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Sat December 15, 2012

No Orcs Allowed: Hobbit House Brings Middle Earth To Pa.

Originally published on Sun December 16, 2012 11:43 am

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.

Copyright 2012 WHYY, Inc.. To see more, visit http://www.whyy.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The long-awaited prequel to the Lord of the Rings films is finally in movie theaters. Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is based on the J.R.R. Tolkien classic about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. But Peter Crimmins, of member station WHYY, reports the Hobbit might be a lot closer than Middle Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: This could be one of the misty forests of Middle Earth the way thick fog swirls around the trunks of knotty trees. Actually, this is rural Chester County, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

PETER ARCHER: This farmland's from the 18th century.

CRIMMINS: That's architect Peter Archer walking around a tiny picture book stone cottage with only 600 square feet. He designed it at the request of Vince Donovan, a lifelong fan of "The Lord of the Rings." But the architect is not.

ARCHER: Like, I hadn't even read the book. But we, as we were doing this, went through a lot of the illustrations that Tolkien had prepared, just for inspiration.

CRIMMINS: So, the cottage is set into a hill behind an old stone wall. The roof is shaped in whimsical curves covered with clay tile. The showpiece is a distinctive round door, hobbit-sized, pivoting on a single, wrought-iron hinge. But the cottage is not completely up to hobbit code.

ARCHER: It's not an underground structure by any stretch of the imagination, but it is built into the grade. It was like, OK, 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; find the craftsmen and let the craftsmen use their skills.

CRIMMINS: Very small door, isn't it?

ARCHER: There is a man door, as required by code.

CRIMMINS: That would be man code. The cottage was made to house owner Vince Donovan's collection amassed over 40 years of all things hobbit - pipes, swords, hundreds of figurines and books, lots of Tolkien novels, from dime-store paperback editions to gilt-edged box sets. It's cozy, it's quirky and it's completely handmade. The walls were set by a stonemason who collected rocks from the 12-acre site. 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 door, made from 200 pounds of mahogany was made by Matt Harris, a blacksmith from Maryland. He is a big fan of "The Hobbit."

MATT HARRIS: This project was a lot of fun. 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.

CRIMMINS: Architect Peter Archer says the craftsmen went beyond what they were paid to do.

ARCHER: Everyone got it. 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.

CRIMMINS: The house can be fanciful because it doesn't have to be practical. The $150,000 cottage has no bathroom, no kitchen, no bedroom, no plumbing. The only thing to do in here is imagine. Like Bilbo Baggins, the house is quiet and modest; and is its owner, who declined to be interviewed for this story. But he'll 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.

ARCHER: 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.

CRIMMINS: There are other hobbit houses in the world, some built more faithfully to J.R.R. Tolkien's description, but few were made for the sole purpose of sitting comfortably and thinking about great adventures, like a hobbit should. For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.