She'erah's Little House on the Flatbed

This house was built in the spring/summer of 2000 to satisfy a dream of many years of having a "little house on a flatbed" at Pennsic (like some of the merchants do). It was assembled at Coopers' Lake Campground, where it lived year-round through 2023 when the new management at Cooper's Lake evicted it and many other structures.

The house is based on architecture from the mid-10th century in Cordova, which was then part of al-Andalus (a Moslem empire). While She'erah is Jewish, there do not appear to have been distinctly-Jewish styles of architecture. (Well, I did put up a mezuzah case...)

front of house, with owner (Pennsic 30)

front-side view (Pennsic 31)

interior view (Pennsic 29)

back view (Pennsic 30)

front and one side on a sunny day (Pennsic 31)

our crew painting and putting on the roof

Exterior

Buildings during this period seem to have been primarily stone and brick, but due to my need to move it around (and my need to do this affordably), this one is made of wood. Walls were white-washed stucco, and sometimes the stucco was elaborately carved, at least in significant buildings like mosques and palaces. We don't know much about the houses ordinary people lived in.

You can't really see it in most the pictures, but the walls have been painted with texturing stuff to give the loose appearance of stucco that has been painted over. We mixed some crunchy stuff (accoustic ceiling tile mix, actually) into the paint and put it on in one thick coat. One of the helpers described it as "like painting with cottage cheese". It'll get a second coat at some point. Here's a picture that shows the texturing:

top of front (photo by Niccolo)

In 2001 I added a carved panel above the door. It's based on a tree-of-life motif in a carved marble doorpiece. I made mine with a sheet of quarter-inch plywood and a jig saw:

tree of life (Pennsic 31)

At the same time we also added the "stonework" (version 1) to the corners:

corner

Window screens [2] were used to provide diffuse light inside with some degree of privacy. At least two of these screens have survived, carved out of marble; the carving in one (not shown here, see [2]) loosely resembles knotwork. (This being a Moslem land there are no creatures, just geometrics.)

image from a mosque in medieval Spain

Secondary and tertiary sources indicate that screens were also carved out of stucco (and probably wood); a stucco screen survives from Syria at about this time. Because I am not much of a carver, and because this is a house and not something fancy like a mosque, I opted for off-the-shelf lattice to give approximately the right look. So the screens are wood, but are painted with the texture stuff to look like stucco.

Here are some pre-painting pictures. Note the "stone" trim around the windows, which is actually individual, bevelled pieces of wood:

arched window with fake stone trim

same window from the inside

closeup of stone trim

exterior, side view

exterior, other side and back

And finished. Notice that the windowsills are angled outward to channel rain water away from the interior.

arched window from inside (Pennsic 31)

window at top of stairs, with shutter, from inside (Pennsic 29)

windowsill detail (Pennsic 32)

side and front view, exterior (photo by Niccolo)

front and other side, exterior, set up in camp with sheetwalls

The doorway is taken from a minor portal on the Cordova mosque [1], built around this time:

stone horseshoe arch with contrasting bricks over a pair of red-brown doors

There is no (surviving) decoration in the arch, but a good deal of the stucco that was there has deteriorated. In the summer of 2001 I added a "tree of life" in this spot, based on a carved marble wall-piece from c.950; I did mine with a jig saw, a piece of plywood, and paint.

The arch itself is constructed in a way similar to the window trim; here's the pre-paint view:

unpainted front

unpainted arch detail

And finished:

front

doorway

one more front shot

Roofs were tile, which was sub-optimal for my purposes. (I suspect tile roofs weren't meant to be driven around on flatbed trailers. :-) ) This roof is made with ABS pipe cut lengthwise; the top pieces are cut every foot or so (to mimic tile), overlapped slightly, and screwed to boards; these boards are then screwed to the plywood roof. The bottom pieces are whole, for the sake of getting this done this summer and preserving the sanity of those involved. The pitch of this roof is a little steeper than that of the ones in Cordova; we get bigger snowfalls in Pennsylvania.

Here are some pictures from the roofing party:

laying tile

getting organized

scaffolding helps!

up on the roof-top...

a close-up

tar-paper time

Interior

Interior walls, too, were often stucco. Some interior walls were carved stucco, such as in the Cordova synagogue [3]:

interior arched nook with elaborate geometric carving on the wall above; farther up, deep arched exterior windows are seen

This specific building is later (but provides a good color picture). The shape of the curved windows is also taken from that synagogue. In some of the buildings that have survived, the walls appear roughly ivory in color. Whether this is the effect of age, a photographic distortion, or an indication of the original coloring, I can't say. I decided that I didn't want glaring white inside the house, so I opted for a light-cream color (actually "eggshell", for those who care). The inside is also painted with the texturing stuff. I haven't done anything about carving yet, but am thinking about a panel on the back side walls in 2004. (Update: that never happened.)

interior as seen from outside the door (Pennsic 30)

beams under the loft (left)

beams and closet under the loft (right)

from the inside, looking out the front door (Pennsic 29)

The "oak" beams under the loft were added in 2003 to cover the trios of 2x6s in the construction. I couldn't find real oak vaneer locally, so I bought quarter-inch plywood, cut strips of the correct widths, bevilled the edges, and nailed them over the 2x6s and stained. (I say "I", but actually, Leifr Hjamson did all the parts involving the table saw, of which I'm somewhat afraid.)

I have no clue whether a loft would have been built in a house of this time, but I wanted the extra space and I had to fit in with Pennsic land-allocation rules. (This house is 10x20 on the exterior, so with the trailer hitch and the front steps it's pretty close to one person's land allocation.)

doorway to steps

loft viewed from top of steps toward the front

landing at top of steps

front of loft with oil lamp above, viewed from main floor

loft (upstairs), photo by Niccolo

another view of the loft

The Cordova mosque (the only building of this time for which I've seen interior ceiling pictures) [1], has exposed beams, either in a dark wood or painted or stained dark. (I can't tell which from the pictures.)

interior, row of columns along left side leading up to a dark ceiling with dark, close-fit beams or planks

Someday I may paint the rafters and ceiling. I have no plans to put in a "finished" ceiling. Here's the ceiling (not the loft underside) as it currently exists:

rafters at front of house with sister joists across the peak

The shutters on the windows (sometimes shown here unfinished, but that has since been fixed) are a concession to Pennsic weather. Shutters were not in evidence in any of the sources I looked at. I don't know how they kept rain out -- maybe they had some sort of curtains, or maybe the windows were deeply-enough set that the rains they got didn't cause problems. The shutters are on the inside for a few reasons: (1) this preserves the attempt at correctness for the exterior, (2) they would have covered the "stone work" around the windows on the outside, and (3) making easily-removable (or hinged) window screens turned out to be challenging, so something that closes from the inside was much easier to deal with.

The steps to the loft are hidden behind the back wall. (It's actually more like a ship's ladder than actual steps. This, too, is due to space constraints.) I don't know what real steps for this period looked like.

steep 2x4 steps (photo by Niccolo)

steps viewed from above

The steps have to emerge near the center of the building because of the overall height (I was working with a 16' limit ground to top of roof), so there was some extra space on the first floor. Hence, the closet. (There is no finished wall on the left, so the space under the steps is accessible for storage.)

The loft occupies about half of the length of the house, which is enough room for a sleeping area. The loft also serves a structural purpose; it helps keep the walls square when the house is in motion. For smaller houses this might not be an issue (you should ask an engineer), but my walls are almost 14 feet high at the tallest points, with only a 10x20 base, so this was a source of concern.

Living in it

The house is very comfortable to live in at Pennsic under a variety of weather conditions. Because of the number and placement of windows, there are nice cross-breezes during the day and the house does not get hot (even in the loft). We think we also, accidentally, got some "air conditioning" in the roof; there is air space under the outer tiles, and the tiles are black, so they heat up that air and it has nowhere to go but up and out the vent at the ridge. Pretty neat. During the hottest part of the day, it's actually cooler inside the house than it is under regular canvas flies, even though the house has walls and the flies don't.

Rain is not especially loud on the plastic roof.

Setup is easy: drive it in, and then use jack stands on the 4 corners to make it level. (The hitch also has a jack built into it.) My group contains perfectionists, so it was truly level (measured and everything). I like having perfectionists around. :-)

Aspirations

An incomplete, unordered list of things I wanted to do:

  • Put in wood soffets (currently there is air space between the tops of the walls and the roof) (in progress)

  • Add some "carved stucco" to the inside of the house

  • Replace the modern doorknob (a quick and dirty fix) with something more plausible (there's no handle/knob on the exterior of the doors I copied from, which open inward, and I haven't seen the inside to know what kind of handle they had there)

  • Maybe paint the floor to look like stone (or, alternatively, research tile for this period -- pointers welcome!)

  • Paint fake stone on cloth (or some such) and attach it to the frame on the outside to hide the trailer frame and wheels

  • Figure out what a real 10th-century mezuzah case would have looked like and replace the modern one (I've had no luck finding mezuzot from this period, thus far, though we know halacha required their use)

Maintenance

Some lessons learned thus far (2003):

  • You can't keep the critters away. I've never had mice get in, but birds and hornets have built nests in my eaves between Pennsics. And I've found feathers (though no actual animal parts) inside the house. Come prepared for this.

  • Buildings stored on site will get dinged. Touch-up painting will be needed more frequently than for stationary buildings. One of my corner pieces was taken out, presumably by another vehicle, and had to be replaced. These things happen; storing some basic tools in the house to deal with these problems during Pennsic isn't a bad idea.

  • Do not let a house like this sit on the tires while in storage. Or if you do, bring spare tires and/or a can of air with you to Pennsic. And a shovel, because it will have sunk into the ground and you might not be able to get a jack in.

  • The roof stood up to Pennsylvania winters without problems.

  • Lesson learned the hard way: prime both sides of your plywood before sheathing!

Credits

sign: brought to you by Habitat for Nobility, BMDL chapter

Johan von Traubenberg did the detailed design and drew up the blueprints from She'erah's vague drawings and descriptions. He's a civil engineer professionally, so I know I can trust it.

The construction was primarily done by Jim Mast, who did a fantastic job and managed to adapt when the DMV wouldn't let him drive the trailer in after all. (So he put my trailer, and all the pre-made pieces, onto a bigger trailer and drove that in.)

Johan came up with the idea for the roof, and he and Leifr Hjalmson made it and put it on (with help from Hreffna, Alaric, and Esmeralda).

Many people helped paint, including: Dani of the Seven Wells, Ts'vee'a bas Tseepora Levi, Genevieve du Vent Argent, Tofi Kerthjalfadson, Alistar Scott MacCrummin, Hreffna, Alaric MacConnal, Branduf, Hilda, Esmeralda la Sabia, Bjornwolf, Johan, and Leifr.

Leifr, Johan, Arianna, and Brion helped build the steps and shutters (at Pennsic 29).

Update for Pennsic 30: Johan, Hreffna, Ts'vee'a, Dani, Alistar, and Kenneth Johanson helped install soffits, "stonework", and the "tree of life" above the door.

Update for Pennsic 32: Leifr helped make the oak vaneer for the loft beams, and Alaric helped me install it. These two also helped me hang the three oil lamps, one from the ceiling and two under the first beam of the loft. The oil lamps were made by the "young Muslim lad" (now a Master of the Laurel) who sells in Potters' Hall at Pennsic.

interior pre-paint

painting the tippy-top

from the loft, unpainted

abort the priming! dark storm clouds over the unpainted house

Pictures

Several of the pictures on this page were graciously provided by Niccolo diFrancesco from Meridies; visit his gallery. Most of the rest of the pictures taken at Pennsic were my doing. (As you can see, Niccolo is a much better photographer than I am. If anybody else out there has pictures, I'd love to see them.)

The pictures from before the house was painted were taken by Bob Hansen. The pictures from the painting/roofing party were taken by miscellaneous people.

Sources

[1] Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992.

[2] The Art of Medieval Spain, AD 500-1200, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993.

[3] Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, edited by Vivian B. Mann, Thomas F. Glick, and Jerrilynn D. Dodds, George Braziller in association with The Jewish Museum, New York, 1992.