Clarksville, Maryland, designer Norma Hoff surprised her
grandchildren with Lilliput Play Homes’ Cotton Candy
Manor, which comes complete with operable windows,
a working doorbell, and a second-story balcony.
Even before Norma Hoff had grandchildren, she knew she wanted to spoil them with a spectacular place to play. “I’d been collecting vintage toys and furniture for years and couldn’t wait to get the chance to use them,” says the Clarksville, Maryland, designer. So when her daughter gave birth to twins, Hoff began her search for the ideal luxury play home and eventually surprised the now five-year-olds with Cotton Candy Manor, a confection from Lilliput Play Homes that was completely furnished with everything from a scaled-down sofa and chairs to a miniature baby grand piano. “They squealed and screamed and told everybody they saw that they have their very own house at Grandma’s. Their expressions were worth every penny,” says Hoff.
It’s no wonder these youngsters were over the moon about their new digs. Not only does their estate-style home have hardwood floors and operable windows, it also boasts a skylight, a doorbell and a loft. As Hoff’s miniature home shows, the sky truly is the limit in today’s high-end playhouse market.
Designer Michelle Pollak, co-founder of La Petite Maison in South Carolina, entered the luxury playhouse niche back in 1999. “I was frustrated with the lack of well-designed items for children and did not like the fact that so much of kids’ stuff was thrown away after just a few months,” she says. So Pollak and builder Alan Mowrer started a company that now offers top-of-the-line play homes built to luxury-home specifications. She says the average price for a La Petite Maison design ranges from $15,000 to $40,000, while some have garnered more than $75,000.
Although all of its work is custom (so expect a wait if you hope to buy one), it’s not unusual for La Petite Maison to design and build a look-alike replica of a client’s main house; in fact, that request comprises a large percentage of the company’s business. When it comes to interior furnishings, nothing is overlooked—from the working sink, refrigerator and powder room, to the cable-ready media room, granite countertops, chandelier and crown molding. Heating and air-conditioning are oftentimes a must, as is a garage with remote-controlled doors to house the kids’ automobiles.
Filling a gap in the industry is how many of these companies got started, including Finleyville, Pennsylvania-based Lilliput Play Homes. Owner Stephen Chernicky was looking for a playhouse for his then two-year-old daughter about 20 years ago. “He couldn’t find one he liked so he built a Victorian-style one for her himself,” says director of sales Patty Toner. “Many of his neighbors began requesting ones for their kids, and after spending weekends and vacations building them in his garage, he decided to start his own company.” Most of Lilliput’s models are in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.
San Francisco-based Barbara Butler, on the other hand, happened upon her success as a playhouse designer. She was designing backyard decks when one of her clients, singer Bobby McFerrin, requested a play structure for his kids. She concocted a whimsical design complete with carved totem poles, a tire swing and slide—and was hooked. Today, Butler specializes in custom-designed playhouses, especially tree houses for unusual terrain.
“Remember how kitchens and bathrooms used to be a small part of a remodeling budget, until people realized they live in those rooms?” she asks. “Well it’s the same thing with the backyard. Parents now realize they want their kids to play in the yard so they are creating great spaces for them. Why not make it the same quality as the main home? You have to look at it every day—and your kids play in it every day.”
But instead of luxury, Butler prefers physical challenges and amenities that provoke the imagination. Her designs include climbing walls, zip lines, slides, theaters for putting on plays, pulley buckets and swings. “I love working with the kids to find out what they want,” she says. “And now it seems kids are obsessed with jails—so I build them into the design with all sorts of secret escapes—they just love that!” However, all of this creative stimulation comes with a hefty price tag; depending on the intricacies of the design, you can expect the cost to be well into the five-figure range for a Barbara Butler design.
So why are parents—and grandparents—willing to shell out big bucks for play structures? “When our kids were little, my husband built them a fort in the backyard and they played outside all the time and just loved it,” recalls Norma Hoff. “So when I had grandkids, I wanted to give them that same experience and create something really special for them.”
Andrea Edmunds, president of Richmond-based PoshTots.com, agrees and says the Cotton Candy Manor from Lilliput is her best-selling playhouse. “It’s a place where imaginations grow,” she says. “I would much rather see kids outside pretending or playing school, rather than sitting inside watching television or playing video games.”
These mini-homes also instill a sense of security for parents. “Parents want to keep their kids close to home, rather than letting them roam around the neighborhood,” says Pollak. “When they’re outside in their playhouse, they are independent and having fun but still close enough that Mom and Dad can keep an eye on them—plus they’ll have lots of friends over to play because you will be known as the coolest house on the block!”
La Petite Mansion custom-designs all of its playhouses,
which include such features as Victorian turrets and
Options on playhouses by La Petite Mansion include bay windows
and dormers, as on this cottage design.
Lilliput’s Teddybear Tudor with a thatched roof.
Barbara Butler creates a wide selection of playhouses,
tree houses and forts that let kids run wild, including this
Tuscan-style Casa de Arbol.