When Austin Shepherd was a kid, he and his sister liked to find places to hide where they would read their favorite books. One of his most beloved stories was "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien, the legendary prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Now a 36-year-old single dad with a 6-year-old daughter, Shepherd still enjoys reading in private and remains a Hobbit devotee.
This lifelong literary interest led Shepherd and pool designer/builder David B. Owens to create what Owens affectionately calls "The Hobbit Pool." There in Shepherd's Eugene, Ore., backyard, he now has a pool and surrounding landscape that is all about fun, fantasy and, yes, hobbits.
The result of an unfolding creative process that spanned more than two years, the project appropriately began with a Hobbit-inspired reading room. Like Bilbo Baggins' home in the Shire, the reading room is a wellappointed, comfortable, below-grade space with a circular door that blends into the landscape.
"Everything else here," Shepherd says, referring to his backyard, "grew out of that original idea."
"That's where the story starts," Owens says, "but sort of like the book, it was a long adventure."
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And he points out that like Tolkien's masterpiece, the pool and the surrounding space is very much meant for children. "It's a special kind of playground with a specific theme," Owens says. "It's all about fun and imagination, and the actual hobbits in our lives we call kids."
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
Shepherd was referred to Owens by a mutual friend and spent several weeks vetting him. "I think he checked me out five different ways," Owens recalls. In fact, the two got along like old friends from the start, but it was also Owens' penchant for creating highly artistic, often whimsical environments that helped forge their fellowship.
"Austin gave me complete creative freedom," Owens says. "But he was also involved almost constantly, coming up with all sorts of interesting ideas. Like any project, we had our challenging moments, but it was almost all a lot of fun."
The design encompasses the entire backyard with distinct spaces for different activities. Most of all, it incorporates the overall Tolkien-inspired theme as the landscape liberally borrows from the Shire and is filled with a growing palette of creative details.
Even the pool itself is designed with different levels of fun in mind. Shepherd reports that he originally envisioned a swimming pond concept, but through his discussions with Owens, they decided on a vessel that has more of the personality of a traditional swimming pool.
The 40-by-18-foot pool features a large deep end with a small, deck-mounted children's slide and a large rope swing made of towering cedar beams, both of which are accessed by a custom-made bridge fashioned with a distinctly Middle Earth design. The arched bridge separates the deep end from a shallow lounging area with a small beach entrance. All together, the layout creates two distinct areas, one for vigorous play, the other for lounging and shallow-water play.
The 12-foot bridge is made of steel and wood with rope railings. Key details include tread planks sculpted by local artist William "Cedar" Caredio, who studied Hobbit and LOTR artwork to come up with the patterning that more represents wood grain than mimics it. The underside of the bridge is fitted with a rain curtain and steel panels with star cutouts illuminated with fiber optic lighting. The metalwork on the bridge, the fire ring and the reading room were done by artist Randolph Scott Ortiz. Design credit for the reading room goes to builder Matt Thealander.
The pool features Jandy fiber optic lighting, a Caretaker in-floor cleaning system and all Jandy equipment. The waterline tile is a beautiful deep blue "Japanese glaze" ceramic tile from Fujiwa Tile.
Combined with the polished aggregate surface in midnight blue, Owens describes the pool's color palette as "mysterious and inviting" — adjectives often used to describe Bilbo's classic tale of adventure.
One of the challenges Owen faced was that there are no swimming pools in Middle Earth, so Owens essentially had to answer the question of what exactly puts the "hobbit" in The Hobbit Pool? To a large extent, it's everything around it, he says.
For example, a sunken fire pit area is located adjacent to the shallow end with stone step seating benches and a sheer waterfall surrounding a custom 4-foot-wide steel fire ring, made to look like the Ring of Power. (More on the fire ring below.)
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The reading room is nearby as well, with its round door and country cottage design all directly inspired by Bilbo's cozy home in Middle Earth.
Moving away from the pool, there are a series of turf-covered mounds with tunnels made from composite culvert tubing, which loosely represent the landscape of the Shire and the tunnels of the Misty Mountains where Bilbo tricked Gollum out of the ring. (Although inspired by Middle Earth, Owens admits that the mounds also bear a strong resemblance to the land of the Teletubbies.)
From there, the "hobbitization" of the space comes courtesy of almost countless landscape and architectural details. The most prominent is the tree emblem that is repeated on the reading room door, the slide structure and on the door of an equipment enclosure that looks like a small version of the reading room. The emblem was taken from Tolkien literature and scanned into a CAD program that was used to machine the image.
Other details include glass garden orbs inspired by the Palantir, a "seeing" stone used by Sauron and Gandalf, a series of stepping stumps and a scary Gollum statuette emerging from the ground. (In this case, Gollum is played by a repurposed Halloween zombie decoration.)
The deck is finished in Silver Strike Quartzite flagstone and large Montana Rainbow boulders, which are also incorporated into the pool. The look is all rustic and probably would've seemed at home in the Shire, but in fact has no direct Middle Earth reference.
"While everything in this project was inspired by "The Hobbit" in one way or another, we weren't trying to copy the movies or even stay completely true to the story," Owens explains. "It's more an interpretation of "The Hobbit" through the eyes of the client."
ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL
A perfect example of the creative morphing that went on throughout the project is the aforementioned "Ring of Power" fire ring. (See images.) In most ways, it is very true to the "one ring" from the books with its shape and elvish inscription around the sides. But unlike the ring in the story, which is gold, this ring is dark pewter, a decision made simply because Owens and Shepherd thought it would look better.
The ring was designed by Owens and fabricated by Ortiz, who said that while it looks simple, its shape is one of the most difficult to achieve. "The shape is called a 'torus'," he explains. "It's similar to the cowling on a jet engine or a tire. It's so difficult because the contour moves in three directions. Sculpting this thing took hundreds of hours."
The ring is made of a steel rib structure and multiple panels that were assembled and finished to look perfectly seamless. The finishing process was so difficult and precise that Ortiz brought in a local hot rod builder, who actually built a custom sanding and buffing rig used for sanding the ring to perfection.
The ring is filled with blue fire glass that glows when lit. The fire pit area is strategically placed at the visual center of the space, where it leaves no doubt the setting is inspired by Tolkien. The result is, without question, the most visually striking element in The Hobbit Pool and most directly represents the story itself.