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Feature

Boiceville Cottages U.S.A.

Fall 2011
by Bill Wingell
Karin Patzke loves to garden. Patzke, who grew up in Texas and did her undergraduate studies in Chicago, moved to Ithaca last year to work on a doctorate in information sciences at Cornell University. In Chicago, Patzke says, she was limited to growing some vegetables in containers in the yard behind her apartment building. Now she does her gardening in a raised soil bed she built herself next to the cottage she rents in a unique and colorful community in Brooktondale, just southeast of Ithaca.

Patzke lives in Boiceville, a collection of storybook cottages built by Bruno Schickel, a Dryden-based contractor known for his imposing residential projects throughout the Finger Lakes. Schickel began building his gingerbread and finial-adorned cottages in l996 and last spring completed a third phase of construction that brought the number of Boiceville rental homes to 36. Another 24 are planned, said the builder.

Schickel builds his eye-catching cottages in clusters of three in a layout designed by his brother, Thomas Schickel, an Ithaca architect. Karin Patzke lives in a cluster that is painted a salmon color with red trim. Her neighbors in the cluster include Lydia Morken and her husband, Peter Krinke, and Maggie Jones and her husband, Karl Stewart. Coincidentally, Morken, also recently from Chicago and a Master’s degree candidate at Cornell in regional planning, moved into Boiceville last year on the same day as Patzke. Jones, a Cornell doctoral candidate in policy analysis and management, and her husband had been living in Ithaca for four years and also moved out to Boiceville last year.

A helping hand

Schickel lives with his wife, author and syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson, on a 200-acre farm near Dryden. He encourages his tenants at Boiceville to garden, and provides soil for planting beds. Patzke and her neighbors took advantage of Schickel’s help.

When it came time to build her raised bed, Patzke said, “I wanted to use some rot-resistant lumber but I didn’t want to use lumber that had been carted across the country – there are plenty of sawmills around here.” An Ithaca lumberyard advised her to contact the Robert E. Collins & Sons sawmill in Cayuta, Schuyler County. She drove the 20 miles to the Collins mill in her pickup truck and bought three eight-foot lengths of hemlock. “That was a really fun experience – I had never been to a sawmill before,” the student related. The mill also cut one of the boards into 4-foot lengths for her.

“I started most of my seeds in February, so by the time the plot was all set it was easy to put out the plants,” she said. “I put a lot of stuff in there. It’s a 4- by-8-foot space and I have pole beans, three varieties of tomatoes and two varieties of peppers; I have three or four varieties of carrots and two varieties of basil plus beets, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, radishes, squash, eggplant, chard, kale and cucumbers.

“I love gardening, so I went all out,” Patzke said with a laugh. “It’s definitely one of my favorite things. I’m out there every morning watering and pruning, making sure everything is doing well. I cannot emphasize how much I love growing things – I did it in Chicago and I’ve been so happy to be able to continue it here. I find this place is perfect for it.”

Bruno Schickel seems to get satisfaction in the gardening and other activities his tenants enjoy at Boiceville. “You should see the garden Karin put in!” he said. “She put the frame together and planted a cornucopia of stuff. It’s like out of a magazine – It’s just a beautiful, beautiful garden.”

Maggie Jones, one of Karin Patzke’s neighbors, said she thinks “Bruno has gone out of his way to create a community of people here who want to know their neighbors and be good neighbors, and I think the layout of the houses fosters those relationships.” In fact, the proximity of the houses led Jones to buy a retractable clothesline and suggest to Lydia Morken that they string it the 15 feet between their homes. Patzke then bought a line and ran it from her cottage over to Morken’s as well. “On the weekends, the lines see a lot of use,” Jones said.

Schickel said he was inspired to build his colorful cottages by a children’s book he read to his daughters almost 20 years ago. The book, Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney, tells of a girl who, at her grandfather’s urging, travels to faraway lands seeking adventure. Later she moves to a cottage by the sea and works to make the world more beautiful by spreading seeds of blue and purple lupine. An illustration by the author shows the Lupine Lady’s house on a hill overlooking the sea. The small cottage is replete with finial and gingerbread. Seeing that illustration was the eureka! moment, Schickel recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve got to design something like this!’”

A storied family

The history of the Schickel family in architecture, design and construction extends back to before the turn of the last century. Bruno Schickel’s great-grandfather, William Schickel, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1870. In 1885, he launched his own architecture company and designed many buildings throughout the Northeast, including 160 structures in Manhattan. Three of those buildings – the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Fifth Avenue; the German Dispensary, now the Stuyvesant Polyclinic; and the Ottendorfer Library on the Lower East Side – are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bruno’s grandfather, Norbert Schickel, designed and manufactured the innovative Schickel motorcycle early in the last century. He was a sophomore at Cornell studying engineering when he designed the first two-cycle motorcycle. He received a patent for the engine design just before graduating in 1909. The designer went on to found the Schickel Motor Company in Stamford, Connecticut, and manufactured about 1,000 motorcycles before the company shut down in 1924.
Just this year, it was announced that Norbert Schickel would be inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Jeffrey V. Heininger, chairman of the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation described him as “one of the true pioneers of American motorcycling.”

After the closing of his motorcycle company, Norbert Schickel moved to Ithaca and experimented with building fireproof houses, according to grandson Bruno. “Everything was made of concrete, even the interior walls. He built a bunch of homes in the East Hill area, also on West Hill,” Bruno noted. “He built a reinforced concrete apartment building in the 1950s in Fairview Manor near the Cornell stadium.”

Bruno’s father, Norbert Schickel Jr., flew bombers in the Pacific in World War II and became a Navy test pilot, flying the Navy’s first jet. “He and my mom decided to be dairy farmers and moved to Dryden and struggled with the farm for 13 or 14 years,” Bruno related. “When my grandfather died, my father took over his business.” It consisted of a series of projects around Ithaca, including Eastwood Commons, the city’s first condominium development. “That’s where I got my first construction job,” Bruno said. “I went to work for the general contractor right out of high school.”

A culture of respect

The young Schickel started his own construction company in 1985. The work is divided about equally between renovations and additions and new construction, the builder said, and about equally between residential and light commercial.

One impetus for building Boiceville was the need to keep his construction crew working through the winters. “It was really key to be able to say to the guys, ‘I can keep you working all the time.’ In construction an awful lot of people get laid off in the winter and you lose guys. I’ve got some fabulous craftsmen – They’re hard-working guys,” he noted. “It also meant I didn’t have to get into a desperate situation in the fall or early winter where you have to take work at any price and you dial the price way down.”

Boiceville cottages range in size from 850 square feet to 1,050 square feet. Monthly rental prices run from $1,025 to $1,395. Tenants are responsible for utility costs, which average from $95 to $120 a month, including heat, said Schickel. The builder speaks enthusiastically about what he believes are the cottages’ significant efficiencies, including frost-protected shallow foundations, gas-fired tankless hot water systems and a 4.5-inch insulated roof sandwich under the shingles.
In some cottages, the living room has a cathedral ceiling that extends all the way up to the exposed rafters. Other cottages have a second-floor loft above the living room. One resident described the cottage interiors as “rustic but modern.”

As for the cottages’ colors, which range from a pale yellow to an assertive purple, Schickel mused, “How much fun is there in the average house built today? Basically, not much – they’re pretty ‘plain Jane.’ Well, there’s nothing plain Jane about Boiceville.

“I started out staining the houses with somewhat bright colors but I found they faded very quickly,” Schickel related. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get bolder,’ and I found the bolder I got the more response I got. Most people really enjoyed the brighter colors. Now they have to bring a smile to my face. If they don’t, they’re not bright enough.”

Tanja Eie, a construction project assistant manager on the Cornell campus, and her 16-year-old son Wesley are among Boiceville’s newest residents. Eie seems to agree wholeheartedly with Schickel’s approach to cottage design. “I’d driven past many times and thought how charming and quaint the community was.” Last spring, when her lease on a converted barn in Spencer was up, “I made an appointment with Bruno and looked at a cottage and absolutely loved it,” Eie related. “They’re like little gingerbread houses. I signed the lease the same day.”

Eie, who has an American bulldog named Luna, said she especially appreciates Schickel’s liberal policy toward pets. “He allows pets without any extra security deposit,” she related. “It’s hard to find a decent place that allows pets without an extra deposit.”

Schickle estimates that at least 50 percent of his Boiceville tenants have dogs. “It’s a big motivator for people to live here,” he said. “A lot of places don’t welcome pets. We’ve had surprisingly great luck with them. I haven’t had even minor damage from the animals.” He pointed out that the cottages have stained and finished concrete floors. “If I had carpet in the cottages it might be a different story.”

The landlord went on to observe, “You’ve got to be responsible. Everybody wants the quiet enjoyment of their home and to get that they have to offer quiet enjoyment to everybody else. Somehow it all seems to work. I’ve never had anybody call me saying a dog’s barking and won’t shut up.

“I’ve never had a problem with loud music,” he added. “I’ve just never had any problems. It’s in the culture of Boiceville.”

A sense of community

That culture of neighborliness was evident one morning last winter when one of his tenants, Jill Swenson, a book development editor who has lived at Boiceville for the past year, broke her wrist. She slipped on snow-covered ice while taking trash out to a dumpster. Unable to get to a medical facility by herself, Swenson called Schickel on his cell phone and he drove her to a Convenient Care walk-in clinic in Ithaca. “He came straight away from church,” Swenson related. “It’s very rare to have such a responsive landlord.”

Swenson’s injury required surgery, and she was left incapacitated for more than a month afterwards. That meant she was unable to make meals for herself or walk her two sizable Dalmatians. Boiceville neighbors and other friends responded by taking Swenson a continuous supply of both cooked and frozen meals.

Neighbors also stepped up to help Swenson with her dogs, making sure the two animals got out for walks several times a day. Karin Patzke and Lydia Morken volunteered to do the early morning walking. “It just seemed like a good thing to do,” Patzke said. “Karin and I met every morning at 7:30 before school and we each took a dog and walked along a nice trail in the woods,” Morken related. “Jill was tremendously appreciative. That’s the kind of thing that would happen here and which I can’t imagine would happen in Chicago.”

Schickel expects to break ground soon on a 1,100-square-foot community building that will serve the growing number of residents. The builder credited Lydia Morken with inspiring him to construct the facility. “Lydia got me thinking about it,” Schickel said. “She was the one who first talked to me about it. She’s in the field, a student of planning.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really good idea,” the developer added. “It’s something that could work. You get up to a certain critical mass, and the need becomes more prevalent. We need a place for people to get together.”

“I’m really impressed that he’s doing it,” Morken said. “There’s no reason he would have to provide that kind of infrastructure here. He’s going above and beyond as a developer. I think it speaks to his passion for this development.”

The building will be located on the east side of Boiceville Road adjacent to the new section of a dozen cottages. Schickel said he commissioned his brother, Sarto Schickel, owner of Schickel Design Group Inc. of Philadelphia, to come up with plans for the structure.

Those plans, which can be viewed at www.boicevillecottages.com, show a charming building complete with finials and a bell tower. “Every village needs a bell tower,” Schickel said with a smile.

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