Mr. McGregor’s garden and Max and the wild things and Wilbur the pig … the stories and characters that filled our favorite children’s books stir up a tinge of nostalgia, just at the uttering of their familiar, yet distant names. Whether your last memory is from years ago when Mom read one last bedtime book, or you yourself are reading the rhymes of Dr. Seuss to your own children, it’s likely you have some fond memories associated with these storybooks.
This summer, these stories come to life in a brand new way through Cheekwood‘s Storybook Houses. A beautiful community collaboration, Cheekwood partnered with builders, architects and local creatives to build five playhouses inspired by our favorite children’s books. Each “house” interprets a storybook in its own unique way, creating an immersive experience for kids of all ages. Ridley Wills, owner of the Wills Company, which designed and built one of the playhouses tells us, “All of them are very different, which I love. The stories are different, but then they are also fundamentally different structurally.”
Wills Company designed and built “Charlotte’s Barn,” inspired by Charlotte’s Web illustrator Garth Williams. Ridley explains how honored he was when Cheekwood asked he and his team to be a part of this project. Charlotte’s Web was one of his favorite childhood stories, he tells us excitedly. “The trick was to make it fun for a kid — but also actually buildable.” Each detail was thoughtfully considered, from the giant spiderweb for kids to climb, to the wonderful murals created by a local Nashville artist. Kids can take photos with Wilbur when they crawl behind the “your face here” cutout wall.
Working children’s safety into the design of each and every aspect was a challenge, but it was a welcomed exercise in creativity. Ridley’s favorite creative touch? The pig atop the weather vane on the cupola. “It was all meant to be as fun and joyful as possible, and we worked in pigs wherever we could.”
The five storybook houses had a team of more than 50 architects working and planning for more than three months – with just 25 days on site to build them. In February, Pfeffer Torode started planning with their project partners, including Vanderbilt University’s Early Childhood Education and DIVE (Design as Immersive Vanderbilt Experience), Daigh Rick Landscape Architects, Doug Campbell of Knock On Wood TN and more. Fuller Hanan, Project Manager and Director of Communications with Pfeffer Torode tells us, “When you’re designing for kids, there’s a whole other level of thought that goes into it. Yes, in terms of safety, but also in terms of how you engage them and what will spark their interest.”
The Pfeffer Torode team created “Hill Top Garden,” inspired by the work of Beatrix Potter and specifically, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The overall concept included Mr. McGregor’s garden and shed, as well as the natural meadow and woodland of Peter and his three sisters — Mopsy, Flopsy and Cottontail. “We created a place where there is enough space for interpretation and their imagination to run wild while also providing the opportunity for kids to get their hands dirty in the garden by moving the ‘compost’ pile around in the wheelbarrows and climb through the burrow while pretending like they’re bunnies.” The team gives kids room to use their imagination inside of one of their favorite children’s books. It offers something for children of all ages and abilities — and likely a sense of wonder for adults, too.
“The whole concept was something that, when I think back on my own childhood, would have been a dream for me,” Fuller adds. “I would have begged my parents to come back over and over. It was really fun to think about the design through the lenses of our own childhoods. I really do think it’s great for all ages for that reason.”
The Dr. Seuss-themed playhouse “Oh, The Places You’ll Play” is a total sensory experience for kids. Built by Hastings, the three side-by-side-by-side houses encourage exploration through sights and sounds. They are brightly painted and immediately eye-catching and inviting, reminiscent of the Dr. Seuss illustrations that we all love. Inside, kids can play with wind chimes and bells or climb rainbow-colored rock walls. The two-level houses promote movement and energy, designed for kids to move from house to house exploring all of the instruments and climbing nets.
The playhouses additionally include “TRAINS!” and “We Are Wild,” and offer more than just a summer activity for kids. It’s an infectiously joyous atmosphere that adults are welcome to bask in, too.
Children are wow-ed by the chance to step inside of their favorite fairy tale, and adults are transported back to when they imagined themselves inside those stories. The thoughtful details from the builders and architects show how beneficial it can be to exercise those creative muscles early and often. Allow yourself to be taken with the nostalgia and whimsy of the Storybook Playhouses this summer, and enjoy something that’s truly just fun.
Ridley tells us, “It’s great to give back to Cheekwood and to our community and be able to use our strongest talents — and have fun doing it. It was just fun. It’s a joyful thing.”
Go see it for yourself!
The Storybook Playhouses are open through September 1. Starting this weekend through September 1, visit the Museum Galleries of Cheekwood for Childhood Classics: 100 Years of Book Illustrations. Browsing more than 140 original works from more than 75 books is the perfect ending to a day spent at the storybook houses. For more information about the Storybook Houses and to purchase tickets, click here.
Photos by Nathan Zucker unless otherwise noted.
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