Storybook Houses, Cheekwood’s summer exhibit, is enchanting visitors of all ages with whimsical displays and innovative elements. One house that is particularly compelling is Hill Top Garden, inspired by Beatrix Potter and specifically, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
With Storybook Houses, Cheekwood continues its annual tradition of showcasing whimsical child-oriented exhibitions that, according to its mission statement, “nurture the spirit and stimulate the mind.” The Hill Top Garden home fully embodies that mission. The end result — a beautifully crafted, magical space with interactive elements — came to fruition through a collaborative experience that brought together some of the city’s most talented designers and architects, in addition to Vanderbilt University’s Early Childhood Education Center and Design as an Immersive Vanderbilt Experience, or DIVE.
Anne Daigh, from Daigh Rick Landscape Architects, explains how the Hill Top Garden was a collaborative effort between her office and Pfeffer Torode Architecture. “Pfeffer Torode asked for our help, as they wanted to work beyond the bounds of a potting shed structure,” Anne says. “They knew that the key element of the Hill Top Garden was landscape driven, so we needed to work together to create a concept that honored that element.”
Also included in the collaboration was Professor Kevin Galloway, Director of Making at The Wond’ry and Faculty Director of DIVE. “Vanderbilt’s role in the Hilltop Garden House focused on generating interactive elements for kids of all ages. The experience required a lot of coordination between my students and with Pfeffer Torode, all within a condensed timeline of about two months,” Kevin says. “By the end, the students had a new appreciation for the design process, namely that it takes iteration to converge on impactful outcomes.”
Jane McLeod, Cheekwood President and CEO, adds that the act of joining forces with such brilliant minds to come together and create such a unique exhibition quickly became a highlight of the entire process. “My favorite part about working with the teams was the enthusiasm and passion everyone showed for this project,” she says. “There were so many days when the teams were here early in the morning and late at night working on the houses, excited about what they were creating and obviously taking great pride and joy in their work.”
Dr. Justine Bruyere, PhD., lecturer at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, was also a part of bringing the amazing vision to life; she saw the project as a way for her arts education students to see how literacy and the arts can be a bridge to community engagement.
“To begin our research, we read The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter,” she explains. “Quickly, it became clear that the stories were centered on Peter Rabbit and focused very little attention on his sisters. The students took note of the missing stories of Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail and set out to give a voice to each of the female rabbits.” After that, the students dramatized and authored the untold stories, and ultimately penned and audio recorded the finished stories. “When Vanderbilt students can use their knowledge to partner with community spaces, we all win,” she adds.
Part of the reason the Hill Top Garden house is so intriguing is due to the simple yet whimsical inspiration behind it: creating a space from the perspective of a bunny. “We wanted to recreate Peter Rabbit’s world,” Anne continues. “Therefore, we created a natural habitat outside of the gates of Mr. McGregor’s garden, including a rabbit burrow, places for the bunnies to hop and play, and areas to nest in the wild meadow.”
Jane gives a little more background on the inspiration behind the exhibition, connecting the dots regarding the stimulus behind the project. “Hilltop Farm is the name of the farm in Northern England that Beatrix Potter purchased in 1905 with proceeds from The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her first book. Potter went on to write 13 of her 23 books at Hilltop Farm, and many of her stories and illustrations in her books were inspired by the farm and the cottage garden she created there. Upon her death in 1943, Potter donated Hilltop Farm, which now serves as a museum about her life and times, and some 4,000 acres to the National Trust.”
The unique exhibition isn’t just for kids. Adults, too, will be able to marvel at the attention to detail, the creativity and the craftsmanship that went into everything behind the scenes. Not to mention, it’s beyond fun to watch your children immerse themselves in the whole experience. From working in Mr. McGregor’s garden to riding a giant log seesaw to pretending to be a bunny in an enlarged burrow, there’s no limit to the interactive play and fascination children are experiencing at the display. “What adult doesn’t love to relive their childhood through their favorite childhood books?” Jane asks. “The emotions these books evoke, the adventures they offer, the lessons they teach — they are the very definition of childhood.”
While it’s difficult to pinpoint just one thing that makes this exhibition so special, Jane maintains the most notable aspect is how the house uniquely weaves nature, art and literature into a truly immersive experience. “It allows for imaginative, creative and unstructured play that lets a child just be a child,” she expounds. “Ever since my own children were little, I have valued free, unstructured play where imaginations soar and creativity is born.”
Another favorite: the mailbox. Justine points out one of the most thoughtful touches is the mailbox where visitors (specifically children) can write letters to Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail and place them in the box. “The handwritten letters we’ve seen are like receiving pure gold,” she says. “It’s clear from the letters that the children visiting the installation have connected (through the stories created by my students) to these female rabbits. Their letters are filled with questions, suggestions, and observations gained through the experience of interacting with this purposefully designed space.”
“I think the exhibit is so special because of how multi-dimensional it is,” Anne notes. “In addition to the potting shed structure, we created an entire eco-system for children to learn and play. From potting plants in the shed and digging compost, to frolicking in the native meadow and balancing on logs, the kids get a chance to activate the space in many ways. It is a very hands-on experience, and the child feels like they are truly living the story of Peter Rabbit!”
At the end of the day, everyone can agree that the best part of all has been seeing the Storybook Houses brimming with happy children. “Seeing the children running and playing and laughing — it’s always the very best part of my day,” Jane says. “And to know we are creating a legacy for generations of children is very gratifying, indeed.”
Visit Cheekwood’s Storybook Houses from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through September 1. Visit their website for more details.
All project partners include:
- Pfeffer Torode Architecture
- Daigh Rick Landscape Architecture
- Knock on Wood TN
- The Maintenance Company
- Above All Roofing
- Vanderbilt University Early Childhood Education Center
- Vanderbilt University DIVE
- Carl Denton Design
- England Erosion
This article is sponsored by Pfeffer Torode. All photography by Leslee Mitchell.