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The Prickly Moment: New England, ’60’s Counterculture & Architecture

July 19, 2015

for my book, “A Home Called New England” I wrote this:

More than any other part of America, New England manifests history. History can be dead, focused only on what has been, and gone – or history can be a legacy, inspiring the present, and thus the future.

In terms of building it could be said that Vermont may have the most pungently distilled legacy in New England: in the past it had virtually no building code for building private homes: the logic was that you had the right to endanger your own life. Freedom as a cultural imperative has a special meaning in New England as the flash points of the Revolution and its firebrands found support in the region.

The idea that action and the freedom it reflects means more than words is not unique to New England. But in 1960’s America had its safe post World War II respite broken by Baby Boomers demanding the freedom not to de drafted, to love who and when they wished, to wear hair and clothing that defied conventional aesthetics. Naturally the architecture students of the day wanted their buildings to reflect their hairstyles.

Inspired by the mockery of the Dean of the Yale architecture school by a foreman on a jobsite, one of his students, Dave Sellers, vowed never to be an ivory tower designer who was clueless how to actually build what he designed. It was 1964, at the advent of the “WHY NOT?!” ethos, and Sellers set about to find a place to build. He sought a “natural valley the size of Manhattan” to attract people who could afford to build country homes. Oceanfront property was promising but expensive.

It took a year but he and initially one, then many more participants found that New England’s inability to sustain a viable agricultural economic base offered a fortuitous reality – cheap land. When farmland cannot produce enough food to make a profit, and its hundreds of miles from urban centers it simply sells for whatever price the farmer can get: this meant that ski resorts, like Mad River Valley’s Sugar Bush, can be created with very limited site acquisition costs, and attract those distant urbanites to bask in the beauty of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Sellers and his 1965 cohorts found 425 plus acres of abandoned farm in the Mad River Valley of north central Vermont not far from Sugar Bush, and, having one of his fellow Ivy League students sit on a raspberry bush, the 20-something year old visionaries declared their venture to be “Prickly Mountain”
It is a place where the Yankee spirit of inspired hard work overcame the realities of money and fear to create dozens of wildly experimental homes in a place where antiques and provenance were the order of the day. Initially selling lots at $1,000 apiece, with dozens of “investors” and the zeitgeist of the ’60’s fuelling an innocent enthusiasm that actually leveraged equal measures of invention and hard work by other students drawn to a $500 stipend and free food for a summer of hard labor.

Workers came in bunches as Life Magazine, the New York Times and an architectural journal, P/A, lent this pie-in-the-sky endeavor the allure of newness amid the trappings of New England’s history. The “Establishment” was left back at architecture school – at Prickly Mountain the students were the builders, clients and experimenters in ways no academic studio could ever offer – an “architectural blastoff” according to P/A.

Houses were being designed as they were being built – creating architectural performance art in real time. The young builder/dreamers created genres out of construction alchemy “plywood houses”, “wild beam theory” and a sense that it was unjust to make money on the back selling land was not necessarily a sustainable model, and as the 1970’s progressed, land prices increased to $4,000 and debt grew to over $250,000.

But ultimately the wildly entrepreneurial spirit of Prickly Mountain had spin-offs that are truly profitable: The Vermont Castings Stove Company, Yestermorrow Design/Build School, several innovative energy companies and any number of relatively successful side-developments of commercial properties meant that those crazy hippies became engaged change agents – having been completely seduced and incorporated into the inherently free and industrious sensibility that created New England in the first place.

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