Chet’s Tiny Backyard Dream World

garden with waterfalls and model pirate ship and dock

The Orbit hit pay dirt right away at the great annual Highland Park neighborhood yard sale. The very first stop yielded copies of The Floaters cheese-soul astrology by way of the classified ads slow jam Float On” (the full 12-minute album version). Sadly, thirty-eight years later, Larry is still looking for a woman that loves everything and everybody.

We also found one from that other Larry–Larry Norman and his bluesy Jesus-rock concept album Something New Under the Son (recorded the same year as “Float On”!). So this off-duty blogger slash on-duty record fiend was sated almost before he’d begun.

Of course we soldiered on, following some enticing signs off Highland towards a side street. There, we came to one particular sale that didn’t have any merchandise worth perusal, but the most amazing back yard world opened up behind the sale tables set up along the street.

The house’s owner Chet (we only got a first name) told us that he’s been gradually building this tiny fantasy world for the last thirty years. On the one hand, it’s an outdoor two-or-three-season model train set, but it’s also so much more.

Chet individually hand built huts, log cabins (one includes an outhouse–in use), a church, farmhouse, stable, greenhouse, bungalow with garage, pirate ship, floating river dock, a bridge, surf shack, windmill, and fire tower. He told us he rearranges the train set and building layout every year when the world re-emerges each Spring. And that’s all on top of the permanently-landscaped pair of waterfalls and flowing river that run through and around this part of the yard.

The full eco-system lives outside for the duration of the season with only the thick cover of the giant elm tree over head as protection. It’s miraculous that these tiny wooden houses survive so well. But then again, they’re protected by magic.

model cabin with man in outhouse

backyard train set with model buildings

model house, garage, and old pickup truck

model hut and church

model church and surf shack

model log cabins with waterfall in background

model river scene with bridge and dock

Say Hello to the Heidi Houses of Highland Park

house in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi house #1, Highland Park

The Orbit is generally not big on cute, or quaint, or anything too goo-goo ga-ga–that is, unless you get all doe-eyed for fading paint or crazy person graffiti. But if these elfin charmers don’t warm your heart, well, then you have no heart to warm. Tucked away in the back corner of the one-way-in/one-way-out Cordova Road circle in Highland Park sit two lovely little fantasy cottage-houses straight out of Hans Christian Andersen, or maybe The Sound of Music.

With its peaked Alpine roof, pointed turret entrance, Tolkien door, and cattywumpus brickwork, the first of these is really the picture perfect Heidi house. As we visited, its front garden was in full bloom, a hodge-podge of unmatched flora that echoed the irregular, asymmetric design of the house.

The impossibly narrow dormers must provide absurdly little daylight to the second floor, but they sure look great on the outside! In fact, I expect this house is probably a lot better fantasy than practicality–but we’d rather spend our time in the astral plane.

house in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi house #1 in full Spring bloom

Right next door, there’s a slightly more conventional, but equally magical home. Its front dormers cut into the porch roof with gentle curves that suggest excited brows to the windows’ ogling eyes; the porch below a grinning gap-toothed smile. And what’s not to smile about? The thick piled stone supports and wood railing look equal parts Bavarian der kutenhaussenmaken (look it up) and woodsy Adirondack lodge.

Both properties have an idyllic setting up against the thick wood of Heths Run Greenspace that extends as far as one can see and must make the perfect silent shady backdrop to their inevitable side decks.

house in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi house #2, Highland Park

Bonus! Just around the corner on King Avenue sits what can only be described as a set of Heidi row houses, for, you know, when Heidi comes into the city. One solid block of five adjoined residences in a similar (if less dramatic) Teutonic style to the two houses on Cordova. The roofline cuts at an unusual angle allowing dormers on both the second and third floors, casement windows, and deep, pre-A/C porches, guaranteed to keep herself cool even in the worst summer humidity.

connected three-story rowhouses in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi row houses