Steve Badanes went to Princeton University in the late 60s to study architecture because he liked both art and carpentry, and thought this would be a way to unite them. Once there, he discovered that there was a division of labor. Architects were office-bound professionals in suits, sketching hypothetical structures on drafting boards. Builders were something else entirely: tradesmen in hard hats wielding hammers and bulldozers, following someone else’s rigid plans.

Badanes had other ideas. He wanted to practice architecture as if it were sculpture. He wanted his plans to evolve as they were built, and he wanted to know the land he was working on intimately. He went through the master’s program at Princeton anyway, and after finishing he and a couple of like-minded classmates, Jim Adamson and John Ringel, began taking commissions for design and construction. For each project Badanes would arrive on-site with his 1956 Airstream trailer and set up camp. He would remain for the duration.

Their first house, built in 1972, looked like a snail shell. It was made of gently curving wooden barn rafters, propped against a central tower of concrete manhole sections. When neighbors joked that it must have been the work of the Jersey Devil, a local mythical mischief-maker, Badanes and company appropriated the devil’s name and took the creature himself–with horns, tail, wings, and hooves–for their symbol.

In the 20 years since, Jersey Devil has become a renegade band of nomads who build their designs with their own hands and live on the land while they’re building. Their naturally heated and cooled homes use junkyard finds and standard products (often meant for industrial or commercial building) in surprising ways. In fact, the National Enquirer selected Jersey Devil’s Helmet House, which incorporates a 35-foot-tall outcropping of rock in its interior, for its “Weird Home Award” in 1978. (The Enquirer probably didn’t know about Sphincter House, built by Adamson out of chicken wire, burlap bags, and mortar as temporary quarters and named for its evocative orifices.) Although this kind of work will not be everybody’s cup of tea, Devil clients are now living in places called Silo House, Hoagie House, and Football House–the latter hanging on a steep site near the San Andreas Fault, trussed, but ready to roll. For pictures of these buildings and a more complete rendering of the story behind them, see Michael J. Crosbie’s The Jersey Devil Design/Build Book.

In the old days, Jersey Devil built on a shoestring, trading services when necessary. When one of the troupe needed legal services, for example, a divorce lawyer got a highly innovative deck on the back of his suburban home. Now, Badanes says (in a drawl that sounds more like the Florida panhandle where he’s been working lately than his native New Jersey), “We’re not looking to be cheap anymore, though we’re not egregious either. We’re involved in high quality and we’re very specialized. We work on unusual sites, difficult sites, we’re energy-efficient.” Last year Jersey Devil put up a beach pavilion for the city of Seaside, Florida, and Badanes says they would like to do more public projects, “buildings that more people can use.” Badanes still lives on-site, “unless it’s a fishbowl,” but at 49 is “slowing down,” heading more in the direction of teaching and public work. He just received an adjunct teaching post at the University of California at San Diego, which will have him building eight weeks a year in developing countries. The Jersey Devil office is still a post office box and a telephone number in Stockton, New Jersey.

Though Chicago’s Graham Foundation has underwritten work on an as yet unpublished book by Badanes, Jersey Devil seldom gets to our city and has never built anything here. When cartoonist Heather McAdams, a friend and fan, learned that Badanes would be passing through this week after lecturing in Milwaukee and Champaign, she roped him into a local appearance. He will speak and show slides of Jersey Devil work (and one of his other creations, Seattle’s version of King Kong–the giant, Volkswagen-crushing Fremont Troll) at 4 PM Sunday, February 7, at the Rainbo Club, 1150 N. Damen. Badanes says the talk should be “entertaining and not too technical”; McAdams and cosponsor Clay Morrison promise a party atmosphere. The lecture is free; the public is invited. Call 489-5999 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steve Badanes, A.M. Ruuska.