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West Chester artisans replicate Thoreau's cabin

Is a tree house still a tree house if it's not up in a tree? Such is the profound philosophical question provoked by Henry David Thoreau's house at the Tyler Arboretum.

Carpenters from Pine Street Carpenters of West Chester build a replica of Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin at Tyler Arboretum in Media. (Barbara L. Johnston / Inquirer)
Carpenters from Pine Street Carpenters of West Chester build a replica of Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin at Tyler Arboretum in Media. (Barbara L. Johnston / Inquirer)Read more

Is a tree house still a tree house if it's not up in a tree?

Such is the profound philosophical question provoked by Henry David Thoreau's house at the Tyler Arboretum.

It's not really Thoreau's house, of course, but a replica of the famous cabin in which Thoreau lived for more than two years on a slope overlooking Walden Pond.

The cabin is one of 17 "Totally Terrific Treehouses" designed and built by local artisans that will be on display at the arboretum starting today and continuing until the end of September. While several of the tree houses are perched aloft, Thoreau's cabin rests firmly on the ground. Surrounded by hickory trees, it is situated, appropriately, next to a pond.

"While not a traditional tree house, it captures the essence of what many of us long for in a tree house - a countercultural sanctuary that provides an intense experience in nature," says Brendan Dolan, president of Pine Street Carpenters, the West Chester remodeling firm that built the cabin.

"It ties in with the tree-house theme in a grand way," says his brother Mike, who handles marketing for the family company. "It's a metaphorical tree house, a symbol of Thoreau's effort to help us appreciate not only the beauty of trees but the splendor of nature in general."

Thoreau's actual cabin was dismantled long ago, but a replica stands at the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Mass. The pond and the cabin have become a shrine for those who, in Mike Dolan's words, realize the importance of "stepping out of your routine, shifting your perspective, and realizing what life is really about."

"The exhibition is about connecting people to trees and our natural world," says Rick Colbert, the arboretum's executive director. "And what better way to do that than to have visitors experience a cabin like the one where Thoreau chronicled his life in the woods?"

On a gorgeous day recently, a five-person crew was at the arboretum assembling the post-and-beam frame of the structure. The cabin at Tyler is a replica of a replica, and the carpenters were following the detailed plans sketched by Roland Robbins, the amateur archaeologist who discovered the actual site of Thoreau's cabin in 1945.

Instead of the white pine Thoreau used, the crew was framing the skeleton with 6-by-6-foot cedar timber from a mill in Maine. The remaining lumber was donated by Beatty Lumber in Upper Darby.

The roof and exterior of the cabin are clad in cedar shingles, and the interior is finished with authentic horsehair plaster. Opposite the door is a fireplace, and a brick chimney rises above the gable. A dozen companies donating time, materials or money. Total cost of the project: about $30,000.

Unlike Thoreau, the crew from Pine Street Carpenters was using power tools.

"It makes you appreciate what he did by hand with chisels," said Steve Kopec, 31, one of the carpenters. "The guy was a writer, and yet he knew how to build a cabin like this. It's pretty amazing."

Thoreau was 27 when he built his cabin. He went to the woods because he wished to live "so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life." He also wanted some peace and quiet so he could write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a narrative of a boat trip. He lived by the pond for two years, two months and two days, and later chronicled the experience in his classic, Walden.

Thoreau began felling and hewing pine trees for his cabin in March 1845. By April, he had completed the framing. In May, the frame was raised. By the time he moved in, on the Fourth of July, the cabin was sheathed with boards salvaged from a railroad shanty. Before winter, he had sided and roofed his house with sappy first-cut pine shingles, built a fireplace and chimney, and plastered the interior walls, more for insulation than aesthetics.

Thoreau kept a detailed record of his expenses. His total material costs: $28.121/2. The shingles cost four dollars, as did a thousand old bricks. Nails were $3.90.

Needless to say, Thoreau's simple cabin was simply furnished. It contained a bed, a desk, a table and three chairs - "one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

Thoreau never intended to live in his cabin permanently. In September 1847, he completed his experiment in simplicity and became "a sojourner in civilized life again." He sold the cabin to his friend and patron, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on whose woodlot he had erected it. Emerson, in turn, leased it to his gardener.

Two years later, two farmers bought it and moved it to the other side of Concord, where they used it to store grain. In 1868, they dismantled it. Some of the wood was reincarnated as a pigsty, some incorporated into a barn.

When Pine Street Carpenters was invited by the arboretum to participate in the Totally Terrific Treehouses exhibition, the Dolan brothers (there are seven altogether, six of whom work for the company) saw a chance to express their respect for Thoreau, who is regarded by many as the father of the environmental movement.

Mike Dolan, 32, became aware of the sage of Walden Pond when he was a sophomore at Monsignor Bonner High School and took an American literature course taught by no less an authority than his older brother Bill. Says Mike: "I fell in love with the Transcendental Movement." In his senior year at Villanova, where he majored in English, Mike studied the Concord writers and read Walden carefully. He was impressed by Thoreau's call for a life of simplicity and his steadfast practice of civil disobedience in the face of social injustice.

"Today, everybody is about being green and environmentally conscious," Mike Dolan says. "But as much as Thoreau celebrated nature, he also advocated simplicity. He spent two years in a 10-by-15-foot cabin with a door and two windows, a bed, a desk and three chairs."

Dolan hopes that those who visit the cabin will not only admire the craftsmanship but also learn a lesson: "The green movement is all well and good," he says, "but we still have too much stuff."