Go on a 'PlayDate' in the Berkshire Botanical Garden

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STOCKBRIDGE — As a steady rain fell at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, woodworker Peter Thorne had ample reason for his enthusiasm to be dampened. But as he watched his grandchildren climb into his work, a structure modeled after a medieval fort and called "Come and Get Me," Thorne was overjoyed.

"It's absolutely the best," he said.

Thorne was participating in the May 26 opening reception of "PlayDate!: Playhouses in the Garden," the botanical garden's newest exhibit that features 11 structures primarily scattered in the northern field. A marketing committee challenged local designers and builders to construct spaces that would engage children of all ages. The garden has commissioned similar installations for the past 10 or 11 years, such as bench and garden shed-inspired works, in an attempt to increase foot traffic, according to Ian Hooper, the head of the committee. This project aims to do so by appealing to a new audience, he said.

"I think what makes this one particularly good is it's family-oriented," said Hooper, who joined the garden's board in 2005.

Thorne's work is just that if his family is any indication. His grandchildren, ages 3 and 5, stood on a ledge inside the fort and used slingshots to fire Ping-Pong balls at anybody approaching the structure. They would then duck behind pointed slabs of black locust, an extremely durable type of wood.

"It lasts one year longer than stone," he said.

Thorne has used black locust before, but this work felt unique. "I was sort of at a loss until I thought about my grandchildren and their imaginations. Then it was easy," Thorne said.

If you stop by for a visit looking for literal playhouses in the garden, you'll find some. But others may require some imagination. Like all art, the call for the structures was open for interpretation.

For Tamarack Garlow, a rustic furniture maker, the vision for the playhouse was never entirely clear. "I didn't quite understand what the concept was. It was playhouses and then play dates and then inspired by playhouses," he said.

"I'm surprised," Hooper said when told of Garlow's confusion. Hooper said he spoke to every builder involved in the exhibit and explained that children should be a major inspiration for the designs.

"It's my fault if it wasn't as tidy," he said.

Garlow admits his creative process involves significant evolution. His structure, "Sometimes the Best Playing Is Just Sitting," underwent several iterations before it arrived in its final form — a large chair with branches for arms and a ladder to reach the seat, which also functions as the roof for the miniature hut below.

"I had carte blanche to do anything, but [Hooper] knew I was a rustic guy, so right from the beginning I thought of a little house but then, at the last minute, I decided to make a chair, and then at the last, last minute I decided to make the chair a house," he said.

Garlow, who said he changed his first name to Tamarack in the early 1970s because of his love for trees, added the room below the chair because of Hooper's mandate to make it child-friendly. Garlow noted that others hadn't followed the garden's direction.

"That's purely an adult playhouse," he said, eyeing the installation uphill from his chair. The structure, titled "Lady Chatterley," is one of Robin Berthet's shepherd wagons, which he regularly sells for clients as varied as filmmakers and psychiatrists. For this one, he teamed with C. Herrington Home + Design, a firm based in Hillsdale, N.Y., to create a bedroom complete with a large bed and two empty wine glasses atop a small table.

"They said play date, and they didn't say [whether it was for] adults or children," Berthet said.

Like all of the structures, the hut is available for purchase; its price tag is $32,500 plus delivery costs, according to a garden press release.

"It may not be your typical play date for children, but it definitely has a garden cottage feel," said Nicole Andrus, who was representing C. Herrington.

Hooper said that he had made an exception when it came to Berthet's work, telling Berthet it was OK to make the structure more adult-oriented since Hooper was familiar with the huts' look and feel.

Yet, most structures, such as buildings and grounds manager Bill Cummings' "Tree Teepee" and Thorne's fort, didn't test the imagination quite as much. Thorne eventually joined his grandchildren, launching Ping-Pong balls and shuffling around the black locust perimeter. Garden staff can only hope that families take to Thorne's work— and others'— with such vigor.


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