Let's Hear It from the Birds, Says Architect Craig Yerkes, Whose Aviaries Are Worth Crowing About
Diana Ross and fashion designer Oscar de la Renta have bought them. House Beautiful has featured them. And at Bloomingdale's "people who have seen them in the designer rooms have started up the escalator, then run back down to get a better look." So says Craig Yerkes, 27, a Northampton, Mass. designer and builder of elaborate birdhouses, by way of proving that his creations are not just, well, for the birds. Indeed, says Yerkes (pronounced yer-kees), "People who see the birdcages usually fall in love with them and don't even want to put birds in them. They want to move in themselves."
Given the size, detailed construction and price of Yerkes' aviaries, that's understandable. For instance, the acclaimed "château" he custom-built as a centerpiece for Connecticut's Norwich Inn stands six-feet four-inches high, contains a removable 28-square-foot white tile floor and cost $4,000. "My most spectacular piece so far," says Yerkes. He offers three standard models, 27 inches wide by 18 inches deep by 28 inches high. They are based on historic New England buildings and are priced from $600 to $725.
And, like his Norwich masterpiece, he will also build a birdhouse to a client's specifications. "Some want a birdcage that is an exact replica of their own home. Others want something really imaginative, with spires, or a famous building they fell in love with," says Yerkes and jokes, "I can even put in toilets for the birds if they insist."
A 1979 graduate in architecture from New York's Pratt Institute, Yerkes designs and constructs his cages out of wire and poplar wood. He operates out of a 2,000-square-foot loft in an old industrial complex in nearby Springfield. An antiques buff whose parents once owned an antique and fine furniture gallery in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., he researches the history of a building when constructing a historical replica for a client. "In the end," he says, "I'll give them a neat little package of information to enjoy along with the birdcage."
Man has kept birds since prehistoric times, Yerkes notes, crediting Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (1503-1482 B.C.) with having started the custom of keeping birds for pleasure rather than food. Seventeenth-century trade with North Africans introduced the vogue for caged canaries to Europe, he says. "Before that, birds were kept in courtyards or inside a building."
Yerkes' enthusiasm for birdhouse building is partly the consequence of his wanderlust. Following graduation from Pratt, he spent a year and a half traveling through Australia and Asia. In Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan he became enthralled by the weekly bird-singing contests, as well as by the participants' cages. "These were very simple houses, yet they were all adorned with ivory," he says. "When I returned to America I found the architectural market was fairly bad, so I began building birdhouses."
Yerkes shares his two-bedroom apartment with a cockatiel named Pearl, which inhabits one of the first cages he built. "It's fun, a kind of fantasy world," Yerkes says of his work. The birds seem to agree, according to reports from pet stores that stock Yerkes' edifices, like Pet Panache in Beverly Hills. "People say when they put a bird in my cages, for some reason the birds just start singing their heads off," Yerkes claims.
And for Pearl, he is working on something "that will really knock everybody's eyes out. It will be 36 cubic feet and have domes like the Russian churches in Red Square." Why go to all this trouble? "For most people," he confesses, "keeping a bird is a kind of love affair."
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