While very little in Esherick’s own words exists about the initial construction of his studio, this passage from “I Build a Building – or – He Helps Me Build a Building,” an unpublished essay about building the site done at the encouragement of Esherick’s close friend, the writer Theodore Drieser, gives a sense of the Studio’s earliest beginnings as an idea soon to be made real. Esherick details the path as he walked it with “Old Jack,” a man who once worked as a waterboy to the local quarrymen. The path led through the woods, and Esherick would follow it from Sunekrest (his family home purchased in 1913) towards the studio site in order to view the open expanse of the valley below. Prior to building the Studio, Esherick used $350 given to him by family to purchase the 7 acre parcel so that a quarry would not be reopened on the site.
As Esherick moved from painting to creating works in wood as his primary artistic practice in the early to mid 1920s, it became clear that he would need additional space beyond his small barn studio adjacent to Sunekrest in order to satisfy his ambitions. Despite not having any formal training as an architect, Esherick set about designing a space that drew from three primary influences: the writings of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and his concept of organic architecture that grew seamlessly from a landscape; the architect and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), whose esoteric spiritual movement anthroposophy included an architectural framework that prioritized curvature and forms from nature; and the vernacular architecture that already populated the hillside, especially local banked barns with massive stone walls.
The Studio (1926) melds all of these ideas in a building which seems to grow directly from the site itself. It evokes a barn, but one with stylized, tapered walls that curve out at the base like a tree trunk. Where a farmer might have had a large door for a hay wagon, Esherick placed a large north-facing window with ribbed glass to diffuse the light that entered the primary space, which had a partially earthen floor. Vernacular architecture was literally incorporated into the site. Hand-hewn timbers from a soon-to-be demolished water wheel owned by the family of Aaron Coleman – a farmer who worked on the Studio’s construction – dictated the scale of the space. Cast-off sandstone used for local limestone kilns was instrumental in the construction, overseen by stonemason Albert Kulp. Coleman and Kulp are two of the figures now immortalized in the sculptural coat pegs Esherick produced for the Studio’s interior. Esherick writes of both the site and the building process in romantic and evocative terms: “The first day of laying stone was done as the mason wished to do it, slick square blocks one on the other; a good piece of wall, but not as I thought should be in a wild wood, high in the hill near the clouds.”
While Esherick constructed a garage just north of the Studio in 1927-1928, the first major shift to the Studio itself came in the late 1930s when Esherick began planning to enlarge the building in order to create living space there for himself and his son Peter, an effort made possible by the income from his commission to create a room for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Esherick was also able to purchase 12 additional acres of land to protect his trees and views. The prismatic structure, which was finished in 1940, displays links to Esherick’s interest in German Expressionism. After spending time in Germany beginning in the early 1930s, Esherick’s stylistic approach shifted towards one which centered internal feelings and ideas over realism and was formally expressed through his unique approach to geometry and asymmetry. By 1947, the new addition included a dining room and small kitchen; a tower bedroom for Peter made using wide oak boards from a local tree accessible via a pine spiral staircase; and a bathroom. The new walls built to contain these added spaces also tapered at their base, but prismatically rather than into a curve.
In a later letter, again to his friend Theodore Drieser, Esherick sketches the changes from the Studio’s first iteration to that of its second, writing: “Peter’s room is a tower higher than my bed room. You would like it.”