Fantasy play structures inspire old-fashioned fun
Carmel Pine Cone
Barbara Butler knows something about fun. She grew up part of a big family in upstate New York whose front yard boasted a leafy, large-limbed tree.
A rope swing in that tree performed years of yeoman service entertaining Barbara, her seven brothers and sisters and a swarm of neighborhood kids. Theirs was a pre-Nintendo world where children explored their neighborhood in packs from creek bed to railroad tracks, heeding the simple admonition to "be home before dark."
How different from the lives of many youngsters now - children whose days are heavily scheduled, play times must often be booked and supervised because parents rightfully worry about crime, and often a video screen - be it TV or computer- defines the horizons of entertainment. Without setting out to do so, Butler has brought a measure of old fashioned adventure to the lives of contemporary kids. So fanciful are the play structures she designs that TV's Oprah Winfrey - herself childless - declared, "I want me one myself to play in."
Turreted castles, tree-house gateways and secret doorways - all carved out of real wood and stained in the most fanciful of colors - spring from her fertile mind. Kind of funny for someone who started out wanting to be a writer. Butler earned a poli sci degree in New York and then pursued graduate English courses when she heeded a call to help two of her brothers in the construction business.
"I'd thought of writing fiction but didn't think of being able to make a living through art. Mom wanted me to be a lawyer." Butler mused. Following two brothers to Washington D.C., she cultivated building skills in the city where one sibling worked as a bricklayer and another a contractor in the shadow of the nation's Capital. Fond of what she calls "the construction lifestyle," she met a like-minded soul in Bob Forrest: another aspiring writer who possessed a construction background. "We were both writing and going to poetry readings," she recalled. "We decided to move to San Francisco together. I just got the idea in my headto go to San Francisco, even though I'd never seen a picture of it. And he said, "OK." It was in the mid-'80s, and Forrest conceived the idea of "Outer Space Design," the couple's business, whose mission was to design and build decks, fences, hot tubs. "I saw construction just as a way to pay the bills. I was a little resistant to starting a business where you have to work around the clock to make it." She observed. A part of her clung to embracing the life of an artist. "I was still painting in oils." Forrest and Butler even migrated to Texas for a spell. Forrest's father was a builder there, and the couple honed their construction skills before San Francisco called them back.
"Don't Worry, Be Happy" "We happened to get this job with Bobby McFerrin in Noe Valley," she remembered. "This was before his hit song, 'Don't Worry, Be Happy.' His wife, Debbie, was great. They had a yard with like a five-story dropoff, not a level spot init. Debbie wanted a deck, stairs down to a deck, a patio and a play structure at the bottom of the yard." Butler's partner initially balked at what he saw as "a huge job." "I told Debbie, 'We can do it,' and Bob [Forrest] was looking at me like,'Are you kidding?' "We were a really hungry young business. We even parked our truck around the corner so nobody would see how old it was. That was the beginning. "We worked on that yard for a year," she recalled. "We went to school on it. The first thing we did was the play structure at the bottom of the yard. Then 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' hit. Then the budget tripled. It was really fun. The McFerrins have three children. This was in 1987, and their oldest has since graduated from college." After that major effort, Forrest realized he didn't want to stay in the business. Curiously, for a couple who built play structures, "There was no free time. We're still great friends. He just didn't want to work 16 hours a day."
Barbara Butler discovered that her business grew steadily by word-of-mouth and via her website: www.barbarabutler.com
Colors rich and whimsical, the kind of play features that keep children occupied for hours, and an eye for safety describe a Barbara Butler play structure. And no two are alike. "I try to make the playhouse a child's getaway, a dreamy, lollygagging, getaway spot. It should be a mysterious, exciting place." Butler can show clients a portfolio of more than 120 past designs. From there, it's up to customer and artist to come up with the layout that works. Over the years, Butler has constructed play structures from Pebble Beach to France.Drawing from her childhood memories of that fun tree rope swing and adventures around the neighborhood, Butler is uniquely tuned into what works. "You have to mix with nature. There can be no computers out there," she explained. "We built chalets in the Napa Valley that were like real houses. The girls, ages 10 and 12, moved out there. It has two towers, a combo play structure, and the girls' room. One girl has a slide off her balcony; another has a firepole, with a bridge between them." Sometimes the designer has to remind parents what children consider to be the most fun. "We build jails in some play structures with secret escapes. Kids love that. Children play with all these good vs. evil issues: defending the fort, attacking the castle, going to jail. I want them to get really tired by being sure there's lots of physical play. I call those loops, and combine them with imaginative play."
Butler has plenty of "loops" up her sleeve. Children adore her fire poles, rock climbing walls and "zip lines," cable rides for kids. One play house in New Jersey, built for boys ages 8 and 10, includes a 110-foot zip line. Her clients include celebrities, grandparents who want to entice their grandchildren to visit often, and the occasional grownup. One woman, who resides in the Pacific Northwest, commissioned a little tea house - her own Barbara Butler-style refuge. All the designs are handmade and hand-carved. Motifs aren't merely painted on-they're inscribed in the wood. As for color, Butler offers "57 standard colors. But I'm always happy to mix a new one."
Born of a big family, Butler said her business has grown into a genuine family affair. Her sister Suzanne is part owner, and two of her brothers work for her. "We're also a halfway house for the nieces and nephews who grow up. They usually spend some time working with us," she said. Another staff member who started working with the company years ago, Jeff Beal, married Barbara.
A look at her portfolio turns up play houses with a collection of whimsical names. For example, Butler recently completed installation of a play structure called "Le Petit Chalet" at a Pebble Beach home. She donated the house to a Bay Area charity called "Building Together." Its Pebble Beach owners made the winning bid, and Butler and her team supervised installation of the playhouse in view of the Pacific. "I tend to name them all," Butler said of her designs. "They do that with race horses: They have barn names and they have show names. We have a working name around the shop and then the show name. We did one house around a tree stump in Marin, and called it 'El Stumpo.' It's now called 'Canyon Perch.'" Butler said she has many projects in the planning stages. One is a two-story playhouse that will have a bridge over swings and an attached theater. "We often build for people who love to stay home a lot. They're really into their kids and having all the neighborhood kids over. The structures are very expensive because they're handmade. There's something elemental about them. They encourage children to play hard,to get dirty." Some would say her designs tap into childhood's very essence.