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A custom-made playhouse allows a little girl’s imagination to soar.
But 4-year-old Birdie would rather make eggs for guests who visit her playhouse. Scrambled. Hard boiled. Your choice. Guests must bow their heads to get through the 48-inch-tall front door, but no one has to go inside to realize this is one special playhouse. “Birdie’s Nest” was completed last summer after a talented team made the child-size structure and furnishings.
The 8-by-12-foot playhouse occupies a corner of a Portage County back yard belonging to Birdie’s parents, Robert and Christine Torda. The exterior of the playhouse closely resembles the Tordas’ impressive Greek Revival-style house with four white columns, built on a hill “during the Depression years,” according to Robert.
When her daughter was 2, Christine decided that Birdie deserved a playhouse. She looked for a “log cabin” type of structure similar to one she had as a child. But Christine didn’t like the plastic versions and even the high-end playhouses didn’t offer what she wanted.
“I thought it would be fun to match our big house. And I am a frustrated interior designer at heart so I helped with the design,” says Christine, a health professional. “We had some constraints, including limited backyard space.”
Wisely, the house is narrow enough to fit on a flatbed truck and can be can moved off property if necessary. Birdie doesn’t know it yet, but there is a good chance she will want the playhouse for her children and grandchildren someday.
Birdie knows Robert Mizisin, owner of Commons Builders in Brunswick, as “Bob the Builder.” Mizisin took photos of the family’s house as reference when building the playhouse’s platform, roof and walls off-site. The wooden trim, windows and doors, all to scale, were also all made like the finest bakery served at a tea party — from scratch. “I thought maybe we should have added a full-size door on one side, in case some day the playhouse becomes a potting shed. But there’s plenty of time to think about that,” says Mizisin, noting that everything about “Birdie’s Nest” is heirloom quality and made to last generations.
Susan Lobalzo of Lobalzo Design Associates in Akron created the playhouse interior with two complementary themes, under Christine’s direction. As an infant, a hungry Birdie stretched her neck and made little gestures with her mouth like a baby bird, according to her mother. The nickname stuck. In addition to the name of the playhouse, other charming but subtle avian details are included. The one-of-a-kind bird head doorknocker, for example, was crafted to scale by Rocky Mountain Hardware in Idaho.
A Beatrix Potter-inspired motif is the other dominant look. As a child, Christine loved the English writer’s classic characters, including Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Benjamin Bunny.
The focal point in the playroom is a 3-foot-high, hand-painted tree mural on the back wall with Potter-like animals peaking from their homes. Look closely and you will also see a figure of a young girl who looks suspiciously like Birdie.
Wadsworth watercolor and acrylic artist Paulette Grubb painted the mural and covered it with a protective sealant to also make it washable.
“I have painted a lot of murals, but this one is unique,” says Grubb, whose wall murals can also been seen at Akron Children’s Hospital. “I spent two days painting the mural inside the playhouse. It was fun once I learned not to bump my head going through the door.”
Grubb also painted whimsical animals on a wooden hutch and kitchen unit made by Senn’s Custom Cabinets in Copley Township. Grubb’s acrylic paints bring to life an apron-wearing mouse holding a broom and dust pan, ready for her daily chores. Three cute rabbits enjoying a picnic are also depicted.
The kitchen unit features a recessed sink that is a really a large stainless steel dog bowl. A dainty, powder-room-sized, brushed-nickel faucet can be turned, but does not provide water. The faux digital stove clock is fixed at 6:12 — the completion date of the playhouse.
A pint-sized table and chairs in the middle of the space accommodate a “formal luncheon” with friends. Or it holds a breakfast of pretend toast and eggs, served for Dad, who occasionally camps out with Birdie in the playhouse loft. Because the space is not quite large enough for an adult to fully stretch out, Birdie’s sleep-sacrificing father admits to “not walking too well the next day.”
The table is flanked by two bespoke upholstered chairs covered with a top-of-the-line Beatrix Potter fabric from Cowtan and Tout. The sturdy chairs are wide enough for adults who come for Sunday brunch.
“I left the chairs armless so [children’s] growth could take place and because I wanted them to look like slipper chairs or little sitting-room chairs,” says Lobalzo, a former Kent State University and University of Akron interior design instructor. “I have grandchildren and I think almost everyone else involved in this project does, too. We are all in that stage of life and very protective and safety conscious as well.”
With a flip of a switch, electricity lights the diminutive and elegant glass-bead chandelier that hangs overhead, as well as outside lantern-type fixtures. But no electric cords, heaters or outlets were used in the playhouse. A railing alongside the loft bed and safety glass windows with screens are other precautions. A proposed hard tile floor was rejected for softer particleboard flooring painted in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Those dramatic colors also “ground” the more subtle pastels in the space, according to Lobalzo.
The playhouse is truly a fantasy for little girls. But little girls grow up. Right now Birdie likes ballet, skiing, frogs and her dog, Matilda. But what happens when she decides enough is enough of little hedgehogs in pink dresses? When she’s old enough to use the playhouse to escape parents or use in private whatever electronic device she will own in 10 years, then what?
Lobalzo suggests canvas inserts be installed over the hand-painted parts of the hutch or other provisions be made so Birdie can paint whatever she wants while preserving the original artwork. Birdie may be untrue to Peter Rabbit at some time in her young life, but wait until she has her own family. Christine says “every adult female who sees the playhouse falls in love with it.”
“I want Birdie to remember the playhouse as a magical, special place from her parents,” says Christine. “A place that is just her own.”
Well, maybe hers and carrot-stealing rabbits.