Tom Burke spent 25 years building custom homes with his father in Delaware. He still builds houses but now his business card reads: “Builder of Fine Bird Homes.”
Burke combines his craftsman’s skills with an artistic bent to create replicas of historic buildings or a client’s home. “These birdhouses are whimsical, not architectural reproductions,” says Burke, whose custom work can be spotted in yards all around Wilmington.
From a workshop in the basement of his Delaware Avenue condo building, Burke has been crafting birdhouses that are as impressive as the homes they replicate. The bird that nests in one of his multi-room creations may enjoy features such as a Palladian window, cedar-shingle roof, or clapboard siding.
Having Burke build a bird-sized version of one’s home can cost anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars depending on the complexity and size. One seven-foot McMansion weighed over 300 pounds and had a price tag of more than $9,000. “I had to get a couple of friends help me with mounting it on the post. It’s what I call extreme birdhouse building,” says Burke, who gets most of his commissions through word-of-mouth.
A Delaware native, Burke came of age in the “60s and loves to talk about those freewheeling days. He attended maritime school in New England and after a stint in college, went to work in his father’s construction business. In the 1970s he lived in Chadds Ford, where he was a regular with the Chadds Ford Inn’s artsy crowd.
His ties to Chadds Ford inspired his most ambitious project so far. For the past several years Burke has poured his energy into creating some of the iconic houses that artist Andrew Wyeth painted in his best-known works. Before Wyeth died earlier this year, Burke had completed six, including Chadds Ford landmarks such as Kuerner’s farm, the John Chads house, and the N.C. Wyeth studio—as well as the Maine farmhouse depicted in Christina’s World.
“These birdhouses are my tribute to Andrew Wyeth and his paintings,” says Burke, who plans to build several more.
An old basement door discarded by the roadside near Chadds Ford was the catalyst for his Christina’s World birdhouse. Burke used the weathered wood to build a clapboard replica of the Olson house seen in the distance in Wyeth’s portrayal of Christina. Referring to sketches for details, he fashioned a cedar shingle roof, dormer windows with copper flashing, and even included the two ladders shown leaning on the house in one painting.
Burke came up with a two-angle concept to depict the John Chads house, the 18th-century home of Chadds Ford’s namesake. Two sides are stucco-covered, as Wyeth portrayed the dilapidated house in the 1960s; the other two show the house as it appears today with the original stone walls uncovered during the restoration.
Burke was elated when an exhibit of his birdhouses at the Chadds Ford Historical Society captured the attention of Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, last year. The Wyeths then commissioned him to create a birdhouse of their son Jamie’s home near Chadds Ford.
“It’s very special—I think Jamie”ll get a kick out of it,” says Burke, who spent nearly two months building the birdhouse.
For most projects, Burke first makes a Styrofoam model. Exact proportions are not as essential as getting the feel of the house right. The large houses have individual bird-sized rooms inside with copper pipe entryways for each. All have removable roofs for annual cleaning.
Would a martin or other bird be drawn to such palatial nesting places? Burke finds plenty of evidence they are when he refurbishes an older birdhouse. “One day I had five birds flying around my workshop,” he laughs, proving his point.
For further information on custom birdhouses, please contact Tom Burke at ThomasFBurke1401@aol.com.