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A Vermont Cabin Built by Hand to House a Family’s History

by Quelcy Kogel

How often do you find a creative project looming and think, “If only I could just get away, hole up in the woods and think through this”? It’s a thought that has crossed my mind with each passing season. For Robin MacArthur, it’s a thought that crossed her mind, and she did something about it — a very big thing about it. She and her husband built a cabin with their own hands, dug the septic trenches and all!

Robin and her husband Ty both grew up in idyllic Vermont, but as a couple, they spent stints living and creating in Providence, New York and Philadelphia. Robin is a musician and author (her second book, Heart Spring Mountain comes out this January), and Ty is a composer for documentary films. They also collaborate musically under the moniker Red Heart The Ticker, but as they ventured away from Vermont, they came to a decision. “We realized that the only way we had a shot at having artistic careers was if we moved back to my parents’ land in Vermont and built ourselves a cabin where we could live mortgage- and rent-free. The dream!”

The land itself was storied already. Robin’s grandparents moved to an abandoned farmhouse on three-hundred acres of land in Marlboro, VT in 1950. Her parents later built a house on that land, and when Robin was 16 and “restless and stir-crazy in my parents’ house,” she and her dad built a cabin up the road. It was her teenage refuge, and the very beginnings of the cabin she would build with her husband, nestled beautifully in a west-facing clearing full of sweet smelling ferns. “I never imagined that I would spend most of my life in that spot, but who ever predicts the future?”

Robin and Ty’s creative retreat started out rustically — one room, an outhouse and no running water. It was sufficient at the time, but as their family grew to include daughter Avah and son Owen, the house also had to grow and mature. The two did all the work themselves: digging trenches, laying a concrete foundation, milling wood… really, all of it! Robin looks back and says, “We were deeply exhausted (and living in a construction zone) for a good five years. But now we have this beautiful, handmade, imperfect house that we can look back on with immense pride.” And that imperfect house has been the perfect backdrop for Robin and Ty’s artistic lives to flourish. —Quelcy

Photography by Robin MacArthur 

Image Above: Robin says, “I wanted our house to be intimate and cozy (for both style and necessity; we heat with wood only), but also spacious, in order to allow for privacy and foster creativity. I wanted rooms that would bring us together — around the wood stove, around the kitchen table — but also rooms that any of us could disappear into.”

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Warmth, history and context emanate from the kitchen. Robin explains, “My husband built our kitchen cabinets by hand, from wood cut and milled on our land. He left the raw edge on the countertops, and you can still see the tap-holes from when the sugar maples were tapped to make maple syrup. I love when things tell stories.”

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Robin loves this view because it traces the growth of their family’s cabin. “Our house is just the right size for us now, and I love how its shape and rooms tell the story of our family’s evolution: from two, to three, to four. I love the tiny house movement, but I’ve been there, and no way would I go back with a family of four: I’m a fan of houses with many rooms.” Robin painted the large piece, and everything else, except the West Elm couch, was salvaged and collected.

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The living room was Robin and Ty’s original insulated cabin, and now, appropriately, it’s their living room and main heat source. Robin says, “My decorating goals are intuitive and evolving: everything but the couch is salvaged or handmade. I want the things in our house to tell stories, to remind me of people and places and things. And most of them do: art made by friends and family, furniture handed down from relatives.” Case in point, everything in the living room, except the couch, was thrifted or handed down: her great-grandmother’s chair, artwork from her grandmother’s attic, and a coffee table made from her children’s crib.

 

 

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A living room nook filled with many of Robin’s favorite things: a desert panorama salvaged from her grandmother’s house, feathers, the Beatles, chili-pepper lights and Bjork. Robin says, “Our house is full of quirks and imperfections — in part because we weren’t experienced carpenters when we built it, and in part because it’s such a patchwork quilt. I’m a fan of leaving traces of that story: there are former external windows that lead into closets, there’s exterior siding (wooden shakes) in several hallways, there are wide gaps in some of the flooring because the wood we milled didn’t have long enough to dry (there was a baby on the way!).”

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Robin’s favorite things in the office/playroom are the “flying dragon,” which her dad carved out of wood for her daughter when she was a baby, and the painting on the wall by Anne Eaton Parker.

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Nestled in the light-filled office is Robin’s desk, where she wrote her novel, Heart Spring Mountain. The pictures on the wall serve as little reminders and tokens of inspiration.

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Robin and Ty chose their cabin home for the creative lifestyles it would afford them, and it has paid off. Robin’s second book,  Heart Spring Mountain, comes out this January.

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Of this cozy bedroom, Robin says, “This is the second story of our original cabin. I love that it hasn’t changed much in all these years. My son was born in this room, and it has sheltered us remarkably well.”

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Robin and Ty expanded their cabin as needed, but this is the current configuration. Robin jokes, “I’m a fan of the Japanese notion of wabi sabi (imperfection), which is good, because our house exemplifies it.”

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Author, musician, wife and mother, Robin MacArthur in front of her hand-built Vermont cabin, the very spot she chose when she was a restless 16-year-old.

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Robin further explains, “I’m grateful for the way [our home] shelters our family, both physically and emotionally. I’m grateful for its warmth and light in winter, and its porch and peach trees in summer. We love to host, and I’m grateful for the casual comfort of our home’s various light-filled spaces, where our family and our guests feel at ease.”

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Comments

  • Now THIS is inspiring, a house built with love, not worrying about perfection. I love it, this is my dream as well. Bless you and your family!!!

  • This beautiful home is clearly made and filled with love. Still, I never quite understand when some homes are described as “built by hand.” Aren’t almost all homes built by the hands of carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers and the hands of many others? Does “built by hand” suggest built by the hands of the owners? Really, just curious as I’ve always been mystified by that description.

  • As a midwife and mama of two home birthed kids, I know the magic of living in the space where your child was born. Makes this tour look that much more beautiful to me.

  • What a lovely space. We are the third owners of a home that was built “from scratch” by its original owners, and I absolutely adore the imperfections that result from that. This is making me want to go build my own cabin though!

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