Chicken coops in Philadelphia suburbs go chic

Bob Burch's French Norman-style coop with 25-foot stone tower in Gladwyne houses 30 chickens.
Bob Burch's French Norman-style coop with 25-foot stone tower in Gladwyne houses 30 chickens. (TONI ANN FLANIGAN / Philadelphia Gardens)
Posted: April 13, 2013

When Cara Graver was growing up in Malvern, that part of the world was a lot more countrified and backyard chickens were definitely not considered divas.

"They lived in a concrete block building, nothing fancy," says Graver, 66, a potter who had a similarly boring coop at her wooded home in Chester Springs, Chester County - until 2011, when you might say opportunity fell.

A tree crashed on top of the old chicken house, and Graver lost no time replacing it with a round, adobelike coop that looks like it belongs in the desert or a glossy magazine.

"I didn't want to buy a chicken coop. That's not interesting," Graver says.

The desire to upgrade, embellish, and otherwise transform the humble boxy chicken coop into a poultry playhouse, or palace, is not uncommon these days. You'll find wraparound porches and brass fixtures, chandeliers and cupolas, installed on replicas of Victorian mansions, English manor houses, New England saltboxes, and even automobiles.

Graver's new coop, undoubtedly one of a kind, is made of cob, an ancient concoction of wet clay, fine sand, chopped straw, and water that has enjoyed a revival in the last two decades among sustainability enthusiasts. She learned of it in 2002 from a friend's daughter who was reading The Cob BuildersHandbook: You Can Hand-Sculpt Your Own Home by Becky Bee.

"I saw a drawing of the most adorable little hut," Graver recalls.

Intrigued, she signed on as an apprentice at an Oregon cob building school and today, out in the yard, she has not one, but two "adorable little huts" - a studio with green roof for herself and the funky coop for her family's eight chickens and two guineas. She made both herself.

For Graver, who as a child "longed for something made out of adobe," this was both a creative exercise and the continuation of a lifelong habit of having poultry around for entertainment and eggs.

For others, raising chickens, along with keeping bees and growing vegetables in elaborate raised beds, has taken on another role as fashionable accessory.

"Chickens and chicken coops are on trend right now. They're very popular," says Lauren Tarzia, associate public relations manager for Williams-Sonoma, which in 2012 launched a so-called agrarian line of homesteading products that look like props in a romance novel.

Tarzia declined to provide sales figures, but said the line began with two coop styles that, with growing demand, soon became eight. The top of the line is a $1,499.95 Western red cedar model with stylish metal roof and built-in planter.

"A couple of trends all in one," Tarzia notes.

The product line also includes a $69.99 stoneware chicken waterer, a $49.95 Amish-style egg basket, and $12.95 egg gift crates.

Harold De Stefano, of PA Dutch Builders in Blue Ball, Lancaster County, works with the real deal - Amish carpenters, who make chicken coops and other wooden structures.

"A lot of people are wanting to raise chickens," De Stefano says, describing "people who want the eggs but want to do it within their budget, and people who don't care how much they spend."

The Quaker models are the most popular, especially the 4-by-6-foot size, which sells for $1,450 to $1,495, depending on roof material. Automatic doors, solar panels, working windows, heated floors, and skylights are extra.

And, frankly, a little puzzling to the Amish, De Stefano says.

"It's just chickens to them. They know that if you put up a little tent or whatever, the chickens are fine with that. Those fancy coops are for the people, not the chickens. And a lot of people want their neighbors to see what they have."

Bob Burch's Gladwyne coop isn't visible from the front of the house, but what a sight! It's more castle than coop, designed in French Norman-style architecture to blend with the seven other buildings on the 65-acre estate that was built in the 1920s to mimic a village in Brittany.

The coop features a 25-foot-high stone tower with a turreted top and tile roof, caged runs, nesting room for 30 lucky Rhode Island Reds and guinea fowl, with accents of wrought iron and stainless steel.

Best of all, at least from a human point of view, there's a dining area on the second floor, perfect for family picnics.

Burch, a venture capitalist, calls the coop his "folly," in the British horticultural tradition. "Follies are the sort of buildings that have no serious purpose, that are just pleasant to the eye, and that's what this really was.

"It just happens to house chickens," he says modestly.

But really, who cares about modesty?

Lisa and Dave Stockebrand's Elkins Park chicken coop started out as a playhouse for the previous owners' kids. For their 10-chicken flock, the couple installed plexiglass windows, protected runs, and a black-and-white-checked vinyl floor made of Home Depot remnants.

There's talk of a yard-sale chandelier, $5 max, and jokes - we think - about WiFi. "I'm not giving them a pool or a Jacuzzi," says Lisa, a textile conservation technician.

She describes the coop as "practical and only slightly extravagant." The neighbors call it "Fort Knox."

And you better believe it's built to last. "Anything my husband builds is going to last through the zombie apocalypse," Lisa says.


Staff writer Carolyn Davis contributed to this article. Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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