Two Decades in the Making, Stowe's Tree House Combines "Craziness" and Craft | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Arts News

Two Decades in the Making, Stowe's Tree House Combines "Craziness" and Craft

State of the Arts


Published September 21, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.

Home tours always provide fun glimpses of others’ dwellings, but one of the four houses on this year’s Stowe Home Tour offers an adventure. Visitors enter it through a gated tunnel with inground lighting. The tunnel passes under a land bridge that connects a steep rear slope to the second floor. Emerging into a courtyard, newcomers are confronted with an inexplicable sight: two piles of oversize rocks — one made of rounded boulders, the other of irregular granite blocks — rising through the house’s cedar-shingle roof.

And that’s just the start. The interior of the Tree House, as locals have dubbed the abode, contains 46 trees. Many are whole, stripped of leaves and bark but with root flares and branching tops preserved. A three-story circular staircase wraps around one giant maple harvested from the property, which was still doggedly sprouting leaves a couple years after installation.

More trees span the height of the open first floor’s cathedral ceiling. The twin piles of rock (hiding chimneys) begin here and taper up two stories before puncturing the roof. The boulder tower’s base divides into a rough tripod, anchored by two 18-ton specimens and harboring a large, open gas fire. The whole assembly rests on a reflecting pool irregularly edged by the flagstone floor.

Designer-architect Geoffrey Wolcott, 53, says he located the boulders where they had been “pushed to the edges of local farmers’ fields,” and he “spent weeks in the forest near Morrisville and on site” searching for the perfect trees. No reason to doubt his account; fit and pushing six and a half feet, the DIYer is entirely self-taught.

Wolcott began the project 20 years ago for owners Carla and Steve Sobechko; it was only his third house, and every step was a “trial by fire,” he says. The Sobechkos, a New Jersey couple who still run a large flea market back home and wanted to take the process slowly, must have learned a lot, too.

“With very little exception, it was me proposing crazy ideas to them,” Wolcott admits. “I would plant the seeds. Often, there was a lot of resistance, but eventually they would warm up to the idea. But I’m guilty of most of the craziness.”

Wolcott melds his “craziness” with the kind of sleek minimalism favored by the tastemakers at Architectural Record, architects’ go-to industry mag. The unexpected combination somehow works — probably because Wolcott’s ideas had so much time to develop. Construction was actually completed 12 years ago, and the owners began staying there, but, reluctant to let go of the details, Wolcott has been developing the landscaping and other refinements ever since.

When the upstate New Yorker began the project, he drew his main inspiration from the Adirondack great camps. That 19th-century, grand-rustic style informs the exterior, with its eyebrow dormers and sweeping front decks overlooking a valley-to-peak view of Mount Mansfield.

Over time, though, the designer’s aesthetic evolved to include an appreciation of a clean and spare look. Ingenious built-ins hide the owners’ belongings, and industrial-grade kitchen appliances fit in easily with a four-bay soapstone sink from a previous century installed atop a custom 60-bottle wine rack. Radiant-heat floors enhance the uncluttered feel.

Wolcott's firm, GKW Working Design, even designed much of the furniture, echoing other detail-obsessed architects such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. The 12-seat dining table is a zinc-wrapped box with corner cutouts to show off quarter-sawn walnut legs. Wolcott relied on Morrisville artisans to fabricate his designs. But he and Working Design senior designer John Springer — who partnered with Wolcott for 10 years on nearly every facet of the project — generated most of the 380-odd pages of hand-penned, meticulously detailed architectural plans.*

Wolcott admits his firm has no website and only recently moved over to CAD, the computer-based graphics programs used by most architects. The results of the switch are mixed, he opines: “A lot is lost” when hand drawing is eliminated.

Visitors wandering from one delightfully comfortable living space to the next will eventually grasp that the Tree House is vast. Six thousand square feet, in fact, with four bedrooms, a three-car garage and a basement level outfitted with a semicircular bar, a pool table and something like a group shower room. The scale dates the house, says Wolcott.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable executing projects of this sort today,” he says. If a client were to approach him for a similar home, he says, “you’d just try to compel them” to consider something more environmentally responsible. In fact, Wolcott adds frankly, “The whole building and construction industry is the least green thing out there.”

Wolcott’s more recent private-residence projects are greener. In 2000, he completed a 2200-square-foot, highly insulated Westford house that is built on a partially salvaged foundation and uses south- and east-facing windows to maximize natural heat and light.

The Tree House may seem extravagant in comparison, but now that it’s completed — as much as it ever will be, that is — it’s a wonder to behold.

*The online version of this article has been corrected.