A Renovated A-Frame Near Lake Arrowhead Builds the Case for a Pink Front Door
With its pure form, tidy construction, and small footprint, the A-frame endures as America’s favorite weekend hideout.
It’s funny to think that a house seemingly custom-created for the Instagram age is one of the most primitive man-made structures. The simple, photogenic, triangular shape of an A-frame looks like it was invented to live perfectly inside the square tile of a social media post.
“It’s like the tent emoji of houses,” says architect Eliza Howard, a principal at THinc in Los Angeles. “It has a total economy to it, because the triangle is such a stable structural form. It’s economical and efficient in its structure. The walls and the roof are the same thing. You have fewer structural elements that have to connect and bear on one another, and there’s a purity to the form. You see them in the mountains because the pitched roof can handle the snow load. It’s just smart design.”
Anyone who’s escaped to the mountains of the West, from Big Bear north through the Rockies and into the Cascades, is familiar with these simple woodland huts, with their high ceilings, loft bedrooms, and windows on two sides. Its form was derived from ancient roof huts that were first built by early civilizations in China, the Pacific Islands, and Europe.
The first contemporary A-frame in the United States was built in 1934 near Lake Arrowhead by legendary architect Rudolph Michael Schindler for Gisela Bennati. Bennati, his fellow Austrian, was an artist and teacher based in Los Angeles, and her house still stands as a local landmark today. But the popularity of these rustic cabins didn’t hit full stride until the 1950s, with the subsequent explosion of the middle class. More Americans were searching for affordable weekend retreats, and the A-frame was inexpensive and easy to build.
“Many of these were built from kits,” explains Howard, who grew up around A-frames in Colorado and sees them regularly on annual trips to see family in Vermont. “You didn’t need an architect to design it. Structurally, they just work and don’t need to be engineered.” A-frames have come in and out of style over the subsequent decades, but the tiny house movement of the early 2000s and the pandemic-inspired wanderlust and nature quest of the last couple of years has fueled interest. Leah Bopf, the creator of the “A-Frame Dreams” Instagram account and real estate finder site, which tracks current A-frames for sale across the country, saw her social media following increase from 10,000 to 110,000 in one year.
“They’re not as affordable as they used to be, but I can still find the occasional A-frame for under $100,000,” Bopf says. “Not in California, of course.”
When Jo Ann Thrailkill was looking to invest in a cute weekend home and vacation rental near a lake that wasn’t far from her home base in L.A., she headed to Lake Arrowhead on the advice of a friend—well before the retreat-to-the-wilderness housing boom of 2020 was underway. When she found the semi-abandoned A-frame that she has since dubbed “Little Apple,” in a nod to the fruit trees on the property in nearby Running Springs, just 5 miles from a local ski run, she caught the A-frame bug.
“I was cycling through the San Bernardino Mountains with my friend Sasha,” a real state agent, Thrailkill says, “and I spotted all of these cute cabins, which seemed so fun and doable.”
The original owner of the 1959 house on a quarter-acre lot, sited pleasingly on a knoll with some mature trees, was the maître d’ of the famed Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood. He sold it after 20 years to another family, which had it for 30. But it had been mostly abandoned for the better part of a decade. Thrailkill got the keys in October and started a slow-paced, thoughtful remodel in December, figuring out how to take advantage of the limited square footage and maintain the original footprint without any major alterations. As an experienced short-term rental host with a house in New Orleans, she knew that a photogenic interior was critical to a property’s success. She landed on a bright color palette of pure white and pale pink, with deeper pink accents like a vintage Moroccan rug, and furniture with an eclectic-vintage flair. She upgraded the kitchen with small-format European appliances, installed IKEA cabinets with Semihandmade fronts and brass hardware, and covered the walls and floors with white paint. Then she put the proverbial cherry on top: a baby pink front door.
Part of the lure of the A-frame is its extreme adaptability. The design can skew vintage rustic, poppy and mod, cottage-y, country, classic ski chalet, ’70s bohemian, or minimal.
“As long as you don’t tinker with the form too much, and just resign to embrace that iconic shape, you’re fine,” Howard says. “It doesn’t work if you try to adjust the interior layout to be anything other than a pitched roof with a second-floor sleeping area.”
Just tap a hashtag, or dive deep into Pinterest, and discover the possibilities.
“Instagram has been very kind to Little Apple,” Thrailkill says. “I wasn’t an A-frame fanatic at all until I started looking at cabins. But once I started noticing them, I was in.”