The Queen of the Playhouse
It was 1987, and Butler and a friend had just started designing outdoor spaces for clients. One of them, well-known singer Bobby McFerrin, wanted an unusual play structure for his kids in the family’s Noe Valley backyard.
“It combined play and outdoors and color and creativity,” recalls Butler. “I was smitten.”
Since then, Butler has created more than 600 custom playhouses, from backyard tree houses to public play structures, for clients including Robert Redford, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, DreamWorks Studios and Walt Disney Productions. Her projects stretch from the Bay Area to as far away as France and Saudi Arabia.
Butler’s whimsical and colorful handcrafted redwood creations – designed and built in a South San Francisco studio with the help of 14 employees, including two of Butler’s eight siblings – have made her perhaps the country’s best-known playhouse builder.
Her latest work, a playhouse with a stage, balcony and two towers called “The Play’s the Thing,” is one of a dozen playhouses on display through June 12 at Stanford Shopping Center, donated as part of a charity auction for Rebuilding Together Peninsula.
Butler recently completed her first public project in the Bay Area, a wheelchair-accessible suspension bridge and two-story playhouse with a stage at the new, $4 million Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, which aims to be the country’s most inclusive playground for children of all abilities and disabilities.
“We knew we had to have Barbara do our playhouse because her work is so whimsical,” says Magical Bridge founder Olenka Villarreal. “It was like Barbara or bust.”
Among Butler’s touches are wooden cakes in a downstairs “bakery” and coffee cups and wheelchair-accessible tables in an upstairs “café.”
“She far exceeded our expectations,” says Villarreal, who has seen firsthand the joy experienced by wheelchair-using children and parents who have never been able to access a playhouse, let alone the second story of one. “The work she does is just exceptional. She put the magic into Magical Bridge.”
Dreams Come True
Butler’s work does not come cheap. Her commission for Magical Bridge cost $500,000. Her smallest playhouse – the Cozy Cabin – sells for about $4,000, and private customers often spend between $20,000 and $50,000. For do-it-yourselfers, plans are available from $145.
Butler typically works collaboratively with her clients, walking their property and getting their ideas on what to include in a structure.
“I try to get them to express what they remember from their childhood, what they had or wanted, what they want for their kids,” she says.
“I had a great childhood. I keep trying to recreate that,” adds Butler. “I want (kids) to be able to run around and play free and be in a safe place in the family compound.”
She realizes that her creations may be outside many family’s budgets, but is happy to share her ideas to encourage imaginative outdoor play.
“My biggest piece of advice is to start with the actual site. Try to pick a piece of your yard that’s not used or under-utilized,” Butler says “You can do a lot with plantings or a little structure.”
Popular themes with staying power include castles, ships, forts and stages.
“Kids are just born hams. Put a stage in front of them and they will entertain each other for hours,” she says. Butler also recommends combining imaginative and active elements, such as rock climbing walls, slides or firemen’s poles.
“It’s the combination that keeps them interested,” she adds.
Her goal in building the perfect play structure, she tells clients, is to “let me try to take your dreams and make them real.”
And in doing so, Butler continues to make her own dreams come true, doing a job she loves.
Janine DeFao is as associate editor at Bay Area Parent.