From Architectural Digest, June 2010:
For The Birds
Thomas F. Burke's Flights of Fancy Draw Inspiration
from the Work of Andrew Wyeth
It would have to give a homeowner a certain peculiar pause to arrive at the realization that the design pedigree of his new birdhouse overshadows that of his own home. Within Thomas F. Burke's fanciful orbit, where building code restrictions are merely fodder for comic relief and where designs can wander as far as his and his clients' imaginative capacity can take them, such a scenerio surely has played out. Burke, after all, is America's birdhouse designer-builder extraordinaire – the man whose ornithological achitechtural adventures stopped artist Andrew Wyeth in his tracks. "I can see my painting in that birdhouse," Wyeth whispered to his wife at at 2008 show involving both men's work. The likeness wasn't happenstance. By then, Burke had for years been meticulously handcrafting birdhouses inspired by the buildings in Wyeth's iconic rural scenes. "I tried to match everything – in the case of The Home of John Chad, even my stonework – to what was in Andy's paintings," Burke says. Today, operating out of his basement workshop at his Wilmington, Delaware condominium, Burke is aiming for altogether new heights. "I'm building a birdhouse inspired by Santiago Calatrava's 80 South Street Tower project for Manhattan," he says."It will stand about eight feet tall and be mounted on a thin metal rod 12 feet high."
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From Delaware Online, July 16, 2011:
A Taste of Home on the River
Wilmington's 'bird man' displays his prized houses along the Christina
Written by Gary Soulsman
The bird man of 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue knows how to hawk his work when he spies a likely ally in a neighborhood drugstore.
While shopping at Walgreens last November, Thomas F. Burke (www.tfburkebirdhomes.com) had a sudden inspiration to pitch a summer exhibit of his high-class birdhouses to Mike Purzycki, a guy who can make things happen at the Wilmington Riverfront.
"I do these really cool birdhouses -- why don't we put them up there?" Burke asked.
He went on to point out that his birdhouses have been given to Star Wars creator George Lucas and artist Jamie Wyeth -- and Architectural Digest did a pretty nice spread on the birdhouses as art.
Well, why don't we give folks in Delaware a look at your work while they're walking the Christina River, said Purzycki, executive director of the Wilmington Riverfront Development Corp.
And so he arranged for the 59-year-old Burke to hold his first outdoor birdhouse exhibit in the city where he lives.
To mount the 15 houses atop their poles, Burke got a $2,500 stipend from the WRDC with a goal to get everything up this month, and taken down by November.
"We thought it would add an interesting element to the riverwalk," says Megan McGlinchey, director of operations of the WRDC who with her husband bought a birdhouse of Archmere Academy to give as a gift.
Steve Bruni, former director of the Delaware Art Museum, calls the birdhouses a kind of three-dimensional folk art that appeals to people because of their whimsy and being modeled on real-life structures.
For the next few months, if you walk on the riverwalk between Harry's Seafood Grill and Firestone restaurant, you'll see a sample of Burke's handmade houses. Identification tags are coming, he says.
Several birdhouses are modeled on buildings painted by Andrew Wyeth, like the weather-beaten Olson House in Cushing, Maine, where Wyeth painted "Christina's World," and the John Chad House in Chadds Ford, Pa. The latter is a likeness that won Wyeth's admiration for how well Burke matched the painter's own portrait of the house.
"In my world that's about as good as it gets," Burke says.
Along the Christina River he's also erected a birdhouse of the Augusta National Clubhouse, Wilmington's Old Town Hall, Frolic Weymouth's chapel at Big Bend, and he's thinking of putting up a gigantic Manhattan skyscraper planned for 80 South St. designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, though it may be too big.
"I love that I get to do this," says Burke, walking along the riverwalk admiring the range of his work. With long, swept-back greying hair and a neatly trimmed beard, Burke is sometimes mistaken for George Lucas. A chatty artist who likes to hang out at Kid Shelleen's, he seems to know everyone in Wilmington.
And, as a reporter once observed, Burke is not one to hide his light under a bush, which is good, because putting himself forward is how he's gotten a lot of commissions.
It's been a stellar year, so much so that he's taken on an assistant and contracted with Bruni, who now works in the private art world, to negotiate commissions. They range from $3,000 to $15,000.
"I handle the logistics and try to get him into collections outside the area," says Bruni, who adds that if people appreciated the works as sculpture, they would bring higher prices.
"They are undeniably unique," Bruni says.
As for Burke, he likes having an agent and says it helps give more legitimacy to his work.
A boost came in 2010 after Burke pitched an article to Architectural Digest and a top editor swooned, offering him an interview and photo shoot that resulted in a three-page spread that appeared last June. The magazine called Burke "America's birdhouse designer-builder extraordinaire."
Later the magazine ran a letter from Jill Welch of Dillard, Ga., that extolled Burke's talent.
"It's wonderful that amid the marvelous mansions, glorious houses, fancy furnishings, gorgeous interiors and celebrity abodes, Architectural Digest would feature Thomas F. Burke and his birdhouses," she wrote. "Each one is meticulously designed, artfully created, precisely detailed and just plain beautiful."
Another day, Mellody Hobson called to talk about how she loved his birdhouses, as did her boyfriend, George.
"I thought she was 12 years old and didn't take her seriously at first," Burke says.
In reality she's a Chicago investment banker and her boyfriend has a spread called Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif. She ordered a birdhouse of Skywalker Ranch as a 2010 Christmas present, and it became quite a feat shipping a birdhouse the size of a Mini Cooper to California, Burke says.
But he thought it was neat to have George Lucas as a client. And when Hobson was asked what she thought of the birdhouse, she wrote to say: "Tom Burke masterfully captured the Main House of Skywalker Ranch in stunning detail. His artful execution and architectural precision exceeded all expectations!"
He's thankful the commissions keep coming, but he wasn't an overnight success. He's made about 95 birdhouses over the past 13 years.
As a young man, he built custom homes in Corner Ketch with his builder-father, Richard A. Burke. That was his career for 25 years before he shifted into making furniture from old lumber.
One day a friend asked him to build a birdhouse for her mother's house in Rock Hall, Md., and he modeled it on a Chesapeake Bay dock. He next built a birdhouse modeled on a Southampton, N.Y., home and earned $600 for the piece, called "The White House."
From that a new career was born, and even with the economic downturn he's done well.
"It's the wealthy who buy what I make, and they're still wealthy," Burke says.
When not working on a commission, he often creates birdhouses that he models on the buildings in Wyeth paintings, an idea that's won him notice.
"It was a good move because people like these buildings," he says. "But you know Andrew Wyeth only painted one side of a house. I have to paint all four."
Betsy Wyeth, Andrew's widow, has been a supporter. She commissioned a birdhouse portrait of her son Jamie's home -- Point Lookout -- in Chadds Ford.
"I was only sorry I didn't get to install it," Burke says.
From Greenville & Hockessin Life, Fall/Winter 2010:
This Business is for the Birds!
And for people who see the one-of-a-kind birdhouses as works of art
Written by Nancy Johnson
It all started about 10 years ago when Tom Burke built a birdhouse in the likeness of a girlfriend's family home in Rockhall, Maryland.
"Of course I did that one for free," he reclls with a laugh. "And it's still there," he adds proudly. He gestures to some of his masterpieces, which grace the outside of Rags to Riches in Centreville. "They are meant to be outside. The birds will find and use them, especiially if people put them in a field where they belong." Of course, Burke is secretly pleased that his customers like the houses so much that they want to keep them in close proximity to the house where they can admire them daily.
Shortly after the first attempt at building for the birds, a friend asked him to create one using their home in the Hamptons as a model. He was paid $600 for that one. Burke, a custom builder for 25 years, began picking houses out of Architectural Digest magazine and using them as designs for his birdhouses.
"I copied some nice homes from the magazine and then all of a suden I realized that I had a treasure trove of world-class paintings of houses right up the road."
Burke, who for many years spent a good deal of time in Chadds Ford, was referring to the work of renowned artist Andrew Wyeth.
To date, Burke has completed birdhouses depicting nine of Wyeth's paintings. "Christina's World" is one of my best, " he notes. "I found this old door lying along side the road and just knew it was perfect for that house. It was even the right color!"
He points out his depiction of N.C. Wyeth's studio, North Light. "Unlike Andrew, I have to do the whole house, not just one side," he points out with a chuckle.
Another of the birdhouses in his tribute to the great Andrew Wyeth is one the iconic painter featured in his last painting, "Sail Loft." Burke was fortunate to have been able to recreate this house of Wyeth's in Maine because he explains that since his death, Wyeth's wife Betsy no longer will allow anyone to photograph the house. "She renamed the painting, in which Andrew can be seen in the distance sailing a sloop, Goodbye, My Love," he says sadly.
Burke then recalls a happy memory of Wyeth. "Some of my birdhouses were exhibited at the 40th Anniversaty of Chadds Ford Art Heritage. Andrew and Betsy came and as he was looking at my birdhouse of the John Chad House he was overheard to have said to Betsy, "I can see my painting in that man's birdhouse!"
"That was absolutely the best compliment I have ever gotten," Burke claims. "It made me want to take my work up another level."
Not only did Burke receive recognition from the Wyeths, he got a commission as well. The couple had him create a birdhouse of their son Jamie's Chadd Ford home, which they gave him as a gift.
"That was a very good connection," Burke says of the Wyeth's stamp of approval. He knows it has lead to a number of commissions. But Burke had another connection that has brought his birhouses to a much larger audience.
As he was perusuing Architectural Digest one day, Burke had the idea that his birdhouses might be worthy of mention in a regular column in the magazine known as Discovery by Designers, where the magazine's editors present designer's sources. When he contacted them and sent some photos of his work, "They emailed me right back and said to forget Discovery by Designers, they wanted to do a feature story on me!"
The story, which ran in the June 2010 issue, stirred up a great deal of interest in Burke's unusual works of art. Some inquiries lead to the sale of several of the Wyeth houses, and the possibilty that the entire collection may be purchased for the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Others who have seen the story have commissioned projects.
Burke almost can not contain his excitement about a commission that is currently commanding his attention just about full-time. He admits that he almost blew it, as when he got the first message, he didn't think it was for real. Via email she told him she saw his work in Architectural Digest and wanted him to do a birdhouse for her boyfriend's home in California. "I was thinking, yeah, right, and then she said her name was Mellody Hobson and her boyfriend was George Lucas!"
Lucas's Skywalker Ranch is a 50,000 square foot Victorian farmhouse in Marin County, California. Burke has already doubled the size of the birdhouse from his original plan in order to get the detail he wants. "My birdhouses are whimsically correct, not architecturally correct." he stresses. For instance, in a house the size of the Skywalker Ranch it would be impossible to put every window in a birdhouse model.
"It's pretty good so far," Burks says modestly. "I've been working on it for over two months now. It took five sheets of plywood and nine shipping crates for the roof." Burke uses a lot of scaps and recycled products in his birdhouses. "Years ago I would have been called 'cheap.' Now I'm 'green'." he insists with a smile.
In an attempt to describe the Skywalker Ranch birdhouse Burke says, "It's bigger than a Mini Cooper, I guess I'd say about the size of a VW Beetle Convertable. but with the roof down."
Burke says that while most of his projects are somewhat smaller, he has built one other very large birdhouse. When internationally recognized architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava presented his plans for a residential skyscraper named 80 South Street after its intended address in new York City, Burke set to work on a birdhouse using the unusual design for the 10 townhouses in the shape of cubes stacked on top of one another. Burke completed his work, but ironically, Calatrava has yet to start his project as the Manhattan real estate market has gone soft, and none of the yen multi-million dollar townhouses has been sold.
For the post four years, Keith Chatt has been assisting Burke with his birdhouse projects. In the basement of Burke's townhouse in Wilmington, Delaware. Chatt helpd with the roofing and clapboard siding, He also does much of the work in the installations. "It's going to take 10 people to move that one!" he says referring to the Skywalker Ranch masterpiece.
"I am planning on being there when Lucas opens the birthday present," Burke emphasizes. "In fact, I'm hoping to have a picture taken of me with the birdhouse in front of the real house!"
Despite his modest nature, Burke thinks the Skywalker Ranch birdhouse will turn a few heads - even in Hollywood. "If there's anybody out there that has built a better birdhouse, I will gladly hand over my title from Architectural Digest, 'America's Birdhouse Designer Extraordinaire!"
"You know, this whole birdhouse thing could be big."
Maybe someone should tell him it already is.
DelawareOnline: Twitter followers: View designer birdhouses, August 25, 2014
From Custom Woodworking Business, February 7, 2012:
Luxury Bird House Built for George Lucas
By Michaelle Bradford
Bird houses, a time honored tradition for fowl of the air, can range from the simple to the divine, from small wooden boxes, feeders and nests to more extravagant mansions. Thomas Burke of Wilmington, DE, specializes in creating those extravagant bird homes.
Burke, a former furniture maker who created furniture from old barn beams, got into building bird houses when asked by a friend to build one. From there, word-of-mouth progressed so much he decided that building these homes was what he wanted to do.
Most of his projects are commissioned and those designs are inspired by the clients’ homes. For bird houses built for himself, Burke draws inspiration from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, the 20th century realist painter whose work focused on land and people. He has built at least eight bird homes based on Wyeth’s paintings. Currently, 16 of his fine bird houses line the Wilmington, DE, River Front area.
All of Burke’s projects are manufactured from either 5/8- or 3/4-inch exterior plywood. The roof shingles for the bird homes are made from construction pallets, and most of the material is recycled, he says, even the paint, which he finds around his condo building after his neighbors have finished painting projects.
Burke’s work has been featured in many publications, including Architectural Digest, which is where one of his more famous clients became aware of his creations.
Filmmaker George Lucas and his girlfriend Mellody Hobson of Ariel Capital Management were sitting on the couch thumbing through the magazine, Burke says. When they came across his work Lucas commented, “This guy builds great bird houses.” Hobson decided to commission one for Lucas for Christmas. Designed and named after his Skywalker ranch, the house is approximately 9-feet tall, was built in three sections, including the roof and shipped across country to California to be installed..