Cabins Inspired by Railroad Depots and Fire lookouts

From Trains to Towers

I’m excited to report that two cabin plans by Montana architect Jeff Shelden of Prairie Wind Architecture (one of which I mentioned in a previous post) are now part of our Signature Studio. Both designs draw inspiration from what you might call “the short and the tall” of the architectural past. Late 19th century American railroad depots, like these

from Cornell, Wisconsin and Missoula, Montana provide a perfect point of departure (and an irresistible metaphor) for vacation house design because of

their crisp outlines and straightforward structure, not to mention their promise of escape (vintage postcard from collection of Duane Hall, courtesy Greg Meier, Bruce, Wisconsin; color photo by bdbrewer courtesy Virtual Tourist). Jeff

retained the depot details in Plan  547-2, as you see in his rendering, complete with large brackets supporting the roof’s shady overhang. However, inside,

the 1,040 square foot cottage is all about easy modern living. The great room at the center is flanked by the master suite on one end and a guest bedroom on the other. It could be expanded into a larger year-round home by connecting the entry to new rooms or a garage.

Jeff’s other cabin is inspired by US Forest Service fire lookouts

built during the 1930s, such as this one on Mt. Brown in Glacier National Park (photo courtesy Jeff’s interpretation — Plan 547-1 below, is

vividly romantic. The pyramid-roofed design is all about escaping into the wild. As Jeff tells it, the fire towers “were a place where life and relationships were condensed to their essential elements, where nature overwhelmed and embraced

those lives.” The 576 square-foot structure — it also resembles a rustic water tower — has a stone base containing the cooking/dining area, which

functions as an old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen. You’ll notice that the

  has no bathroom — the original design called for a composting toilet some distance away from the cabin. So you’ll need to modify the plan to suit your own requirements. The second floor is one room for living and sleeping and

opens to the wrap-around cantilevered deck, as shown above. The ribbon of 

windows and the scattered books let the gaze as well as the imagination wander. Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for prompting dreams of summer getaways!

Renting a Lookout

If you want to try bunking in a fire tower before actually building one, you are in luck: various historic lookouts are available for overnight stays now that new technologies perform similar functions. Just remember, it’s all about the view because the interiors are spartan. Visit Recreation Rentals of the Pacific Northwest (part of the US Forest Service) for more information. Here’s a sampling in Oregon:

Fivemile Butte Lookout.

Hager Mountain Lookout.

Bolan Mountain Lookout.

Drake Peak. Enjoy the panoramas!

9 responses to “Cabins Inspired by Railroad Depots and Fire lookouts

  1. Really liked Jeff Shelden’s depot cabin design. Jeff’s design is simple, small, eye catching, and very functional. I’m a life long rail fan and always dreamed of renovating a depot into a home someday. The hassle of finding one and likely extensive renovation costs have deterred serious consideration. Building something new that has the look of an old depot has always seemed more practical. I recently retired and my wife and I would like to downsize. The depot cabin looks like a good prospect for us.

  2. I think for the fire lookout cabin, I would just make a completely below-grade basement with a restroom in one corner, a pantry in another adjacent corner, and a game room for the other half. This would only add minimal cost to the construction as long as it is kept simple enough.

  3. Great plan on the house, but would consider two changes an improvement. Place fireplace where desk is and make it double sided so it is available for Master Suite too and that makes the kitchen open for bar stools so the whole room is an active space. Is the ceiling of the living room open? A timbered space would be great along with a wide deck all the way around. Really serviceable in so many ways. Congrats on the concept.

  4. Excellent comments and design suggestions! Thank you for writing.

  5. Great post and some great designs – I would agree with Tyler’s above comment. For the fire lookout cabin – add a basement – can be anything you want – but definitely adds that extra space.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. The Depot House does have some design options, without a doubt. The plans include an option for a basement version of that house, as well. I have built a version of the lookout cabin that DOES have a basement as described–it houses a cistern, the HVAC system, and an office for the owner, and was a practical and simple option at that site, with the right topography.

  7. The narrative contains two links to 547-1; but the initial single-story structure should point to 547-2.

    Both are great designs!

  8. Is “from trains to towers” available in a book? I am looking for floor plans of the same.

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