A Fairy Tale House
Chances are, if you asked Bruno Schickel and Amy Dickinson to describe their life together in a single word, “fairytale” would not be it.
Hectic, whirlwind, fulfilling, satisfying, crazy, maybe even jazzy words like discombobulated and madcap would likely be some of the descriptors tossed out. One New York Times article about their union called it “more like a poorly built roller coaster: up and down and unstable, but still fun.”
But fairytale? Not so much.
However, for Schickel—a renowned builder and designer—one look at his latest pursuit and “fairytale” is exactly the word that dances into your mind. Bruno was ahead of the curve in tying into America’s current “tiny house” craze, and La Bourgade on Seneca, a year-round rental community on the southeast side of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes, is his latest embodiment of that. The colorful small homes in pastels of yellow, orange, and peach with bright blues and greens for trim, are practical, efficient...and straight out of Hans Christian Andersen. Or in this case, Barbara Cooney, whose children’s picture book Miss Rumphius was an inspiration for another of his small-house projects, Boiceville Cottages in Brooktondale, east of Ithaca, which led, in turn, to La Bourgade.
“I had an epiphany reading that book to my daughters,” Bruno says. “Barbara Cooney illustrated it and wrote it, and I said, ‘I’ve got to design something like that.’”
La Bourgade—with its storybook-like houses adorned with flared French-style roofs—is an extension of Boiceville, though modeled more after hillside towns in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. “I sort of cut my teeth on Boiceville, and the designs evolved over time,” Schickel says. “I had traveled to Europe and seen these little hillside villages and towns and wanted to build a little something that evoked that, and one of the things I have found is that if you can design something and build something where people have an emotional response to it, that is really the key.”
Speaking of emotions, that would be Amy’s department. Literally. Followed and adored by legions of fans, she succeeded Ann Landers and writes the advice column “Ask Amy,” which runs in hundreds of newspapers across America. She also has authored three books, the most recent of which, Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home, came out in 2017. She and Bruno are both from small towns in Tompkins County and knew each other while attending Dryden High School before their lives took them down different paths—her to a career in media and him as a builder and designer, which, as we’ll see, was in his DNA. They reconnected when she was granted permission from her bosses at the Chicago Tribune to file her advice columns from her hometown of Freeville so she could take care of her ailing mother.
Now, the advice columnist and the prominent builder are, if not the most famous, at least among the most accomplished couple in the Finger Lakes. They spoke about their life together and their projects while relaxing in the Meeting House at La Bourgade on a picture-perfect summer day with sunlight streaming in through the large picture window and Seneca Lake shimmering enchantingly off in the distance.
Bruno grew up on a dairy farm just outside of Dryden, a village of about 2,000 people, while Amy hails from Freeville, with its population a shade over 500, both just east of Ithaca. They graduated three years apart from Dryden High but knew each other and their respective families in that small-town way. Bruno, sixty-two, played football and Amy, fifty-eight, was a cheerleader. “Go Purple Lions,” she says, pumping her first.
Both are on their second marriages, a fact written about extensively in a pair of in-depth articles in the New York Times. In fact, Bruno jokes that now that they have been married nearly ten years, “It’s probably time for them to do another article.”
Amy, for our purposes, gives the abridged version of how they returned to each other’s lives:
“I was in Chicago and moved back to Freeville when my mother was near the end of her life. Bruno and I, you know, were in the same sort of hometown circles basically. He’s one of thirteen, and so I’m friends with many of his siblings. I’ve always known Bruno but just hadn’t seen him in a million years. So, I contacted him to do a renovation on this little house I owned in Freeville so I could change it from being a summer house to a year-round residence and that’s really when he walked into my life, and it was pretty...pretty...”
“Wonderful,” Bruno finishes with a twinkle in his eye that matches that glimmering lake.
“It was great and spontaneous and really amazing,” Amy continues. “Our families were blown away. I think a lot of people in town were blown away. It was great.”
They were married in 2008, blending their families, which included five daughters from their first marriages—Bruno had four and Amy one—and the rest, as they say, has been history; a sad history at times as they have experienced the deaths of both their moms and other family members but one always filled with love and respect.
“Living here and coming back to my small-town roots has really connected me with some very real issues that I deal with in my columns,” Amy says. “I think it’s better equipped me to deal with those real-life issues. We’ve done a lot, been through a lot, together and separately, and I feel like there almost isn’t a problem that someone could write in to me that I’m not acquainted with in some way.”
She was asked if life ever imitates art in their family and finds her doling out advice to her builder husband. “Hardly ever,” she laughs. “Bruno is pretty high functioning, I would say, so the advice tends to flow more from Bruno to me in that his knowledge base is just more broad and practical than mine. Certainly, anybody who’s built something like this knows how to do things.”
She notes that he often deals with hundreds of phone calls in a day while she sits at her laptop writing her columns. “I sit there, like thinking my big thoughts, like, ‘Hmmmmm,’ tippity, tappity, type, type, type, while Bruno, in a very visceral way is very deeply involved with the world,” she says. “I’m more of a watcher. I think the only thing I probably weigh in on with any authority at all is some parenting issues because we have five daughters and I’m a girl and I get girls in a way that Bruno doesn’t necessarily.
“There are times when I’m like, ‘Back away, big man, I got this.’”
Her husband laughs and nods. His connection with the world—and with building and designing—goes back three generations to his great-grandfather, Wilhelm Schickel, who came to America from Germany in 1870 and immediately went about forming the largest architectural firm in New York City in the late 1800s.
“He came here when he was twenty years old, already had a degree in architecture from a school in Paris, France, and built the business from scratch,” Bruno says. “He was a prolific and highly successful architect. He built hundreds and hundreds of buildings.”
More than sixty of his buildings still stand in Manhattan alone, including probably his most famous, the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the Upper East Side, which is one of three of his buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He also built a distinguished building in Union Square in NYC that houses the city’s largest Barnes & Noble bookstore, the church in the Mission Hill section of Boston where Ted Kennedy’s funeral Mass was held, and, closer to upstate New York, St. Louis Cathedral in Buffalo.
“That sort of created this great core of thinking and designing in the family,” Bruno says of his great-grandfather.
Wilhelm’s son, and Bruno’s grandfather, was Norbert Schickel Sr. He was an inventor, a pioneer in American motorcycling, the founder of the Schickel Motor Co., and a 2011 inductee into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He attended Cornell University where he designed and built a number of engines, and later he launched a successful career in real estate development in the Ithaca area.
Bruno’s late father, Norbert Jr., was a dive bomber during World War II, piloting the famous Douglas SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers in the Pacific Ocean against Japan. After the war, he served a test pilot for the Navy through the war before returning home and getting into real estate and—what else?—design. In one of his well-known projects, he and his brother William transformed a rundown Italianate villa that once served as a monastery into Geneva on the Lake. It became a three-star resort on the north end of Seneca Lake and is today managed by Bruno’s brother Bill.
Bruno actually helped with the physical transformation work at Geneva on the Lake as part of running an in-house construction firm for his father. After that, he branched off and formed his own construction company in 1985, Schickel Construction Co., which he continues to run today out of Dryden. “Basically, building has been in our blood for a long time, many generations,” Bruno says.
“Bruno has been lucky to have been mentored by some of the locally legendary bossmen over the years, including his father,” Amy says. “But to start out just as a laborer, pounding nails just out of high school, and then to build this amazing business and adding the designing, is just absolutely incredible to me.”
“I sort of fell into the design part,” Bruno says, modestly. “You know, when you’re a contractor and you go into people’s homes and somebody wants a kitchen designed, and they don’t really know what it is that they need or want, it’s really more about solving problems.”
In 1996, he and his company began constructing Boiceville Cottages, about ten minutes from downtown Ithaca, the precursor to La Bourgade. Today, Boiceville has 140 colorful gingerbread-style cottages that range in size from 850 square feet to 1,050. Most, if not all, of its units usually are rented, and, with its success, Bruno began searching out other spots for another small-house development.
“I just love the views on Seneca Lake, so I literally just drove around and saw a For Sale sign on this piece of land,” he says, gesturing to what has become La Bourgade. “I walked down in here, I think it was in the winter, the leaves were off the trees, and I could begin to see exactly what I wanted.”
His wife’s vision did not line up with his. “I could not imagine it,” Amy says. “I mean, here’s a guy standing in the middle of bramble and bushes. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But he could see it. And so to see it develop from that day is really incredible.”
Either way, the steep plot of land that grape growers covet for the way the sun hits those rolling hills began to cultivate a village instead of vineyards. La Bourgade—its name is French for “a village of scattered houses”—is on the west side of Route 414, about eight miles north of Watkins Glen. Its nearest neighbors in a burgeoning restaurant, winery, and tourist area are the Grist Iron Brewing Company and J.R. Dill Winery to the north and Damiani Wine Cellars and Finger Lakes Distilling to the south. The land cascades dramatically to the lake, necessary for his development, Bruno says, so that all the houses, from the top on down, have unobstructed views of the water. It’s only sixteen acres, and incredibly, the forty houses that are planned will only take up five of those acres, but it’s exactly that diminutiveness that Bruno thinks will appeal to people, especially young couples just starting out or older folks beginning to scale back.
“Bruno’s built a few mega-mansions and he always says to me, ‘It’s so funny because people tend to cocoon in a few favorite rooms,’ and these houses really do evoke that,” Amy says. “They’re beautiful but there’s something about the size and the scale because they’re tall. They all have amazing views, they have tons and tons of light coming in, and they feel cozy but airy.”
Similar to Boiceville, the houses at La Bourgade range from about 900 square feet to just over 1,000. They cost from $1,595 to $2,095 per month and are so efficient that utilities are only about $100 a month and heat about $300 a year. They all have a kitchen—complete with IKEA cupboards, granite countertop, and new appliances—an open living room, and usually a bedroom on the first floor, a second-floor loft, and other bedrooms. Each renter also has access to the 900-square-foot, high-ceilinged Meeting House with its big-screen television, full kitchen, exercise room, and outdoor patio.
The cottages are built in pods of three at a time and, so far, fifteen have been finished—with Bruno, never shy about heavy lifting, doing a lot of the site and foundation work himself, the “dirt work,” as he calls it. Six more will be complete by the early fall, and the goal is to have all forty done by the end of 2019, meaning the entire “village” will have been constructed in three years.
Linda and Tom Craig were among the first couples to move in last October. They lived in California and he worked in the movie industry, but when her mom in Seneca Falls became sick, they came to the area to assist her and ended up staying.
“We were looking for a place on the lake, and this popped up,” Tom says. “It’s even better than we thought.”
“We didn’t want a huge place because we’ve lived in huge places,” says Linda. “This is quiet, you have privacy, even though you think you might not, and we’re meeting lots of nice people.”
Amy and Mark Murdough moved from Pine City last February. She says they spent most weekends in the Finger Lakes, hiking, kayaking, or paddleboarding, so they decided to move there, downsizing from their previous home of about 1,800 square feet.
In addition to enjoying spectacular sunsets with a glass of wine most nights, she says they also are appreciating “having a home but having none of the responsibilities of having a home.”
Those words are music to Bruno’s ears. He agrees that he was ahead of the curve on the small-house craze but says, “I’m not just building a little house or a tiny house, I’m building a community. And as this gets completely built out, it’ll become a more vibrant community.”
He also likes what he heard recently from a neighbor who went sailing on the lake and took a long gaze up at La Bourgade to soak in the view. “He told me that from the lake looking up, it looks like a castle. With all these little roofs, and a tower, he said it looks like a real-life castle on the hill.”
Now that could be straight out of a fairytale.