Prickly Mountain Boy

Warren architect David Sellers likes to work as the architect-builders of Europe's great cathedrals did shoulder to shoulder with the craftsmen and artists who turned their visions into reality.

With an eye to the future and an affinity for the past, David Sellers imbues his work with exquisite grace and presence

by Rosalyn Graham

David Sellers is an architect, not the god Janus but he does seem to have a knack for looking backward and forward at the same time, emulating the master builders of yesterday while crusading for a future with more people-friendly communities.

His approach to architecture brings to mind the architect-builders of the great cathedrals of Europe, who envisioned beautiful, soaring structures, working with the craftsmen and artists who turned those visions into reality. Before he graduated from the Yale School of Architecture, Sellers had decided he would be an architect who knew how to build things.

"Today that seems unusual for an architect," he says, "but it may not have been unusual 100 years ago. For thousands of years, the architect was the master builder, and the craftspeople who made things were part of his team. They worked as a group of artisans. I intuitively knew I wanted to do that."

Sellers' vision also focuses far into the future. He loves to teach, passing along his philosophy of the architect as one who can see what is needed to make a town or city into a real community, encouraging a return to a time when people lived and worked in villages.

His vision would be for sprawl-free zones with developers encouraged to put their businesses and recreation centers in the hearts of towns where people can walk to work or shop or play. He would have a pedal/electric trolley linking the towns. Although he hasn't had much luck with Vermont town leaders, he is working on inventing the pedal/trolley.

Inventing things is part of Sellers' success. When he designed three onion domes for the top of the latest addition for Dr. Patch Adams' Gesundheit Hospital in West Virginia, his team of craftsmen built them in the studio in Warren. When President Jimmy Carter's Department of Energy was looking for proposals for windmill technology, Sellers designed a windmill and won national government contracts. His most recent invention is the Mad River Rocket.

"I realized that we had hundreds of acres of mountainous terrain in Vermont where there is no way to enjoy a gravity sport because the trees are so close together." Sellers thought that if a person were willing to eat a hearty breakfast and climb up through the snow, there should be a way to slide down and have fun. He invented a sled that can zigzag down the hill safely carrying its kneeling passenger on a thrilling adventure. Unlike the ski and boarding hills, this sport could be free, and it does not involve cutting down trees or building parking lots.

The Lodge at Lincoln Peak

The Mad River Rocket was merely fun for Sellers and his friends for 10 years. Then two years ago, he decided to make it available to the public. He continues to refine the designs, but has turned the marketing, demonstrating and sales coordination over to a young duo Whitney Phillips and Jesse Rennau who sit as president and vice president of Mad River Rocket in a small office in the Sellers & Co. headquarters.

The biggest project Sellers has ever done the $100 million Lodge at Lincoln Peak now being built at Sugarbush Ski Resort demonstrates his love for incorporating a building into its environment and the environment into the building. As Win Smith, chairman of the board of Summit Ventures, the three-person partnership that bought the resort in 2001, says, "David had had ideas about how the base area of a ski area should be developed and had shared them with previous owners."

Sellers' concept did not appeal to the American Ski Co., and they were proceeding with a plan for a hotel that Sellers called "a privacy wall," blocking the public's view of the mountain.

When Smith, whose mountainside home Sellers had designed and who had worked with Sellers on the reconstruction of the historic Pitcher Inn, bought the resort, he looked at Sellers' proposed design and said, "Here's your chance, David." Smith says the design has several important features: It doesn't hide the majesty of the mountain, it fits into the contour of the side slope, and it twists and turns to harmonize with the landscape.

Smith describes Sellers as a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright and a fan of the great lodges of the western mountains. "We thought a ski resort in the East could reflect some of the timeless features of these lodges," Smith said. The Lodge uses trees cut from the land where it sits. Decoration is with maples and birches, and there are great boulders in the three-story grand foyer.

Sellers is excited about the project a 200-room hotel with two restaurants, a conference center and underground parking and the fact that it will glean its character from the local materials; the hundred trees in the lobby; and the carving, stained glass and furniture by area craftspeople. Smith describes Sellers as "one of the most creative and interesting people I've ever met. He has a real love for the valley and the environmental integrity of the area. His work celebrates the village, the town, the state and the environment."

Brian Carter and Andy Weber work in the Temple of Dindor, their name for David Sellers' workshop. The name was inspired by the Egyptian nature of the mammoth fireplace. Sellers created the space to also serve as a gathering place and celebration area when the team completes a project.

It's been quite a trip from the moment when Sellers' family put him on the train in Chicago to go to Yale to study science. He graduated from Yale and assumed he would go on to study business, but a graduation present from his aunt a trip to "see the world" took him to France where he ran into a young man who told him that architecture was the greatest job in the world.

When Sellers asked him what was needed to be a "really, really good architect," the young Frenchman said, "You have to know science and math, have to have a really good imagination, and you have to be good at drawing." Sellers knew he had two of the three requisites. He spent a month testing his drawing abilities, then applied to the Yale School of Architecture.

As Sellers neared graduation, he decided to take a radical step away from the school's model of sitting in an office drawing things. He recruited some of his friends and said, "Let's go somewhere and make something."

They found that land was cheap in Vermont, and they reasoned that they could build "wacky" vacation homes that might sell to New Yorkers eager for a change from the city. They arrived in the Mad River valley and bought 400 acres "way in the backwoods of Warren," says Sellers.

With 30 days of credit on materials from the local lumber yard, the group lived in tents and started building things. Life magazine heard about it and published a big spread on what the group was doing. "Walter Cronkite even did a thing on us," says Sellers.

Dubbed Prickly Mountain, the neighborhood became "like an architectural retreat," he says, and for the first 10 to 12 years, he encouraged other architects to build experimental buildings there. "We ended up with a little bit of a neighborhood with real radical architecture."

What began as plans to stay for a year continued into the 1970s and ended up a quarter of a million dollars in debt. "It was a nightmare," says Sellers. "Really experimental."

A lot of learning resulted from Prickly Mountain, though architecture, building skills and handling financial risks and it became the foundation for Sellers' career in Vermont and all over the country. In Warren, Prickly Mountain is infamous for the action floats that its residents have contributed to the annual Fourth of July parade since 1965, making Warren "the Fourth of July Parade Capital of the U.S.," Sellers says with a grin.

As an outgrowth of Prickly Mountain, Sellers developed the first design/build concept while teaching at Goddard College. Out of this experience evolved the creative work of John Connell, a student of Sellers from Yale who founded Yestermorrow School, where people who want to build something come for hands-on experience that they can take home and use.

Sellers' influence permeates the landscape. Hired by a Williston citizens group to interface between them and Ben Frank, who was developing the Pyramid Mall, Sellers was able to persuade Frank to turn the mall's plans into a village concept, which we know as Maple Tree Place.

In the 1980s, he did an urban design study for then-Mayor Bernie Sanders and was instrumental in giving a boost to such Burlington icons as the Flynn Center and development of the waterfront.

He and Don Mayer, later the founder of Small Dog Electronics in Waitsfield, started North Wind Power Co., Vermont's first windmill company, now known as Northern Power and employing 75 people. Sellers' homes have appeared on HGTV's "Extreme Homes" series he groans when reminded, and adds, "and we were on the cover of Fine Homebuilding magazine last year and the cover of Architectural Digest and Life magazine, and a lot of European and Japanese magazines publish our work, too."

David Sellers is an inventor as well as an architect and builder. He designed the Mad River Rocket, a sled that can zigzag down a hill through the trees, safely carrying a kneeling passenger.

Sharing his talent and experience has been a principal part of Sellers' life. He taught at Yale from 1975 to 1982 and continues to lecture there about once a year. He also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a year and the University of Washington in Seattle for about six years, and at "a whole bunch of other places," he says.

It may have been a search for a place to conduct his post-graduate architectural experiment that brought Sellers to Warren, but in the 40-plus years since then, he has fallen in love with village life. His design office is upstairs in the former Odd Fellows Hall on Brook Street, and home is a few steps away, across the rock-strewn trout stream that runs the length of the little town. "My commute is very easy," he says.

One ongoing project fits perfectly with his philosophical links to the early cathedral builders. In 1982, he won the competition to finish the largest and last Gothic cathedral in the world: The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. "I worked on it about 10 years it was an amazing project but they don't have any money to do anything," says Sellers.

The church has been raising money for this work for years, but has often found the need to put its funds to other, more charitable uses, such as the war effort for World War II and a program to help alleviate poverty in Harlem, which is the church's neighbor. Sellers expects the project will take more than his lifetime. "It's a functioning cathedral and it's going to last forever. We can finish it up little by little."

They probably said something like that at Salisbury Cathedral and Notre Dame.

Originally published in May 2004 Business People-Vermont