After building custom homes in Corner Ketch with his father for 25 years, on a lark, Thomas Burke switched to custom-made birdhouses.
The fine birdhouses made by Thomas F. Burke are no flight of fancy.
Solidly constructed right down to the last detail, they capture Burke’s inspiration from local estates, historic buildings, and homes that only exist only through the work of another artist.
Some are large enough for a human to lie inside. Others are just big enough to capture all the details of the home they represent. All are designed to house a family of Martins, as they are the only birds that like living in condos, Burke said.
Coincidentally, Burke, 56, is also a condo dweller. The Wilmington native lives in a Pennsylvania Avenue condominium near Trolley Square. There in the basement, he creates his one-of-a-kind pieces.
“With my imagination and my hands, I can do anything,” Burke said.
Not only is he free to pursue his artistry—in exchange for a little outside gardening, he is also able to live without the demands a single family home puts on most people. Most of all, he enjoys the valet parking.
But condo living is a little different from the way Burke was raised. He grew up in Corner Ketch, now known as Pike Creek. There, he explored the woods and formed his love of the outdoors. He attended the Tatnall School and then Tabor Academy in Marion, Mass.
He traveled through Europe in the late 1960s and returned to Tabor where he graduated in 1970. After a brief time at Olgethorpe College in Atlanta, Georgia, Burke found his way to Chadds Ford, Pa. He’s had a love affair with the area ever since.
After building custom homes in Corner Ketch with his father for 25 years, Burke switched to custom-made birdhouses on a lark. He’s made 87 in the last decade. One is a Graceland replica that sits on a hill near Granogue Village. Another is Hogsworth School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He recently finished a miniature of the Old Town Hall in Wilmington. It’s on display outside the Rockford Map Store.
Looking ahead, he has big plans for these small houses: He hopes to capture the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Longwood Gardens. That one will be big—at least 12 feet long, and made from metal this time, not wood. It will sprout flowers from the top and include wind chimes and running water.
He also has plans to create another Peter Pan birdhouse—the first was purchased at a charity event that benefited Child Inc. This time, the front will be the London House portrayed in the story, and the back will be the Lost Boys Tree Fort. The story will unfold through the windows.
Burke’s most recent inspiration comes from the beloved paintings of the Brandywine Valley by Andrew N. Wyeth. His Wyeth tributes are on display, with accompanying note boards, at the Chadds Ford Historical Society. It seemed a perfect setting for the locally inspired birdhouses, he said.
In “Christina’s World,” a young woman half reclines on a hill in Rockland, Maine and gazes up at a large home. No detail of what she sees has been left out.
Burke studied the painting as well as many of Wyeth’s sketches that portray the same home to complete the birdhouse.
It includes ladders that are seen leaning against the house in the painting, but the rear view of the birdhouse, unseen in the painting, was created in Burke’s imagination from paintings he has studied of the home’s interior.
Burke loves to use old things he finds and “repurpose” them. The clapboard siding, window and door trim all came from an old cellar door. The gutters and downspouts are patched and mismatched as they are in several sketches, he said.
The Chadds Ford Historical Society is glad to have the birdhouses on display. Silhouetted against the sky outside the stone barn that houses the historical society passers-by can examine “Christina’s Birdhouse,” “Brinton’s Mill Birdhouse,” “The Tenant Farmer Birdhouse,” “The Widow Chadds’ Birdhouse,” “Karl’s Place,” and “N.C’s Castle in the Sky.”
“I hope through this tribute to Andrew N. Wyeth, one can see the love I have for this area and the respect I have for this man,” Burke said.
Ginger Tucker, Executive Director, enjoys Burke’s artistry and sees the birdhouses as a perfect fit with the historical society’s mission.
“I love his attitude. He’s a very free spirit. We love his art…it fits beautifully with our focus which is that we are concerned about conserving and preserving structures of Chadds Ford.”
All the birdhouses on display are also for sale. Burke hopes they will sell as a group, and migrate to the Brandywine River Museum. There, they would be at home with the Wyeth paintings.
And the best compliment Burke has ever received came him during the historical society’s 40th Anniversary reception. According to Burke, Andrew Wyeth looked at the birdhouse of the Widow Chad’s House and commented to his wife Betsy James, “I can see my paintings in that birdhouse.”