by Sherry Lefevre
In vacation houses bedrooms are for sleeping or reading in bed (or whatever else you do in bed) but that’s about it. No one’s going to hang out in a bedroom when there’s the possibility of eating and drinking and enjoying the company of everyone else in the living room. There’s no need for a desk, thank God. No need for a dressing table either, given how tan and healthy you look. No lounge chair required-- you’re lounging downstairs.
This is why many a wise contemporary vacation house follows the model of Nantucket’s 17th and 18th century cottages, wherein, when day was done, you just needed a bed.
According to Forman’s book Early Nantucket and Its Whale Houses the east bank’s early whaling cottages were built to accommodate a six-man boat crew. Plank board partitions divided the “Great Room” from the sleeping cots. Often a loft was constructed at the sleeping end of the house, accessible by cleats in the wall or a ladder. Ceilings in these lofts were about three feet high. Men slept together under the rafters, nestled among the spiders. Being seamen, they were used to packing into berths and sleeping with the wind and rain pounding a few inches from their heads. Indeed, much of the architecture of those houses was simply Ship-Building 101.
Willow Harp in Sconset still contains one of these lofts, accessible by a ladder in the living room, or by rose trellis on the shingled exterior if you’re Romeo. The small three over three window is probably all of twelve feet above the ground. When Bill Moore and his wife Siobhan built an outbuilding office next to their 18th century Sconset cottage Sans Souci, they also created a sleeping loft in the exposed eaves, complete with small windows at mattress level that give a glimpse of the ocean when the trees aren’t in full foliage. In today’s college dorms a similar practice, called “lofting the bed,” is a popular way to create more study and general living space, but given that students are not allowed to cut out a window by their pillow or remove the ceiling to expose exterior sheathing, their bed lofting is a poor imitation of a true sleeping loft.
Because, if practicality has been the driving force behind diminutive bedroom architecture, it certainly hasn’t been its principal advantage, witness the testimony of many an author. I remember almost nothing of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (which I read when I was ten) except where Heidi chose to sleep. It was her first concern when she entered her grandfather’s house:
“’Where am I to sleep, grandfather?’
‘Wherever you like,’ He answered.
…In the corner near her grandfather’s bed she saw a short ladder against the wall; up she climbed and found herself in a hayloft. There lay a huge heap of sweet smelling hay, while through a round window in the wall she could see right down the valley.
“I shall sleep up here, grandfather,” she called down to him, “It’s lovely up here. Come up and see how lovely it is!”
In the entire world, is there a child who wouldn’t have made the same choice? And why is that?
I suspect it’s because, like a tree house, a loft is only half civilized; the other half is an adventure in nature. When the wind blows, when the rain hammers, when the moon is high enough to move its search light along the planks above you and the floor below you, the loft sleeper is only a few inches from spilling out into the night.
This insight is part of the genius of George MacDonald’s classic, At The Back of the North Wind, published in 1871. It is the story of a sick young boy’s adventures with North Wind, a beautiful woman with a moon-like face and dark clouds of hair who invites Diamond to climb into her tresses and fly away with her into the night. Diamond first encounters North Wind while trying to get to sleep in his loft above the horse stables.
“The wind was rising again, and getting very loud, and full of rushes and whistles. He was sure someone was talking—and very near to him, too, it was. But he was not frightened, for he had not learned how to be; so he sat up and hearkened. At last the voice, which though quite gentle, sounded a little angry, appeared to come from the back of the bed. He crept nearer to it, and laid his ear against the wall.”
What distinguishes North Wind from other night-flying companions like Briggs’ The Snowman and Barrie’s Peter Pan is, well, Diamond’s sleeping loft. At least this is what I will argue. North Wind is complex. She is angry, clever, humorous, sexy, fierce (she morphs into a wolf), wise, obviously capricious, and ultimately, as she develops allegorically, she becomes Death. She is every aspect of the experience of a person confronting night in a sleeping loft whose edges disappear into impenetrable darkness, whose thin membrane of shelter is too tantalizing for the ravenous spirits that stalk the night to resist scratching away at. North Wind makes sleeping in a normal bedroom seem like a homework assignment.
Wendy and her brothers slept in nursery beds. So did Briggs’ young boy. The clown-like Snowman and generically adolescent Peter Pan took their guests for a romp, but a pasteurized one. Diamond dies at the end of Mac Donald’s book but we are oddly consoled by the knowledge that North Wind is now his eternal companion. Subtexts abound; who wouldn’t want to be ravished the way he was by North Wind and then die?
In Shimmo, Duncan Fog, an architect, is also at heart and in practice a sailor so he couldn’t resist putting both a sleeping loft and a berth-like bedroom in his guest cottage. When I visited both I realized I would have to modify my thesis. It seemed clear to me that North Wind was more likely to visit the sleeper in his berth than his loft. That is because his sleeping loft is capacious—light, airy and beautifully finished in gleaming white. The queen-sized bed occupies the center of a sidewall, away from the window and remote from the high pitch of the ceiling.
The berth is equally beautiful in its finishes; Duncan is a master carpenter with exacting standards. It is shaped the way a ship berth should be, with curving sides to protect the sleeper from sudden surges and pitches. Its trim is a beautifully varnished mahogany, the color of caramel candy. But when the light is out, the berth sleeper, unlike Duncan’s loft sleeper, can’t escape the shadows that fall in from the window. He can only console himself by remembering the cradle shape of his bed as he tunnels down under the covers.