Home & Design July 17, 2008

The Iconic A-Frames

Could you imagine a B-Frame?

The triangular design concept known as the A-frame was a post-World War II phenomena that hit America in its quest for leisure outlets. As author and architectural historian Chad Randl states in his encompassing book on the iconic A-frame, it was “the right shape at the right time.”

The A-frame’s ascent to popularity coincided with an economic expansion that brought vacation homes within reach of a rapidly expanding middle class,” he writes in A-frame. “As Americans began to enjoy longer weekends and extended vacations, they yearned to get away from their everyday life, to obtain what was once available only to the rich: a second home in the country.”

Architecture in the late ’50s, early ’60s, Randl explains, was in flux and without one readily-identified trend. Technological advances, population growth and cultural influences were bringing about new ideas and variations on the old. As Time magazine noted of the emerging A-frame in 1961, “The A-frame is not a new idea. The first man who leaned two poles together and threw a skin over them had a rudimentary version of it.”

Americans were embracing postwar prosperity. It was “the era of the second everything,” Randl notes.

Making these homes easy choices for vacation home properties was the fact that you could buy a “kit” to build them, often for less than $1,000, and erect a second home in just a few days.

“It was visual interest at the right price,” says Randl.

Soon, churches and businesses, from Howard Johnson’s to Whataburger, were adapting their concepts to the style.

“The A-frame’s popularity is particularly impressive when one considers it came about despite inherent and obvious flaws in its form,” writes Randl.

“Simplicity, a dramatic shape, ease of construction, and low cost imposed certain limitations, some of which were hard to avoid without losing the triangular look.”

The main liabilities, he says, include a lack of space and light and climate control challenges.

Still, he says, “the A-frame offered great flexibility, and designers responded with ingenuity.”

And so the A-frame would prevail and adapt for two decades.

It is not surprising then that the vacation home style would surface in ski towns across the country, and Ketchum was no exception.

By 1970, after 20 years in the limelight, however, A-frames were oft dismissed as a silly fad. Randl recounts a 1968 cartoon that ran in Ski magazine he says defined the public’s reversal.

“Attempting to escape a typical downhill resort, the intrepid skier completes a journey to the other side of the world, only to find identical runs, leading down to an identical cross-gabled A-frame, in Afghanistan,” he writes.

Other complaints about the style were that they were cramped and lacked privacy, Randl says.

Local longtime Realtor Alex Higgins of Sun Valley Associates says they can be a challenging sell.

“It is functionally pretty inefficient, that’s why you don’t see them being built anymore,” he says. “They are a step back in time.”

But for anyone interested in them, Higgins says nostalgia and price are factors. Those that sell these days he believes are also often sold for the land they sit on, not the structures themselves.

Sun Valley Real Estate’s Tom Drougas has a soft spot for the old style. He recently sold one to an architect and he owns one himself. Both are situated on exquisite spots along the Big Wood River, natch. >>>



“Yes, I am in fact very familiar with them,” he says. “I bought it for the site. Having said that, I quite enjoy the space. I think it’s a wonderful architectural image with its upward orientation; it has a cathedral-like quality.”

The one he sold was bought by someone who “enjoyed the classic mountain imagery of the A-frame,” Drougas says. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he repeated the structure with a new building next door for a garage and office, both with upward views of Carbonate through tall windows.

As for his own hut, “I think it has a real cozy quality to it without being too compressed.” And actually, despite its reputation, Drougas says his is quite energy efficient, heating easily and cooled by opening windows. The way the snow piles up along the angled roof adds natural insulation, helping to protect the home from wind and heat loss.  

Drougas’ was a kit, and modified, while the Hailey house was built by the same designer of the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls and is “hell for stout.”

“It’s a very significant structure and though the owner did a redo cosmetically, he really respected all the language of A-frames.”

Drougas uses his part-time, in the spirit of escapism that they were built in, and says he understands the limitations of making an A-frame a primary residence. “They are limited in terms of storage capacity, but you can work around that,” he says. “I don’t see it as a new trend that’s going to have new life, but my advice is, try it out. It’s not bad.”

Not bad is an understatement to Shaun and Stefany Mahoney, who purchased an A-frame in Bellevue not long ago for its quirkine

“We have always liked unique houses and this one was really unique,” says Stefany. “The only challenge we really have is hanging up pictures.”

“I’ve always been a fan,” explains Shaun, who grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota where most lakes were surrounded by A-frame getaways.

The Mahoneys met the grandson of the original owner, who provided them with the history of the home. It began its life in Warm Springs with a metal frame, moved to East Fork, and finally to Bellevue, where it was redone in wood.

The exterior conceals a roomy interior of 1,900 square feet. “It’s a real optical illusion,” Shaun says.

A basement serves as the bedroom space, with two bedrooms and two baths. The main floor is the kitchen and entry and the upstairs is the living room.

“I just think it’s a lost art,” says Shaun. “They are becoming extinct and it’s too bad. I love them.”

This article appears in the Spring 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.