The modern American yurt is the ancestor of an ancient Mongolian traveling home that was known as a ger (rhymes with air). The original ger was used by nomadic tribes and carried on carts by oxen as they moved their herds of sheep and cattle across Asia. A yurt was more than a traveling shelter for the Mongolian nomads, though; it was their home, their central point in a moving universe. The floor plan was laid out to represent the continuity of life. The door faced South, sacred space was to the North and the yin and yang of the room were separated accordingly; the eastern half contained feminine possessions and the western half contained masculine appointments. The yurt was a way of life, so to speak, and it traveled with the tribes through the generations.
Over the past half-century, a growing crowd of alternative housing seekers has rediscovered yurts (vacationers included), which has resulted in the renaissance of these structures. Yurts have been a part of American offbeat culture since the early 1960s, after Bill Coperthwaite, a teacher at a Quaker school in New Hampshire, introduced them to some of his students. He integrated his personal exploration of indigenous crafts and culture into his curriculum and encouraged students to explore with him.
A 1962 National Geographic article that detailed Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ trip to Mongolia stoked Coperthwaite’s determination to build a structure similar to the ger. His pupils, who were studying the mathematics of roof design at the time, commenced to build a yurt roof. Soon after, they built the first complete yurt—with latticed walls, a latticed roof and a cloth covering.
By 1968, Coperthwaite was working on his Doctorate at Harvard, and he enlisted students to help him build a campus in New Hampshire entirely of yurts. Other such ventures followed around the nation. As Coperthwaite worked, his ideas on yurts as alternative housing continued to evolve.
In 1972 he established the Yurt Foundation to advance his vision of studying indigenous cultures and incorporating their technologies into modern culture. In a 1973 interview with Mother Earth News, he explained the purpose of his foundation was “to transmit folk knowledge to help [his] contemporaries design a better society.” He added that he “liked the idea of working with an ancient principle to design a modern structure using modern materials.”
Many of Coperthwaite’s students have continued his mission of adapting the yurt to meet the needs of modern society. Kirk Bachman built yurts as ski huts in the mountains of central Idaho. Chuck Cox designed the steel aircraft cable that now serves as the tension band within the yurt. A group known as the Hoedads, who were replanting trees in Oregon’s forests, were prompted by mathematician Charlie Crawford to construct yurts as their forest dwellings.
As time went on, yurts started to pop up everywhere, from mountain ski lodges to woodsy spas to vacation resorts. For those seeking alternative housing to traditional cabins and homes, yurts embodied the notions of low-impact living and sustainability. It has allowed residents to reconnect with nature by living closer to the land and protecting it from harm.
One example of yurt-as-vacation-accommodation can be found at Shenandoah Crossing™, a resort in Virginia’s central Piedmont. The intent of the company behind the resort, Bluegreen Vacations, was to present the spirit of camping without the necessity of “roughing it”—to create a luxury camping experience. The resort yurts are modern and sophisticated. The outside shell is a durable fabric, but the interior is partitioned into rooms separated by secure, wooden walls. The amenities include bathrooms, televisions and full kitchens.
Yurts are still evolving, in architecture and even in purpose. But in America they’ve arrived at the point of being in step with the needs of their users. Their future is as vast as the steppes of Central Asia where they first appeared more than two centuries ago.