Space City

A Home at the End of the Yard

Parental love and where it leads

By John Lomax Photography by Max Burkhalter June 30, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Sam Fenton’s “Galveston House”

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” Kristi Schiller told the New York Times in 2011, referring to her daughter’s $50,000 playhouse in the backyard of Schiller’s River Oaks home. And why not?  The fully air-conditioned Cape Cod–style play palace came complete with hardwood floors under vaulted ceilings, a faux fireplace, and a 32-inch flat-screen TV, not to mention well-tended window boxes alive with blossoming begonias. Naturally, the manse was a huge hit with her four-year-old, Schiller said, but not only her. Adults who attended Schiller cocktail parties invariably found themselves equally impressed. 

The Times website promptly exploded with online comments from Houstonians, Manhattanites, and everyone in between. Some defended the parents—oilman John Schiller and his wife—saying such things as “Their money is theirs to spend as they wish,” “The playhouse created jobs,” and “If I had the money, I’d do that for my kids too.” 

Many, many more were outraged. Across the Internet, people likened the playhouse to Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. Some longed for hurricanes to level the little house, while others, equally vengeful but perhaps more realistic, hoped the house would be levied a hefty HCAD assessment. In short, a children’s playhouse became a lightning rod, a handy storage unit for every hell-in-a-handcart thought that its existence had occasioned. 

Lost amid the hand-wringing was the notion, backed up by experts in child development, that playhouses can help kids become more independent, not to mention give them more chances for imaginative and unstructured play (read: no screens). Experts also contend that such spaces are important opportunities for privacy, although they are curiously silent on the need for faux fireplaces and vaulted ceilings. 

But the Schiller episode wasn’t really about children’s development any more than it was about schadenfreude or class envy. It was about something no one likes to speak of. It was about the deep desire parents have to provide their children with strong and secure homes—and then, after that is accomplished, provide them with fake strong and secure homes. 

Derick Biddinger’s Tiny Town Studios creates Hollywood set–worthy creations for your backyard.

Sam Fenton has been a construction foreman on a three-story building project in Argentina, as well as the co-owner of a relief-and-development nonprofit in pre- and post-earthquake Haiti, revolutionary Libya, and 20 or so other developing countries. Still, it’s for his work in Oak Forest that Fenton may well be most remembered. 

There, in his capacious backyard, sits Galveston House, which stands a dozen or so feet high, atop stilts—hence the name with which his daughters christened it.   

Tiny Town Studios

“We wanted a treehouse, but all we have is that pecan tree and we knew that wouldn’t make it, so we put it on stilts and put it as close to the tree as possible,” says Fenton before his masterpiece, which he himself built with the help of his boss from the Argentina project. Like the Schiller domicile, the three Fenton kids’ home is wired for electricity, although in the latter case it serves the dual purpose of giving the family outdoor outlets and illuminating the backyard. In addition to real glass windows and a shingled roof, inside is a small loft accessible via a rope ladder. “I thought about having a fixed ladder, but the rope ladder deters anyone who’s too small from climbing up there because they just can’t do it,” Fenton says. 

Fenton’s wife Katy offers that the children love it because “it’s all their own,” while Claudia Kolker, the mother of one of the Fenton girls’ classmates, says the house is positively “legendary” on the school playground. The place has acquired, it seems, something of a reputation for wild dance parties and slumber parties of the whisper-giggle variety. 

Tiny Town Studios

When it comes to playhouses, it helps to be either mechanically inclined (Fenton) or rich (the Schiller playhouse was hand-crafted by custom builders in Colorado and shipped to Houston). But doting parents are rarely deterred by being neither, not as long as there’s a Store N Play in Midtown building playhouses ranging from simple lemonade stands to 80-square-foot “Manor” houses, not to mention doghouses, garden sheds and pool houses. 

Further along the fantastical spectrum are the playhouses Derick Biddinger is coming up with in his Tiny Town Studios. There, it seems, on the salt grass prairie backroads between Dickinson and Alvin, Disney is missing out on one heck of an Imagineer. Biddinger will happily transform your bedroom into the deck of the Starship Enterprise or your kid’s room into a pirate’s lair or castle stronghold. Still, it’s his outdoor Hollywood set–worthy creations that are truly in demand.

Galveston House

Biddinger is a pastor and custom-home builder who divides his time between the Houston area and Panama City, Florida. He is also the creator of a pirate-themed treehouse that’s a minor masterpiece, complete with crow’s nest, 15-foot mast, and cannon slits, its ramshackle wooden exterior festooned with rigging, boards nailed on haphazardly, and a hand-painted sign reading “Thar Be Pirates.” (Price? A shade under $2,000). 

Even more impressive is Biddinger’s ramshackle Country Cabin Treehouse. A down-home Deep East Texas answer to the Schillers’ Cape Cod cottage, the cedar-concrete-reclaimed-lumber structure features electric lights, bunk beds, a working waterwheel, mash still, and secret escape hatch for the junior moonshiners in your life. An adjacent play tower, topped by a water barrel, sports an eight-foot rock climbing wall and a 14-foot super slide. There’s a tire swing and a rope ladder and a cement pond and even an outhouse out back, and the whole thing is capped off with a rack of deer antlers above the door near the roofline. At $18,000, the price tag is admittedly steep, but hey, it’s still a bargain compared to the Schillers’ place.

Tiny Town Studios’s wares are popular coast to coast, and its Facebook page is studded with praise from customers as far afield as New York, St. Louis, and McMinnville, Oregon. But like Biddinger, they tend to be modest and press-shy. We discovered this first-hand when, at his suggestion, we called an Humble man and told him that a magazine was interested in hearing about his Country Cabin. 

“Is this a Ray Dickey prank?” he replied, laughing. We assured him we were not Ray Dickey, whoever that was. We really did want to know about his playhouse. The man went on to explain that he has many prankster friends, and then that he had originally set out to build a treehouse himself for his kids, but was too smitten by Biddinger’s creations. “He is a very creative individual and he had some great ideas,” said the man. Then: “Hey, I’m in a meeting. Can I call you back?”

Which he did … never. What was the fear? That all his achievements in life might be upstaged by his playhouse? That the structure might become “legendary” in Humble, with all the trappings that that implies? That his parental affection might provoke a Schiller-esque backlash? We’ll never know. It’s a subject no one likes to speak of. 

Filed under
Show Comments