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Vintage Trailer Becomes a Vehicle for Learning

For her Division III, one student in the 2004 graduating class, 21-year-old Christina Salway, designed and executed a total renovation of a vintage recreational vehicle. She transformed the Covered Wagon-brand RV from its original 1950s concept of a house-on-wheels into a guest bedroom in a project titled "Examination and Reconstruction of the Traveling Home: Rebuilding the Recreational Vehicle, an architectural Division III.”

Christina Salway, Div III project

Her project began with a visit to the summer cottage of family friends Sally and Michael Moskowitz, an A-frame located just outside Port Jervis, N.Y. Showing Salway around the property, Sally Moskowitz talked of building small cabins for use as guest rooms so that visiting friends of the couple or their sons could be comfortably housed. They paused to look at an abandoned trailer, huddled for nearly two decades under a cluster of pines, as the owner mused that it might provide a starting point for the guest room project. As Salway envisioned creative ways to bring the RV back to life, she realized she had stumbled across the perfect Division III: Restoring the trailer would enable her to experience the architect-client relationship while still a student. Drawing on skills she had already developed in architectural courses and internships, she could convert a built environment into a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing living space.

The two women spent days cleaning out the trailer, scrubbing away mildew and evicting mice. A crack along one end of the roofline had resulted in serious water damage, with warped walls and sagging cabinets, but Salway—who decided at age six after changing the uses of all the rooms in her dollhouse that she wanted to be an architect—saw the potential in the spatially ingenious structure.

“If one ignored the decay, one could almost begin to visualize what the trailer had been like in its hey-day,” she said. “I could see the nostalgia well up in Sally and Michael. Lots of ‘do you remember this?’ and ‘…how this attaches here to make another bed.’ The excitement was palpable and it became clear to everyone what merit there was in restoring this trailer.”

Salway and her dad, Roger, undertook the task of getting the trailer safely to the Hampshire campus, where she could consult with the faculty committee supervising her project as well as have access to fabrication tools and specialists available to her through the college’s Lemelson program for student inventors and innovators. After fixing four flat tires and rewiring road lights, she towed the vehicle to Hampshire, where it sat outside the Lemelson shop while she worked on it throughout fall semester. In the course of the project, she would repair the roof, pull the kitchen, rewire, sand and paint exterior metal, remove decayed interior wood, stain and install new paneling, and lay a new floor.

Working closely with professors from Hampshire and nearby Smith College, Salway drew up conceptual designs. As she researched the history of recreational vehicles for the major academic paper integral to all Division IIIs, she discovered, to her surprise, that her project was part of a much larger movement, with restoration of vintage recreational vehicles quite popular at present. She hoped to blend the Moskowitz’s particular aesthetic with what she was learning about the conventions of RV design and restoration. She wanted an aesthetic flow from their New York City loft to their summer cabin to the trailer. She wanted the RV to feel like an extension of the family’s other living spaces so that “people wouldn’t feel they were being put up in a random trailer that had been plopped onto the property, but in a space that both felt and looked like the places they associated with the Moskowitz family.”

She presented three options to her “clients”: One had rich, deep-colored fabrics and dark, complex woodwork to reflect the antiques in their loft. The second was an austere abstract design that brought to mind the vast white spaces in the structure of the loft. The third—which the clients and architect-in-training rapidly agreed was the way to go—incorporated Sally Moskowitz’s collection of Arts and Crafts pottery, her inclination toward vintage fabrics, and softer colors that would tie the summer house and loft together. The vintage look would also maintain the integrity of the RV’s original design.  

To keep the space versatile, they decided on double-sided cushions, durable yet attractive fabric, linoleum floors with throw rugs for ease of cleaning, ample light for reading or socializing, and materials that would show the least amount of dirt tracked in from outdoors.

The new floor plan involved removing the kitchen. This was in keeping with the RV’s intended use as a guest bedroom, and conveniently solved the problem of the sagging cabinets while expanding both floor space and room overhead.

Hampshire art history professor Sura Levine chaired Salway’s faculty committee, providing valuable assistance on design questions. Colin Twitchell, director of Hampshire’s Lemelson program, helped her develop requisite technical knowledge. In the Lemelson shop, she learned to use a band saw, jig saw, and table saw, doing her own woodworking for the interior panels and moldings, including portions of the curved ceiling. Professors Karen Koehler of Hampshire and Gretchen Schneider of Smith brought architectural expertise to the committee.

Christina Salway, Div III project

Development of problem-solving skills is an integral part of the Division III process. True to form, Salway encountered unexpected obstacles and learned to handle them as they arose. When removal of the kitchen sink exposed a wheel well, she simply hid it with a gorgeous curved-front, antique oak dresser that she refinished after buying it online and driving to Ohio to pick it up—and provided much-needed storage space for guests.

Scouring flea markets and tag sales with her mother, Lynda, who owns Savoy Antiques in Minneapolis/St. Paul, she collected decorative objects fitting the trailer’s vintage look, including paint-by-numbers art, Arts and Crafts style pottery, and Fiesta ware. She used new material printed with vintage pink, sea foam, and magenta floral patterns to sew curtains for the windows, and sturdy canvas ticking in coordinating colors for cushions for the bench sofas and overhead bed. “The objective was to create an atmosphere of coziness in a space that could be perceived as claustrophobic. By incorporating simple patterns and warm hues in the fabrics, buying plush foam for the cushions, minimizing the trinkets, and being careful to stay true to the scale of the trailer, we planned to make it inviting without becoming overwhelming or crowded,” she said.

The entire project was completed at a cost of $1,605, less than even Salway, who had drawn up a projected budget of $2,300, had anticipated. She was awarded a $400 grant from Hampshire College from a fund available to assist students with their Division III projects. She and the RV owners split the remainder of the expenses. Her investment enabled her to complete her bachelor’s degree with a wealth of experiential knowledge in design and building that propels her toward her goal of becoming an architect. After working for a while in New York, she plans to attend graduate school in the field. For their investment the Moskowitzes not only derived the pleasure of assisting a young family friend in reaching her goals, but also gained a guest bedroom for their summer cottage that can comfortably sleep up to five people and is, in the words of Salway’s Hampshire faculty committee leader Levine, “something that everyone who saw it coveted.”
 

Boston Globe Article

 

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