By PENELOPE GREEN
September 23, 2015
BARRYVILLE, N.Y. — Five years ago, Zach Klein, a successful tech entrepreneur then in his late 20s, was living in New York City but dreaming of the wilderness. A former Eagle scout, partner at CollegeHumor, and founder of Vimeo, the elegant online video platform, he was in between ventures, teaching entrepreneurship at the School of Visual Arts and spinning cycles, as he put it, while looking for land to buy — a lot of land — upon which he hoped to spend time building things and reconnecting to the scouting skills of his childhood.
Most urgently, he hoped he could persuade his friends to come along for the ride.
Mr. Klein got lucky in Sullivan County, N.Y., where he found 50 acres of forest with an understory of ferns and mossy boulders, lightly accessorized with a rough-hewed, one-room shack free from plumbing and electricity and a separate sleeping porch perched on a steep hill overlooking a rushing stream called Beaver Brook.
The property belonged to Scott Newkirk, a New York designer, and much of its appeal lay in Mr. Newkirk’s aesthetic: His shack and porch were lovely enough to have been featured in New York magazine. After 10 years there, Mr. Newkirk was ready to move on, and for about $280,000, Mr. Klein had found his utopia.
Beaver Brook, as he named it, inhabits a nexus of themes: a millennial’s version of the Adirondack camps of the robber barons, the back-to-the-land movements and intentional communities of the 1950s and ’60s, and a combination folk school/artists’ residency.
While hedge funders tend to express themselves in ever-bigger shingled simulacrums of early 20th century waterfront estates, those in the tech world who’ve enjoyed similar success may be more interested in experience, community and relationships, as Lane Becker, a founder of digital start-ups and the author of “Get Lucky,” a tech business primer on serendipity, pointed out.
“To the extent they want to spend their money, it’s on stuff like that,” he said. Mr. Becker and his wife, Courtney Skott, a furniture maker, were in Denver last weekend for a wedding, staying with a couple — a start-up entrepreneur and a television producer — who had rehabbed a Masonic Lodge. “They Airbnb some of the rooms out,” Mr. Becker said, “less because they need the money but because they’d like to get know different people. That’s sort of the model of what Zach’s doing. Some might see a sort of hipster-twee affectation, but I think there’s a more genuine impulse at work.”
Mr. Klein’s inspirations are familiar: the writings of Stewart Brand, the ’60s era eco guru and editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue; and John Seymour, the author of “The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live it, ” along with the architectural ideals of Christopher Alexander. Other touchstones included a maple sugar shanty he once visited as a child, a community of Hobbitlike tiny houses called Trout Gulch built by some tech friends in Santa Cruz, Calif., and a yurt village built by a family in the Adirondacks.
But his pitch was pretty simple, said Courtney Klein, a digital strategist and entrepreneur, who married Mr. Klein at Beaver Brook in 2012. “It was, ‘Let’s get a piece of land and we could bring all our friends together and have a good time.’ ”
And so it began. In August 2010, the couple hosted a weekend of “bonfires, contemplation and wood chopping,” among other activities. They cooked stew in the shack, now called Scott’s Cabin, for Mr. Newkirk, and which Mr. Newkirk had outfitted with a propane stove, and washed up by hauling five-gallon containers from the brook.
Some guests bunked in the shack and sleeping porch; others pitched tents among the ferns. The experience was the model for what would be a kind of weekend commune, an experiment in episodic off-the-grid-living with a core of eight friends that has grown to about 20, including five children (Nell Klein arrived just over a year ago. )
There was Brian Jacobs, a sound designer and composer and Mr. Klein’s former roommate in New York City. He had been a junior Maine guide and his proficiency with an ax served the group well. There was Jace Cooke, a founder of the tech start-up Giphy, and other young creatives — animators, app designers, musicians and filmmakers.
Mr. Jacobs brought Grace Kapin, who worked in fashion, one weekend; having survived that, they are now married and building a cabin there. Before long, everyone became handy with chain saws and other power tools; they brought in more experienced builders to oversee large projects and teach the group carpentry skills.
There were rookie mistakes. An early project, a barrel-shaped tub, floated away one spring when the snow melted and the brook rose. Composting drew bears. (Ms. Kapin named their ursine visitors: Alan Ginzbear, Stephen Colbear, Marion Beary.)
The group made art on their camping weekends, including a winsome short film about building a stool from an oak tree, and took enticing photographs that looked like they had been art-directed by the editors of Kinfolk magazine. Since 2009, Mr. Klein had been collecting images of sheds, shacks, cabins and huts into a Tumblr blog he called, cunningly, Cabin Porn, and he also posted Beaver Brook’s embellishments, captured in those photographs, there.
When the blog, an enchanting rabbit hole of tiny handmade houses, quickly went viral, his private utopia became public record, and book publishers came courting, seeing in Cabin Porn the architectural equivalent of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York. The result, “Cabin Porn: Inspiration for Your Quiet Place Somewhere,” is out this week from Little, Brown.
Three years ago, Mr. Klein began inviting artisans like Tom Bonamici, a product designer with an expertise in woodworking and timber framing, to hold annual weeklong workshops at Beaver Brook for paying students to learn building skills. Mr. Klein, whose latest endeavor is DIY, an online “maker” site for children, is keenly interested in turning Beaver Brook into both a folk school and an artists’ residency.
After his first workshop, and at Mr. Klein’s urging, Mr. Bonamici, a gentle Oregonian with a passion for traditional Japanese timber framing, became a Beaver Brook resident.
Like all utopias, this one changed as it grew. It was three years ago that the Bunkhouse was built, on a piece of land across the brook with road frontage, electricity and a well. Camping in Scott’s Cabin or in tents strewn about the hill had lost its luster, Mr. Klein said, “People got slower and slower about volunteering to do the dishes on cold nights.” And without power, Beaver Brook’s season was contained to the warmer months.
Yet there is some nostalgia for the time “before,” when there was no cellphone coverage, Wi-Fi or hot water. This year’s Beaver Brook workshop project was timber framing, the foundation for an outdoor kitchen the residents hope will bring some of the action back to the Arcadian side of the brook. Six students paid $500 for Mr. Bonamici’s tutelage; the fee covered a week’s worth of chef-cooked meals and groceries (Mr. Klein and Ms. Klein paid for materials and Mr. Bonamici’s stipend).
On the last night of the workshop, students and residents ate by candlelight among the sturdy framework they’d built. “It was like old times,” Mr. Klein said.
The Bunkhouse, Mr. Klein said, was also bait for a plan he was hatching to draw Ms. Klein, Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Kapin into full-time residency at Beaver Brook. The four discussed buying a local market, perhaps putting a bar in its basement until Ms. Klein put the kibosh on the plan.
While Beaver Brook, she said, “did snowball pretty quickly from something that had more meaning than a weekend house,” it was not her life plan to settle permanently in rural Sullivan County.
“Courtney was the voice of reason,” Ms. Kapin said.
The Kleins have since moved to San Francisco, where DIY is based. Ms. Klein and Ms. Kapin, who still lives in Brooklyn, are partners in Storq, a line of maternity clothes that Ms. Klein founded.
Mr. Klein and Ms. Klein are Beaver Brook’s owners, and they pay taxes and insurance on the properties. Beaver Brook residents are divided by their dues into two categories: Bunkers pay $150 a month for a guaranteed bed in the Bunkhouse. Campers pay $75 a month for a spot across the brook.
Bedrooms at the Bunkhouse, an airy open-plan house designed around the frame of a 19th-century barn, are first come first served. It’s the most practical system, Mr. Klein said.
Last year, 100 people, give or take, spent at least one night in the house. Over Labor Day, he and Ms. Klein and Nell were sleeping in a first-floor bedroom that has been outfitted with a crib, one of three separate bedrooms.
Most of the sleeping options are communal: In an open loft space upstairs, there are two double beds; the Bunkroom, which is also upstairs, has eight futons on its wide-planked yellow pine floor. It’s Mr. Klein’s favorite place to sleep. “I love being up here with eight snoring buddies,” he said.
As for projects, there is one simple rule, Mr. Klein said: “As long as the thing you want to do doesn’t cause irreversible change, just go for it.” Idan Cohen, an amateur chef, organized the building of a cob oven one work weekend this summer. As it happens, Ms. Kapin’s and Mr. Jacobs’s stunning wedge of a cabin, dubbed Clydeshead for their dog, Clyde, was Mr. Klein’s idea.
“It’s his special skill to talk people into doing something ambitious,” Ms. Kapin said. (Given Mr. Klein’s hope to anchor his friends more permanently to Beaver Brook, one suspects in this instance a deeper motive.)
With a budget of $10,000, Mr. Jacobs’s and Ms. Kapin’s original vision of a cube tucked into the hill receded pretty quickly. “Once we talked to people who knew what they were doing,” Mr. Jacobs said, “we realized we’d have to build a retaining wall, there’d be backhoes involved…”
Mr. Jacobs’s brother, Mike, is an architect, and he designed a refined 350-foot rectangle cantilevered out over the hill that uses the surrounding trees as supports. That particular innovation depends on treehouse technology, an anchor bolt known as a Garnier Limb. (Michael Garnier, an Oregon based treehouse builder — and treehouse dweller — is sometimes known as the father of the modern treehouse movement.)
There are Beaver Brook rituals, like the annual talent show, held New Year’s Eve in the Bunkhouse. Newbies earn a nickname after their third night on the property, and following a requisite post-sauna plunge in the brook after dark. (Mr. Klein’s is Zubaz, for the virulently patterned pants that he and other Buffalo Bills fans like to wear. Ms. Kapin’s is Guns, for the Linda Hamilton-like biceps she developed building her cabin.)
On work weekends, newcomers might be assigned grunt work chores like path maintenance. “It is much, much harder than you’d imagine,” Ms. Kapin said with a slight shudder.
There’s an email chain, for planning projects and working out domestic issues. Laundry has been particularly thorny. With so many beds and no assigned rooms, the residents were struggling until it was suggested they bring their own sheets and towels. One resident offered to cross-stitch everyone’s names on their linens.
Beekeeping has been broached as a project for next summer (Mr. Klein has a hankering for mead). In August, Mr. Klein sent around a Beaver Brook logo he and Mr. Cooke designed as a book stamp for their growing Bunkhouse library.
Unlike the vicious, trollish tenor of, say, the internal communiqués of Manhattan co-ops, Beaver Brook residents write with civility and a regular refrain of “awesome!”
“I think this is an important step,” Mr. Klein wrote, weighing in on the recent laundry discussion, “towards delegating the responsibilities for making BB work, creating a more camp-like culture, and raising the bar of participation to be more intentional. Cheers or jeers?”
Back home in San Francisco, the email chain is Mr. Klein’s primary online community, as he pines for his East Coast retreat.
Sunday nights are rough, he added. “It’s when everyone is driving back to the city from Beaver Brook,” he said, “and I get a flurry of photos of the meals they’ve made, or of building the cob oven, and I feel on some level I’m missing out on the life I made.”