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Tiny House Big Idea
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Ben Lochard
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With a twist on the tiny house theme, a local writer creates her own getaway studio, a colorful gypsy wagon.

While some writers thrive in a hustle-bustle atmosphere with phones ringing and colleagues conversing nearby, Linda Mason Hunter of Des Moines prefers quiet time alone for her creative work.

Although the 100-year-old three-story farmhouse she shares with her husband has many rooms, and their four kids are grown and flown, she still finds working from home frustrating, at times impossible. “I can’t work when I’m interrupted,” she says. “My husband, Bob, a retired law professor, doesn’t mind being interrupted, and he can’t understand why I find it so bothersome. But I do.”

So she built a gypsy wagon, a private studio for writing and painting, and parked it in their backyard. “If he really needs to talk to me, he can call me on my cell. Otherwise, my rule is pretty strict. Leave me alone.”

Ahead of her time

It might appear that Linda has jumped on the trendy tiny house bandwagon, a popular social movement in which people choose to downsize the space they live in, but that’s not true. “I’ve been collecting books on the subject since the 1970s, when I became interested in self-sufficiency. It has always been a passion.”

For those new to the idea, Home and Garden Television (HGTV) offers opportunities to binge-watch programs on the topic, such as Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Builders, and Tiny House, Big Living.

Linda also enjoys entertaining friends in the gypsy wagon for morning coffee or afternoon wine. At 84 square feet, the wagon holds three people comfortably, four if one’s a child.

“I love creating interesting spaces,” Linda says. “When I was a kid, my parents were constantly remodeling our bungalow. I grew up with sawdust in my cereal. Largely because of that experience, I’ve spent a career writing about houses, architecture, and design. It’s in my blood.” She worked full-time as editor of Remodeling Ideas magazine for Meredith Corporation and Practical Homeowner magazine for Rodale Press.

A pioneer in the green home movement, she has been editor of or contributor to 13 books and has authored six. Her first one, The Healthy Home: An Attic-to-Basement Guide to Toxin-Free Living in 1989, led to an appearance on Good Morning America. Her most recent book is an allegory for children, Three Green Rats, An Eco Tale. Currently she is working on a memoir of her childhood.

Idea takes form

While working on a story in the 1990s, she visited Jay Shafer, owner of a tiny house he built in Iowa City. That meeting seeded her idea for a gypsy wagon. “Jay took his tiny house on the road,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to live like that full-time, so I didn’t need a kitchen or a bathroom.”

A couple years ago she discovered Sean Spain of Johnston, an artisan (working under the name Farm Boy Technology), and was impressed with his talent and résumé, building sets for Hollywood movies and straw-bale houses in New Mexico. Sean’s passion is finding unusual uses for recycled materials. “I love collecting interesting pieces and repurposing them in creative ways,” he says. “I have been building all my life.” So far he has built six little houses for customers. His current project is constructed on an old fire truck.

Linda’s wagon is built on a flatbed trailer so it can travel on the road. Because it’s mobile, it didn’t require a building permit, but it does need a license plate.

Corrugated-aluminum siding, rimmed on the bottom with recycled fencing, adds rustic authenticity to Linda’s wagon. She designed a colorful stained-glass window to fit in the recycled door. At the rear of the wagon, staggered shingles under the metal roof mimic detail found on both sides. The five energy-efficient slider-style windows are new.

Linda also collects architectural bits and pieces and incorporates some of them into her wagon, including corbels from her father’s office and cast-iron stars, which add a three-dimensional element.

The final detail added was a stair handrail made of osage wood, which Sean says will last a century. “I love that detail,” Linda says. “I needed something that was sturdy but could be quickly removed for travel. Sean came up with this design that reminds me of the old English nursery rhyme: There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile... He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, and they all lived together in a crooked little house.

Plans call for the wagon to be completely off-grid by winter. For now, the wagon remains hooked into the main house’s electrical system.

Wagons are based on the designs of Romanian gypsies or Irish tinkers, who lived nomadic lives. Most of the wagons have rounded roofs and what Sean calls the “gypsy flare,” the slightly flared walls that curve out to meet the roof. Linda and Molly Spain, Sean’s sister, created the design for the red, blue, and gold embellishments. Molly, an artist and designer, added a painterly touch inside and out.

Every inch inside has a purpose. For comfort, Linda likes to stand up to write rather than sit for hours at a time. A pull-out counter adds square footage to her small desk. Directly across from it is a small cupboard that contains dishes and silverware, plus a drawer with a built-in enameled bowl for a sink. Cushioned benches along both sides offer seating and storage underneath. For peaceful naps or all-night campouts, a raised bed catches breezes on three sides. A cot, placed at a 45-degree angle, fits underneath for a second sleeper.

Not the first

This is not the first structure Linda has enjoyed at the back of her property in Des Moines. “For many years I had a 14-foot-diameter teepee with a fire pit right in the very middle. The light of a small campfire at night lit up the canvas walls from the outside, making the teepee appear to glow. We had so much fun with it. But the teepee was made of canvas, so of course it couldn’t last forever.”

She calls herself a “shelter person,” a lover of homes and structures to live and work in.

“When I was a little girl, I dreamed of having a carousel in my backyard when I became a little old lady,” Linda explains. “I wanted to always keep the wonder and playfulness of childhood alive, no matter how old I got to be.”

Tucked among the trees in a corner of the Hunters’ property, the gypsy wagon appears to live in a primeval forest inhabited by fairies, gnomes, and perhaps a crooked little old lady who wants to be left alone. A living fantasy, indeed.


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