A Thoreau back-to-nature design
Some people love cabins, like the one the philosopher built on a famous pond. Here’s how anyone can be similarly walled-in
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 1, 2002
By Art Carey
One wonders what Henry David Thoreau would think if he were to cruise Dune Drive in Avalon and see the showy beach palaces there, many erected on sites where modest cottages and bungalows once stood.
One imagines he would sigh, quoting himself: “Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”
When it comes to simple shelter, Thoreau set the standard. On a slope overlooking Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., he built a one-room cabin, with two windows, a door and a fireplace. Its size: 10 by 15 feet.
“It’s a perfect size,” says industrial designer David Stiles. “It’s big enough for doing just about anything -- sleeping, eating, sitting, working. . . . Yet it’s small enough that it’s easy to build, maintain and heat.”
Stiles and his wife, Jeanie, are the authors of Cabins (Firefly Books, $19.95), a how-to book about rustic retreats that pays tribute especially to Thoreau’s cabin. Lately, the authors say, they’ve seen a surge of interest in such structures.
“With all of the changes in the last year . . . people are rethinking their lives,” Jeanie Stiles says. “They’re becoming more reflective about what’s important. Some are realizing they don’t need a big ostentatious house to find meaning in life.”
One of Thoreau’s most famous injunctions was to “live the life you imagine.” The purpose of imagination, the philosopher Martin Buber once said, is “to imagine the real.” As the world has become more complex, the real has become harder to imagine. Result: All of us feel less at home in our times.
Paradoxically, building a cabin may be a way back home. Those inspired to create such a structure may wonder: Why try to improve perfection? So they seek to build a replica of Thoreau's humble abode.
It can be done.
Thoreau was 27 years old when he built his cabin in 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 to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
He lived by the pond for two years, two months and two days, and 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 July 4, the cabin was sheathed with boards salvaged from a railroad shanty. Before winter, he 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.
“My house never pleased my eye so much after it was plastered,” Thoreau lamented, “though I was obliged to confess that it was more comfortable.”
Building the cabin was as much a part of the experiment as communing with nature, and Thoreau kept detailed records. His total material costs: roughly $28. The most expensive items were the shanty boards ($8.03), the shingles ($4), 1,000 old bricks ($4), and nails ($3.90).
“These are all the materials, excepting the timber, stones and sand, which I claimed by squatter’s right,” Thoreau noted. Also not included is his sweat equity. He built the cabin all by himself and worked on it, off and on, for 10 months.
Walden contains many descriptions of how Thoreau built his cabin, but it is decidedly not a how-to book.
“It’s not about, ‘This is how to build a house,’ ” says Dan Schmid of the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods in Lincoln, Mass. “It’s about, ‘This is something anybody can do.’ He was really pushing a bigger idea, talking about a way of life and having the confidence to realize your potential.”
Thoreau’s simple cabin was simply furnished: a bed, a desk, a table, and three chairs – “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
At Walden, he was by no means a hermit. He made frequent trips into Concord and gladly entertained visitors at his sylvan retreat.
“It’s amazing how roomy it is,” said Schmid, standing in a nearly completed replica of the cabin behind the Thoreau Institute. “It’s also very substantial. . . . Building it this way took a lot of time. The fact he used post-and-beam tells me he was a real New Englander, someone who favored the tried and true.”
Thoreau never intended to live in his little house 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 leased it to his gardener.
Two years later, two farmers bought it and moved it to the other side of Concord, to store grain. In 1868, they dismantled it. Some of the wood was reincarnated as a pigsty, some incorporated into a barn.
If you want to build your own copy of Thoreau’s cabin, the first step is to buy a set of plans from the Thoreau Society ($20, plus $5 for shipping). These detailed drawings are the work of Roland Robbins, the amateur archaeologist who discovered the actual site of the cabin in 1945.
Next, visit the replica of Thoreau’s cabin at the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Mass. While not entirely authentic (the walls are stud-framed and sheathed in plywood), it will give you a feel for the size of the place.
To see an even better version, visit the Thoreau Institute in nearby Lincoln, where the collection includes remnants from Thoreau’s actual cabin. The replica there was built as faithfully as possible to the original.
Last year, volunteers from Benson Woodworking Co. in Walpole, N.H., felled pine trees on adjacent conservation land, hewed them into posts, beams, studs and rafters, and raised the frame. Using antique hand tools, two dozen people worked on the project two weekends.
If there’s no woodlot handy, you can buy what you need at a good lumberyard. Jeff Tucker at Beatty Lumber in Upper Darby put the cost of materials at about $2,000 (excluding the fireplace and chimney) if you use knotty under-course shingles, about $4,000 if you use top-grade clear shingles.
Across the street, at State Road Builders Supply, you can buy used bricks for 22 cents apiece. Cost for 1,000: $220.
It might be wise to learn post-and-beam construction at the Shelter Institute in Woolwich, Maine ($675 for a one-week course). There, Raoul Hennin pegged the cost of materials at between $4,000 and $5,000.
Unable to pound a nail, let alone chisel a mortise? Though it would be a gross violation of what Thoreau and his cabin stand for, you could hire someone to build a replica for you. At what price? The rule of thumb, Cabins author David Stiles says, is five times the cost of materials (roughly $15,000 to $20,000, depending on local labor costs).
If you’re handy enough to build the cabin but lack the masonry skills to build the fireplace and chimney, Simon Graham of Ferris/Graham Construction in Havertown can fashion them for you for about $5,000.
But the whole purpose of the exercise is to do it yourself. As Thoreau sagely observed: “There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest.”