A Life: Edward Levin, 1947-2013; ‘He Had a Great Wonder for Everything in the World’
Ed Levin rides to the job site with other workers in Golden, British Columbia, in Aug. 2001. (Family photograph)
Ed Levin stands in the door of his first commissioned work in Canaan, the smithy roof frame for his blacksmith and neighbor, Dimitri Gerakaris. (Richie Starr photograph)
Canaan — In the late 1990s, as he set out to design the lodge for the beloved Dartmouth Skiway, architect Stuart White sat down at his computer to find an unexpected message. A stranger had sent an email from the Netherlands, where he was part of a team building trebuchets for a TV series — and he wanted to help White with the lodge.
“What attracted me was it was beautifully written and expressing his interest to be involved in the timber frame of the (building),” White said. “So I wrote back right away because it was such a wonderful letter, and this began just a marvelous dialogue that lasted until he died, which was such a shock to all of us.”
To those that knew Ed Levin, his interest and compulsion to help with such a project would come as little surprise: The nationally renowned timber framer — who in the 1980s was one of the founders of the international Timber Framers Guild to help bring the artisanal woodworking craft out of the darkness — cared deeply about timber framing, perfecting his projects and working with others, they said.
“He was always eager to teach, always eager to spend time to make sure that people understood,” said his friend, Bruce Pacht, who lived with Levin in the 1970s, including in a commune in Canaan. “He knew what he was doing and he wanted to tell you.”
“He could make his contribution in that exacting kind of way to build things that would last for a long time,” Pacht, of Lebanon, added. “He created a philosophical whole about his life.”
What’s more, they said, he was a person who wanted to help.
“He was known as being brilliant,” said Levin’s wife, Nancy Speck, “and kind, and sweet, and generous.”
His desire to help with the Skiway lodge was perhaps also of little surprise because of Levin’s love for the Upper Valley, where he moved in the 1960s from his native Massachusetts to attend Dartmouth College. He was one of the students arrested for the Vietnam War protest sit-ins before graduating in 1969 with degrees in philosophy and art history with an additional focus on mathematics. Indeed, the lodge is but one of many treasures that Levin contributed to the Upper Valley and beyond before his death last August at age 66.
He died of an aortic dissection in Philadelphia, where he had lived for five years with Speck.
Traditional timber framers, such as Levin, build their structures with joined timbers, the joints secured by large wooden pegs and “shaped at their connections to lock together,” according to the Timber Framers Guild. The craft dates back thousands of years, and, unlike more modern carpentry techniques, does not rely on high-tech tools.
Timber frames are generally left exposed, as in the case of the Skiway lodge, where light golden brown timbers wood crisscross across high ceilings.
“If you go up inside and look up at the ceiling, those are his timbers,” White said.
Speck said the little-used craft was “kind of rediscovered by (Levin) and a couple other people in the field all around the same time. ...
“Part of what attracted him (to timber framing) was the beauty,” she said. “There was a lot of history in it and artistry, and it was also a really solid way of building high quality structures. ... He kind of became the guru of timber framing for all of these other people who were getting into the field and trying to figure out how to do it.”
Other personal favorite projects of Levin’s, Speck said, included the shelter pavilion in Cardigan Mountain State Park, the Wilkins Meetinghouse at Proctor Academy, and the Green Woodlands Barn House on 23,000 acres in Lyme, where more than 170 friends, family and fellow timber framers from across the country gathered for a memorial service in his memory late last summer, speaking of his life for nearly three hours.
They remembered not only Levin’s skills and talents as a timber framer, but the ways he worked to share that knowledge as a co-founder of the Timber Framers Guild and avid writer about the craft.
They remembered, too, the ways that he touched their lives outside of timber framing. He was thoughtful, deliberate, compassionate, and in never-ceasing wonder and appreciation of the world around him.
“He just had a great reservoir of love for life,” said Pacht. “He’d be out in the woods and suddenly we’d just stop and realize what a great place we were living in.”
Indeed, the Wooden Shoe in Canaan, where Levin and Pacht were among about half-a-dozen people who started a progressive shared living commune, also served as the site of Levin’s first major building project — a pole barn, although it was not timber frame — and perhaps his first real timber frame project, a 20-by-20 -foot, three-story addition to the house, which Levin designed and led in its creation.
“We called in hippies from all over Vermont and New Hampshire the day that we lifted it into place,” Pacht said. “(It was) drilled with this ancient hand drill, everything was cut with knives, we just did everything ourselves.”
Levin and Pacht met during the takeover of the Dartmouth administration offices, when they and about 50 other Vietnam protesters staged sit-ins. Levin was one of the leaders, Pacht said, and was able to lead the protests while maintaining a broad perspective.
“He was a thoughtful and deliberate guy, so in some cases ... it’s not that he had any less passion, he was more erudite and more learned than some of the other guys,” Pacht said.
That carried over to their forays into shared living, at the first incarnation of the Wooden Shoe in Hartland, where a group of 15 people lived together after college, where they explored ideas ranging from women’s rights to living off the land by growing their own food. They carried that over to Canaan in 1970.
Despite the progressive ideals, it was a place of structure, Pacht said. Weekly meetings were held for everybody to discuss whatever might be on their minds, and they would hash out complexities in their relationships.
“A lot of people would wash out, they’d come in and say things like, ‘You guys are really strict,’ ” he said.
Levin also co-founded the Timber Framers Guild during this era, around the same time that friend and artist Dimitri Gerakaris had created a similar guild for blacksmiths.
“In this little quiet corner of North Canaan, Ed and I hatched these plots to come up with these organizations,” Gerakaris said. “As much as we wanted to hide in North Canaan to get away from organizations, we started something that ended up being international, and we laughed about that.”
Another co-founder of the Timber Framers Guild, Kenneth Rower, wrote in a memorial that Levin’s forte, “with all of his connections,” was to draw in speakers for the guild’s early conferences.
The timber framing and blacksmiths organizations recruited and communicated largely through written journals, Gerakaris said. Levin’s writings and work with the guild, Gerakaris said, “have been very instrumental in helping to bring back timber framers all across the world.”
They were spreading the word internationally about something that they’d found a love for locally.
“We had the freedom of working in a very traditional-age old style of building that’s proven itself ... and there’s an authenticity, a realness I know that he and I were both drawn to,” Gerakaris said. “In a day and age when ... it was a really chaotic time, we were very much drawn to leading a life of working with our minds and hands in a very age-old honest process.”
Working with one other person, Levin ultimately framed the timber frame roof trusswork for Gerakaris’s blacksmith studio and, with a team, built the timber frame addition on Gerakaris’s Canaan home, where Gerakaris still lives and works today.
“It was fantastic,” Gerakaris said. “I know what a joy it is to not have to be given the prospect of buying something that’s take it or leave it, but actually having a creative hand in its creative design so that you end up with something that’s exactly what you want it to be.”
For Levin, time was not always of the essence, Speck and their friends said.
“He was often a procrastinator and ... the problem was he would be late with things, but then when you would get them they would be so perfect, you would say, ‘Oh, it was worth waiting for,’ ” Speck said.
“When it came to time, Ed was on a different planet,” Gerakaris said, saying Levin was not one to tie his laces or buckle his shoes. “He had a great wonder for everything in the world, and he re -awoke me to the joy of looking up to see what was happening up at tree tops high in the sky, and I on the other hand was trying to remind him to watch where he was walking so he wouldn’t fall down.
“Some people would say (he was) a space cadet that way, while also being brilliant.”
“ Impatient with him as a contributor to Timber Framing ,” Rower wrote, “I eventually swore off asking for pieces because it was just too difficult to deal with his endless delays while meeting a fixed publishing schedule. I had come to value our friendship more than any written material. ”
And when a friend was in need, he was always read to drop everything to help out — including when he stumbled across Gerakaris having trouble pouring a cement mold for a project one time, and blew off his evening plans to get knee-deep in cement.
“When the chips are really down for something important, he couldn’t be dissuaded from helping you out,” Gerakaris said.
Pacht recalled Levin having “a certain expression where he’d squinch up his eyes and look up at the sky when someone said something irrational,” but even if somebody had an opinion that was “completely opposite from him,” Levin would still listen, at times even changing his opinion when persuaded.
He wasn’t a joke teller, friends said, but had a quick wit in order to pick up the punch line.
“(He was) open, warm, friendly, funny, witty,” White, the architect, said. “He always had the right word and always an interesting take.”
Levin eventually settled with his first wife, Anita Walling, elsewhere in Canaan, building a small octagonal house, where they raised their daughter, Cora, born in 1979. Levin built a timber framing workshop nearby, and his work soon grew into Paradigm Builders, a group of five craftsmen and designers in a limited production workshop.
He and Speck, then a scientist at Dartmouth Medical School, moved in together in Hanover in 1991, where their household included Speck’s daughters, Maren and Carrie. In Hanover, he c ontinued his craft on his own, continuing to design timber frames and work on other projects, such as the Nova series on trebuchets, which is viewable on You Tu be by searching “Nova builds a trebuchet.”
Levin and Speck married in 2002 . The couple’s son, Jonathan, was born in 1994. They moved to Philadelphia in 2008, when Speck accepted a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvani a .
They had met in 1990 at a pig roast, where Speck was playing volleyball with her daughter, then 6 years old, and a group of adults. Levin soon arrived to pick up his own daughter, appearing at the top of a nearby hill and surveying the court as he tried to locate her.
“I remember how people on the court lit up, and greeted him with such enthusiasm, cajoling him to join the game. I noted that this large group of people seemed to admire and like this man very much — he was something of a celebrity in their community,” Speck said, noting that the same sentiment had been shared by others who have written commemorations about Levin since his death.
Levin later told Speck that she, too, had made an impression on him, as a strong woman watching over her child, wearing a pink dress.
“I still have that pink dress,” Speck said. “I never wear it, but saved it because he remembered it so well.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.