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Divine Inspiration

A secreted peninsula shed takes cues from temples, churches, mosques—and a dairy barn.

This barn-wood dwelling looks modest—until you reach the hearth.

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The structure’s slatted wood walls slide open “to vary the level of privacy and openness,” says architect Killian O’Sullivan.

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The stairway beside the fireplace leads to a sleeping loft.

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A live-edge table by tree to table in the adjacent study. the room’s curved walls reference the vesica piscis, an ancient symbol in mysticism and Christian art.

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From within, this woodside house feels reverential, even grand. Overhead, the double-ringed chandelier is modeled after those in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; underfoot, a hand-painted ouroboros—a dragon eating its own tail—circles the room. The design borrows indiscriminately from Buddhist temples, Greek churches, and Islamic mosques. But from the outside, the modest structure nearly fades into the surrounding trees. “When you’re coming up to it at dusk and everything is sort of gloomy, the building is camouflaged by shadows,” says architect Killian O’Sullivan. “Then you turn the corner and come upon that arched doorway—a splash of red!—and glimpse the glowing fireplace. That’s the first real indication that there’s something unexpected happening within.”

This nondenominational gathering place, dubbed Spirit House, is often the site of retreats and gatherings hosted by owner Nikki Johnson. Thus, the design is loaded with historic and religious symbolism, from the ritualistic 8-foot fireplace to the precise number of bulbs circling each ring of the light fixture. “We wanted to achieve a level of complexity—that double read on things—within the scope of this very simple building,” says O’Sullivan. The structure is modeled after traditional agricultural buildings and built with wood salvaged from an abandoned Wisconsin dairy barn. The slatted walls on either side slide open with barn-door hardware, allowing the room to be private or exposed to the surrounding trees. “These are old, ancient ideas—they’ve been around forever,” O’Sullivan says. “But sometimes you can still make a really beautiful room using them.”


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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