A few weeks ago, Bank of America turned me down for a home mortgage. The listing, in Salt Lake City, was a steal at $100,000: a fully furnished, five-story eco-mansion with 14 rooms, including a library, a music room, an art balcony and a cupola/conservatory. The original builders and owners, Debbie and Mike Schramer, had constructed the house and décor out of all sustainable materials, including a recycled cedar-shake roof, pebble floors and wisteria-beam framing.
Granted, the house is not without its quirks, which may explain why it has been on the market for 19 years. To modern tastes, the kitchen appears rustic, with its wood cook stove and pedestal sink. And even a singleton wants more than a single bathroom (albeit one with an abalone tub). Also — and this is a serious issue — the house is currently occupied by magical tenants who pay no rent and respond to encroachment by stealing babies.
“I’m interested in buying a fairy house,” I told the first branch of the phone tree at Bank of America Home Loans. In August, the company agreed to pay a $16.65 billion penalty for its role in selling bonds based on make-believe mortgages. I felt that I had gone to the right place.
One of the bank’s loan officers, Peter Herr, disagreed, although he couldn’t have been nicer about it. “You call them fairy structures?” Mr. Herr said over the phone from a Bank of America office outside Portland, Ore. “I have never heard of that term.”
A fairy house, to be clear, is a house for fairies. What’s a fairy? This is a more contentious question, and the subject of no small scholarship and interest.
Pinterest, for example, showcases more than 5,000 boards dedicated to fairy houses. And the craft site Etsy, tiptoeing into the housing market, hosts 2,000-plus listings for handmade fairy homes and furnishings. This is where the Schramers are offering their $100,000 Fairy Treehouse, along with a couple of other properties in the $1,000 to $24,000 range. Some of the most enchanting Etsy builders are anthologized in coffee table books like “Fairy Homes and Gardens” (Schiffer Publishing, $24.99), which comes out later this month.
I was home-shopping for my son, Bear, and daughter, Bea, who are 6 and 8 years old. For months, my daughter served as human ambassador to a troop of migrant fairies who overwintered in our backyard brush pile. Her duties involved visiting the fairies daily in subzero weather and nourishing them with old potatoes.
The fairies, it would seem, were living hand-to-mouth. Which brought me back to the mortgage and Mr. Herr at Bank of America. The label “fairy house” had him thinking of a 200-square-foot “tiny house.” Could I email a picture?
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Mr. Herr said. “That’s really cool.”
Still, Bank of America wasn’t going to give me a loan to buy a fairy house, right?
“I hate to break the news to you, but that’s correct. I hate it, because it’s so awesome.”
Apparently, my fairy house would have to be an all-cash transaction. The good news here is that $500 buys a lot of house. Julie McLaughlin, a 55-year-old artist in Seven Valleys, Pa., has built roughly 200 custom homes, which she sells on eBay for $400 to $1,000.
“Kit bashing” is a common construction method. She starts with a prefab dollhouse and then embellishes it with sheet moss, shelf mushrooms, tree bark, seed pods and silk flowers. Working at dollhouse scale (one inch equals a foot) allows hobbyists to install their own furniture.
What kind of creature possesses her own armoire lined with little invisible bootees? “It’s the more mature collector,” Ms. McLaughlin said. “These are not exactly kid-friendly.”
There was a strange sound then, like the squeeze-horn on a clown car, and Ms. McLaughlin excused herself for a moment. “That’s my duck quacking,” she said. “Her name is Leopolda.”
After the interruption, Ms. McLaughlin added that her buyers are seemingly affluent — the kind of people who can afford a second, third or sixth home. “You’ve got to admit, a fairy house is a frivolous purchase,” she said.
Not ready to buy? There are annual fairy-house walking tours and construction workshops in towns like Rochester, N.Y., and Portsmouth, N.H., which draw more than 5,000 souls. (Over the next two weekends, the fairies will muster at the Fat Blossom Farm Enchanted Forest Festival, in Allegan, Mich.)
The children’s author and illustrator Tracy Kane, 61, was headed to just such a festival, in Farmington, Conn., when I caught up with her a few weeks ago. Her Fairy House Series, which started coming out 14 years ago, is a landmark of the Fairy Revival. The books show children playing in the woods, discovering nature and their own creativity. The message proved popular, Ms. Kane said, especially among grandparents, who may feel alienated from the type of computer-based “play” that closely resembles a coma. The site prep for a fairy house (sorting leaves, examining bugs) can be indistinguishable from naturalism.
Living in Lee, N.H., Ms. Kane drew her original inspiration from the impromptu fairy houses of seaside Maine. This century-old tradition continues at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, which include a fairy colony along the Shoreland Trail. Here, children collect twigs, bark, stones and leaves, and shape lean-tos and huts — scale models of the shelters on “Naked and Afraid.”
William Cullina, 50, the garden’s executive director, noticed that the free play was perhaps becoming a little too free. “We were suffering a little from fairy sprawl,” he said. “There’s sort of a suburban influence to the Fairy House Villages. The fairies don’t like to build too close to other fairies.” As they ranged “farther and farther out into the woods, the fairies would strip the natural materials.”
Tighter zoning and land-use restrictions proved to be the answer. With $75,000 from a donor, Mr. Cullina commissioned a local stone mason to erect a border around the fairy favela. To discourage lumber thieving among the fairies, groundskeepers deposited materials from garden pruning projects. Mr. Cullina called this arrangement “the Gnome Depot.”
Everyone knows the New York real estate market is a fantasy land. The city’s resident fairies can barely stay ahead of all the tear-downs and conversions. The most enterprising (and ruthless) developers are the young children enrolled in Brooklyn Forest, which holds weekly nature-play classes in Prospect Park and Central Park.
The parks’ sycamores and horse chestnuts provide plenty of posts and beams, said the school’s co-founder and co-director, Joylynn Holder. But a 3-year-old on 79th Street, inevitably, will scoop up the milk caps and cigarette butts.
“My daughter goes to a Waldorf school,” said Ms. Holder, 33. “They’ll use litter. We don’t do that.”
Dog hair, however, qualifies as a green building material. “It looks like wool, which is very comforting,” she said.
Many of the class parents are musicians and artists, and they approach make-believe with the rigor of a design charrette. If it gets the tots involved, the Brooklyn Forest school approves. But the adult marketplace for fairy houses — the amazing builder home on Etsy — baffles Ms. Holder: “I wonder who the consumer is. It’s sort of like strip clubs. They’re totally legitimate, but who wants to be in there?”
Do the children believe in fairies? “I think some of them do,” Ms. Holder said. “The parents would have to convince them otherwise — and sometimes they do, because complete honesty is in style.” Modern childhood, apparently, is one big spoiler alert.
It’s tempting to think that every fairy house is built on spec. (When is the move-in date?) This has been a barrier for most residential architects, who rarely set their fees in acorns and thimbleberries. An exception is Andy Bernheimer, 46, who is the principal of his own firm and the director of the master of architecture program at Parsons the New School for Design, in Manhattan.
In collaboration with his sister, Kate Bernheimer, a writer of fabulist fiction, Mr. Bernheimer developed a series of drawings and renderings based on fairy tales, for the website Places Journal. The recession, he recalled, cast a dark spell over Bernheimer Architecture; the commissions “dried up.” As long as he was imagining work, Mr. Bernheimer decided he may as well do imaginary work.
His first fairy-tale plan was for Baba Yaga, a Russian witch who lives in a house with chicken feet. Mr. Bernheimer’s drawings started out quite literal, almost buildable. For example, the site plan indicates the direction of the witch’s flight path.
“My own brain is constrained by the conventions of my practice,” he said. While his later fairy-tale plans explored abstraction, in the end, “I’m designing for a client,” he said. The fairy houses on Pinterest, he concluded, suffer from no such limitations. “Here there’s no client. And I don’t mean that in a judgmental way.”
Just because you have never seen a fairy does not mean that no one else has. This truth is apparent from the new book “Seeing Fairies,” by Marjorie T. Johnson (Anomalist Books, $19.95). If you’re not intrigued by the subtitle — “From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times” — you’re going to need a passport to visit Neverland.
From 1950 onward, Ms. Johnson was the secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society, based in the English Midlands. Her book compiles accounts she collected from other members and the wider public. A typical testimony begins something like this: “Around Christmas 1955, Mrs. Violet I. Larkworthy, of Slough, Bucks, was lying relaxed on her divan when she noticed that a bowl of tulips on a chest of drawers was whirling round, and balanced on the rim were some tiny fairy figures, holding hands.”
Yet, writing in the book’s introduction, Simon Young, a medieval historian, notes that “appearances change with the years.” The classic 18th-century fairy was often child-size and lived in an underground hall. Wings, of the Tinker Bell style, are a late-20th-century convenience. Having recently revived the Fairy Investigation Society, Dr. Young proposes to conduct a new online fairy census in 2015.
Sally J. Smith, 59, prefers the term “elemental” for the spirits that guide her artistic work in the Adirondack Mountains, near Lake Champlain. “I feel the presence of nature as a set of beings,” she said. The forest world is not just scenery, pretty and inert. Everything is alive. “Children are attuned to that,” she said. “But as we grow up, we’re taught to discount our connection to nature as something that isn’t real, that’s imaginary.”
Ms. Smith added: “I, fortunately, didn’t listen.”
Her fairy houses may start as a hollow mossy stump, to which she adds a pine-bark stairwell, a chanterelle chimney and a woven-twig entablature. These are temporary dwellings: they come from nature and they go back to it.
The houses survive as photographs and greeting cards, which she compiles in annual calendars and sells in print runs of 10,000. Ms. Smith said that she likes to make her environmental art accessible to an audience that may not be able to afford her bespoke homes, which start at $500. These indoor houses may take months to construct, and incorporate elements like Japanese paper, butterfly-wing windows and vintage velvet millinery leaves. Not the kind of junk you’d find at the Gnome Depot.
Having failed to raise the funds for a fairy mansion, I steered my children over to a sandy beach on the Mississippi River to gather materials. We started by filling a few shopping bags with driftwood, vines, freshwater snail shells and red and black pebbles.
After a bit of collaborative effort, I glanced over to find the laborers on a mud break. Bea was standing thigh-deep in the river, stirring sediment from the bottom and watching it spiral downstream. Back on the beach, my son, Bear, was arranging stones into an infirmary for a lame daddy longlegs. Child’s play.
These are the moments when a dutiful father must remind his children of the satisfaction that comes with seeing a tough job through to the end. A fairy house does not build itself.
Back home, the dual-temperature hot glue gun seemed to be stuck on a third setting: barely warm. Bea thought it might be fun, instead, to remove a dead crab apple limb with the handsaw and then pock it with a power drill. Give a girl a sylvan glade and she’ll turn it into an industrial-age sawmill.
Our completed fairy houses — there were three of them — looked a lot like the old brush pile: a heap of stalks and sticks, with a couple of unripe tomatoes for grub. I thought Bear had lost interest until he emerged from the back door with a posse of Ninjago figures.
“The gold ninja will be the guardian overnight,” he said.
Did the fairy caravan ride here, on hand-high ponies, to binge on fermented tomatoes and dance a gavotte? Ask the new junior inspector of the Fairy Investigation Society. At 6:30 on Sunday morning, the boy crept outside in pajamas to check if his ninjas had flown.
Fairy Houses in a Nutshell
Julie McLaughlin, who sells her ornate homes on eBay and Etsy, offers two rules for building your fairy dream house. “There’s no such thing as too much detail,” she said. “And moss covers any mistake.”
That advice takes care of a hot-glue eruption. But it may be a little short on magic. If you want to know what a great number of country people believed, for hundreds of years, start with the folklore studies of Katharine M. Briggs. Her classic history “The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature” is out of print. But a smart and witty primer appears in Janet Bord’s “Fairies: Real Encounters With Little People” (Dell Publishing, $7.99).
Paul Busse doesn’t trade in fantasy; he calls his profession “botanical architecture.” But there’s an abundance of wonderment in the buildings that his company, Applied Imagination, designs for the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden.
Fabricating the Guggenheim Museum out of shelf fungus is an act of “caricature,” Mr. Busse said. “You try to express all the details through the character and texture of the plants.”
Applied Imagination’s fairy houses don’t need to represent anything at all. A crook-necked gourd may turn into a flying galleon. (The company accepts occasional commissions, with prices starting around $500: appliedimagination.biz or 859-448-9848.) The secret, he said, is to see it through the eyes of a forest creature.
You look with your eyes, not your hands, or so the child’s taunt goes. Sally J. Smith offers occasional fairy-house workshops for children in the north woods near her Adirondack studio (greenspiritarts.com). She likes to give children a collecting basket and suggests that they fill it before building. “It helps to slow the kids down a little,” she said.
Alternately, you can hit the button labeled “add to cart” and have a box of twigs, pebbles, moss, bark and acorns delivered to your doorstep. This spares a child the hassle of going outside. To be fair, a fairy-house kit makes a creative birthday gift or a rainy-day project. A few of the nicer Etsy kits come from Pied Piper Crafts ($44.98), Fairyfolk ($45) and Fat Blossom Farm ($25).
As long as you’re building a palace of the imagination, you could also use paper. Laura Denison, a paper artist from the Seattle area, sells patterns ($14 to $20) for four seasonal fairy houses (lauradenisondesigns.com). The instructions, with detailed photos, run 20-plus pages and read like this: “Trim gable angle on Dormer Back pieces.” But your finished home will have dormers and gables!
What about a bathroom? In her home gallery on Mount Desert Island in Maine, Beth Pomroy uses polymer clay to craft “tiny worlds,” like spas, lobster bakes and basement bars (beezinc.com or 207-244-5299). Or a two-seat outhouse with clamshell lids. Ethereal meets earthy on the outhouse wall, where Ms. Pomroy has hand-colored a one-inch-high pinup calendar.
Where did you think baby fairies came from?