldly quality. If you’ve read any of Tolkien’s tales, you can easily picture Mr. Bilbo Baggins throwing open this circular wooden door and stepping out for a stroll.

Reading the Landscape

During the eight-month design process, Archer and his client evaluated the site, making careful decisions about the structure’s architectural proportions, use of materials and craftsmanship. In the end, Archer says, the Hobbit House pays homage to the fantasy world of hobbits and their comrades, but there is nothing theatrical about it. “I designed it based on the writings and concepts that we interpreted from Tolkien, but we didn’t want to make it look like something out of Hollywood,” he says.

In selecting a gently contoured patch of historic Pennsylvania farmland now encircled by deciduous forest, Archer and his client took advantage of the site’s most evocative feature: a fieldstone wall dating to the 1700s. “The stone wall runs downhill and disappears into the woods,” the architect says. “Knowing that it was the original farm wall and having the idea of building into the hillside allowed us to make the structure look like it has been here forever.” The sloping terrain embraces the finished building, lending to the setting a sense of protection. “It was sited out of necessity because of the lay of the land; we feel a sense of history—of the house belonging to the earth,” he says.

This building’s front façade and adjacent terraces are built into sections of the dry-laid stonework. As the land descends, so does the structure’s slanted shed roof, which nearly touches the ground along the south side (the eave of the roof is merely 42 inches above ground, giving the sense that Hobbit House is growing out of the soil).

The primary entrance is a round Spanish cedar door, which measures four feet in diameter and three inches thick. It opens on a single pivot hinge. A symmetrical wood roof extends overhead, supported by corbel brackets mounted on stone walls. To the left of the door, a trio of diamond-paned casement windows is set into a curved stone arch. Clay roofing tiles, cut and mounted into a sliver pattern, fill the space above the windows. This Old World detail appears elsewhere, including the perimeter of the round door. 

Grand Gesture, Small Scale

Each feature of Hobbit House was designed to delight the eye and honor age-old crafts of masonry, ironworking and carpentry. Archer drew from memories of living in England for two years and touring its rural villages dotted with charming cottages. He borrowed elements of Storybook-style architecture to design the amiable windows, fanciful curved rooflines and interior accents, including a massive stucco fireplace that dominates the main reception area.

Indoors, the central room and library together measure 14 by 28 feet. Timber framing and beams, arches, rafters and trusses of Douglas fir lend a cathedral-like presence to the space. “It’s teeny, but it’s a wonderful size for one person,” Archer says. The smooth stucco fireplace is embellished with random shards of roofing tiles, fashioned to suggest that an unskilled farmer had built it from materials that were on hand. “There is an undulation to the stucco trowelwork that looks as if it had been done over a very rough wall with tools of yesteryear,” he explains. “There is naïve logic to the design.”

The simple fireplace mantel, mounted like a shelf on stone corbels, is made from flat, local fieldstone; a larger flagstone forms the organic hearth and fits snugly into the semi-distressed white-pine flooring. Restored 1920s Gothic-style lighting lends character to the space. Nearby, an arched opening leads to the intimate library where scholarly endeavors are fostered. Built-in bookcases and a desk furnish the space. 

A short flight of five steps leads to a sunken gallery/reading room. Used for reading and contemplation, the 8- by 14-foot space is dominated by a fanciful mahogany window. The round center window measures about four feet in diameter; Art Nouveau inspired side panels span the niche above a cozy bench. The owner calls this artful piece “the butterfly window.” When the two halfcircle panes open outward from the center hinges, they resemble the wings of a butterfly. Hand-forged iron strap-hinges and latches embellish the detailed design.

 Archer praises the craftsmanship of each artisan who helped to create Hobbit House. “Everyone who worked on this project loved working on it,” he says. “From the timber framers and stone masons to the ironworkers and general contractor, everyone gave it their heart and soul.” It’s a home worthy of a famous hobbit who would rather be left alone to light his pipe and sit by the fireside to while away the hours - until the next adventure begins. There’s a little bit of Bilbo in all of us, and this magical Hobbit House will transport you to Bag End, even if only in your imagination.

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