She'erah's little house on the flatbed

NEW: Look here for Polyhymnia's half-timber kitchen structure!

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 lives year-round.

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...)

She'erah and house front-side view interior view back under construction


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:

front top (with texture)

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

At the same time we also added the "stonework" to the corners:


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.) 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 arched window (inside) trim close-up side view side and back

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

arched window (inside) window at top of stairs windowsill detail side/front view (exterior) side view (exterior)

The doorway is taken from a minor portal on the Cordova mosque [1], built around this time. 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. (Pictures will appear after Pennsic.) The arch itself is constructed in a way similar to the window trim; here's the pre-paint view:

unpainted front 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 walls, too, were often stucco. Some interior walls were carved stucco, such as in the Cordova synagogue [3]; 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.

interior under the loft (left) under the loft (right) looking out

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 in the loft landing

loft railing (and lamp) loft (upstairs) another loft shot

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.) I will, eventually, apply a suitable hardwood veneer to the exposed 2x6s under the loft to give the right appearance. 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:


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.

steps looking down

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. :-)

packing up finished painting early stages

Future plans

An incomplete, unordered list of things I still plan to do:


Some lessons learned thus far (2003):


credits 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 tackling the inside yours truly

from the loft more painting abort the priming today!


Several of the pictures on this page were graciously provided by Niccolo diFrancesco from Meridies; visit his gallery: Niccolo's Pennsic pictures. 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.


[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.


She'erah bat Shlomo (mka Monica Cellio) can be reached at the following address (spelled out this way to deter spam): "cellio" at "pobox" dot "com".