It’s possible that everyone is born with some idea of sanctuary. My friend, the writer Maryann Macdonald, has eight siblings. As a young child, she sought a few moments of peace in the kitchen broom closet. She now lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan on a busy and noisy intersection. She catches her solitude where she can (she’s fond of a quiet subscription-only library), but I suspect if she had a scrap of yard, she’d be tearing through Debra Prinzing’s new book from Clarkson Potter, Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways (handsomely photographed by William Wright), and ringing up contractors.
The twenty-eight sheds and hideaways in this book will induce shack-envy in anyone without one—and it might be difficult to find people who don’t dream about one. Tucked away in yards from Washington through California, into Texas, across to Georgia and up through Long Island, Manhattan, and Connecticut, these intimate structures are inventive, if diminutive, acts of architecture. Re-imagined garages, potting sheds, tool huts, even a 1930s log cabin, a makeshift boathouse, and a barn have been transformed into sanctuaries for writing, designing, painting, gardening, dining, napping—and, one would imagine, the whole range of mostly solitary human activity, excluding (it is hoped), engaging with objects that beep, blare, bedevil.
Some have built new structures according to their fancies. Fiction writer Amy Bloom engaged a carpenter to build a pitched-roof “writing shack” on her family’s woodsy two-and-a-half-acre site in southwest Connecticut. Fourteen by fourteen, made of properly aging cedar, it has beautiful windows and is without phone or internet—in short, perfect.
Passionate gardening is evident around many of these structures, and, as often as not, the buildings are set like jewels within well-ordered gardens. Landscape architect Joseph Marek worked some magic on a “neglected” 400-square-foot Santa Monica garage, and now designs and runs his business from his lovely garden office. Concert pianist and fine woodworker Jennie Hammill built a tiny glass conservatory in Seattle within a beautiful, rich, urban garden. On Long Island, longtime gardener John Barham built an elegant potting shed based on a fisherman’s tiny home. “There are moments in my garden when I am overwhelmed by happiness,” the eighty-six-year-old Barham comments.
The small buildings in this book are long on charm, but there are a few examples of edgy, modernist interpretations too. In Austin, there’s an amazing, playful “plant conservatory meets pool party” backyard structure: the 430-square-foot fancy is actually set inside a shallow pool, into which the owners dip their feet while reading. A glass and steel 220-square-foot conservatory leans between walls of an 1827 brick townhouse in Greenwich Village, and opens to a small, rather formal, raised-bed garden.
Prinzing, a well-known writer of garden and design books, and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, has made these portraits-in-the-backyard good examples of how a person’s resume is not equal to his biography. She has managed in these pocket-sized profiles to bring forth some of the hidden hearts of the builders. She’s a fine writer, enthusiastic and full of good will. One reads this book and lingers on Wright’s photographs with real hunger and appreciation.
Paula Panich, garden writer
Los Angeles, California