Apart from the open bar by the swimming pool, the main attraction at parties held at the Houston home of John Schiller, an oil company executive, and his wife, Kristi, a Playboy model turned blogger, is the $50,000 playhouse the couple had custom-built two years ago for their daughter, Sinclair, now 4.
Cocktails in hand, guests duck to enter through the 1.4-metre door. Once inside, they could be forgiven for feeling as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.
Built in the same Cape Cod style as the Schillers’ expansive main house, the two-story 16-square-metre playhouse has vaulted ceilings that rise from 1.5 to 2.4 meters tall, furnishings scaled down to two-thirds of normal size, hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel.
The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 81-centimetre flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air conditioned. This is Texas, after all.
“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Kristi Schiller, 40.
Some people might consider it “obnoxious” for a child to have a playhouse that costs more and has more amenities than some real houses, she conceded. But she sees it as an extension of the family home. “My daughter loves it,” she said. “And it’s certainly a conversation piece.”
Even in a troubled economy, it seems, some parents of means are willing to spend significant (if not eye-popping) sums on playhouses for their children that also function as a kind of backyard installation art.
There are a number of companies and independent craftsmen that make high-end playhouses, which can cost as much as $200,000, and come in a variety of styles, including replicas of real houses, like the Schillers’, and more-fantastical creations like pirate ships, treetop hideouts and fairy tale cottages. And many of these manufacturers report that despite the economic downturn, they are as busy as ever.
Barbara Butler, an artist and playhouse builder in San Francisco, said her sales are up 40 percent this year, and she has twice as many future commissions lined up as she did this time last year. Not only that, but the average price of the structures she is being hired to build has more than doubled, from $26,000 to $54,000.
“Childhood is a precious and finite thing,” Butler said. “And a special playhouse is not the sort of thing you can put off until the economy gets better.”
Likewise, Glen Halliday, who has a playhouse business in Portland, Maine, said he has seen profits increase 15 percent annually during the recession. “We’ve been helped by the growing concern about childhood obesity and the need for active play,” he said. Business has been so brisk, in fact, that his company, Kids Crooked House, recently expanded from a 111-square-metre barn into a 372-square-metre manufacturing building.
And for those in the playhouse trade, this is high season.
“We get a lot of calls this time of year, when the weather gets warm and people want to get their kids outside,” said Patty Toner, vice president for sales for Lilliput Play Homes, in Finleyville, Pennsylvania, a company that sells playhouses on what might be considered the low end of the scale: between $4,000 and $50,000, depending on the style and degree of customization. Best-sellers include a two-story Colonial-style house with a balcony and colonnaded porch, and a miniature medieval castle with turrets and secret passages.
Such architecturally sophisticated playhouses are usually custom-built on site to parents’ specifications, or prefabricated and shipped in parts for assembly by parents or the handymen they hire after spending several frustrating hours trying to do it themselves.
Heather Hach Hearne, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, said that she and her husband, Jason, a director of animated films, had a handyman put together the playhouse they bought last year from Kids Crooked House, which makes whimsically wonky structures that resemble buildings in cartoons. The 1.8-by-2.7-metre purple house they ordered cost about $2,450.
“I didn’t want something revoltingly expensive, but I didn’t want anything pathetic, either,” said Hearne, 40, who bought the playhouse for her 4-year-old daughter, Harper, and 1-year-old son, Drake.
She liked that it was intentionally funky and off-kilter. “The playhouse was going to be in the backyard and part of the landscape,” she said. “I wanted something a little different, that wasn’t going to be a total eyesore.”
To furnish it, Hearne bought a little table and chairs, along with a purple chandelier, and had the handyman wire the playhouse for electricity, drawing power from the garage. She also had him lay 99-cent faux stone tiles on the floor. “I was going for the stone-castle floor look,” she explained.
“My daughter loves to go in the playhouse and draw,” she said. “My son, at this point, thinks it’s fun to just crawl in and out.”
Dan Burnham, who retired as chairman and chief executive officer of Raytheon, the defence systems manufacturer, in 2003, wanted something elaborate for the 76-hectare retreat he and his wife, Meg, have in the Santa Ynez Mountains outside Santa Barbara, California. So he hired Butler in San Francisco to create a site-specific structure.
“I wanted another reason for the grand-kids to come over,” said Burnham, 64. “Also, I wanted to be able to go up there on Sunday morning and read The New York Times Magazine.”
The multilevel house Butler built for him in 2007 incorporates three trees into its complex design, which includes a trap door, a swinging extension bridge and winding stairs. It also has a gabled roof made of corrugated tin, an interior with hand-carved rafters and beams, and windows made of shatter-resistant laminated glass. Connected to the tree-house with a zip line is a second, fort-like structure with carved finials and flagpoles, as well as a rock wall, a firefighters’ pole and a slide.
“We’ve got chairs arrayed all around it, so we can watch the kids run, climb and scream,” he said. “It’s adorable and worth every penny.” (Nearly $248,000 for the two structures.)
He has yet to do any reading in either of them.
But those who don’t have that kind of space (or disposable income) should not despair. Parents don’t have to spend a fortune to encourage the kind of unstructured, imaginative play that helps develop higher-level problem-solving skills and emotional acuity in children, child psychologists say.
Steven Tuber, a psychology professor at City University of New York and the author of “Attachment, Play, and Authenticity,” notes that while “over-the-top playhouses may do something for the parents’ sense of grandeur,” they “certainly are irrelevant to the child’s needs and desires for a play space.”
“They are unlikely to get in the way of the child’s imagination,” he added, but “they do nothing to further it.”