Rebuilding of country retreat reveals old log cabin

June 21, 2012

When Gary Anthes and Caroline Mayer bought a house in Arlington as a young married couple back in 1978, Mayer would occasionally catch her husband looking wistfully at the fence line. Raised in Waynesboro, Va., at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Anthes wanted more nature than the close-in suburbs could give him, Mayer says. He was pining for the opportunity to ramble among rocks and trees, and to spot fox or deer on his own property.

Soon the pair were marking a two-hour (max!) radius from their house where they might find the kind of land Anthes wanted for weekend getaways. Virginia, Maryland, up Interstate 270, out Interstate 66 — that didn’t matter. It was the property that would guide the decision.

“I don’t fish,” says Anthes, 66, a semi-retired technology and computer science writer, “but I thought a pond would be nice.” And woods, Mayer adds. And, as things turned out, lovely lichen-covered rocks and a stream.

What they settled on was an old clapboard farmstead set above a small pond in a secluded corner of Virginia’s Rappahannock County. “Rappahannock is as close to D.C. as you can get and be in the country; go in any other direction, and it’s three hours,” Anthes says. “There are no stoplights, no fast-food places, no housing developments, no shopping strips.”

The farmstead fit right in with the county’s character. “Before the 1970s, it had crops and a cow, which the young girl of the farm family had to track down each morning before she could milk it,” Anthes says.

He describes it then as a “humble place,” a two-story dwelling with a main room that was about 16 by 20 feet and shedlike additions that added two tiny bedrooms. Recent, basic plumbing allowed for a small bathroom and kitchen. One bedroom wall was exposed logs, Mayer says. The couple thought those logs might indicate that an entire structure lurked inside the clapboard- and drywall-sheathed walls; many old log cabins had been entombed in siding added by homeowners in search of a modern “update.” But more than 25 years, two daughters, two careers and a succession of lively dogs would come and go before Mayer and Anthes could act on that speculation.

After plunking down $72,500 for the 30-acre property in 1980, the couple had only basic work done on the home. Castleton, Va., builder Peter Winfield exposed another wall of logs (this time in the living room), removing drywall and sanding off years of paint. But beyond that, the couple decided to keep the house, even the kitchen, very simple. “We had the cheapest stove because the mice ate all the wires, so I knew it wouldn’t last,” recalls Mayer, 62, a former reporter for the Washington Star and The Washington Post who is now a part-time consumer-advice blogger.

“We had a party line [for the telephone], no TV, no dishwasher, one bath,” Anthes remembers. “The place was barely heated.” It was shabby, he adds, “but we just put up with it. Almost a matter of pride: roughing it without AC, etc., and sharing it with the critters that got in.”

For the most part, that was okay: Anthes and Mayer, and daughters Alison and Emily, spent their weekends hiking, swimming in the pond, chasing the dog of the moment through the woods. Indoor recreation included reading and board games.

During that time, the couple engaged in patchwork upkeep (drilling a well after the springhouse began to deteriorate, replacing siding where needed, adding a dishwasher), but eventually that wasn’t enough. By 2005, Anthes says, the farmstead needed a great deal of work. After a lot of thinking and saving — the nine-month project would cost the equivalent of building a brand-new house — he and Mayer invited Winfield back in 2008, this time to expand and essentially rethink the whole structure.

As Winfield stripped away plasterboard and siding, a log house did indeed emerge from under decades of coverup. Maps and documents found among Rappahannock County records indicate it was built between 1800 and 1850. Its logs are a combination of chestnut and pine, suggesting they came from trees on the property.

Mayer and Anthes were eager to preserve and add on to the historic building, and credit Winfield with figuring out exactly how to do it.

Instead of suggesting that they append a house to the two-story cabin, as they had expected, Winfield proposed a house that would make the old homestead the centerpiece of a new structure. Winfield says he was inspired by another Rappahannock farm, where a large barn had been built around a core of two chestnut-log buildings.

At that farm, builders “had run rafters off the tops of the log cabins to create the barn,” Winfield says. And that’s what he did here. The rafters attached to the second floor of the cabin form the main living area, with its great room and kitchen. Because the homeowners wanted a view of the pond, the rafters are set at an angle from the little cabin.

New construction flares out on the other side of the original building, as well, where there is a one-level sunroom. The log cabin’s two-story facade takes up most of the front of the remodeled house (the rest of the exterior is cedar siding). The resulting structure has a set of complicated roofs, all clad in farmhouse-worthy painted metal. With the second story of the log cabin popping up above the rest of the house, the ensemble resembles a lady with billowing skirts.

Enter through the front door in the log facade, and you’re in the old cabin, moody and cozy-looking. The second floor of the original structure has been trimmed back to a loft, giving the room great height. Bookcases along the rear wall turn the space into a library. The ladder to the loft was fashioned from the cabin’s original staircase. It’s very expensive to reuse old wood, Mayer says, adding, “Gary and I are probably the only ones who know it’s from the original house.”

The historic space at the heart of the house has an airier presence than might be imagined because Winfield removed the chinking from between the interior log walls and framed the original doors and windows, leaving them open. The result is a somewhat “abstracted” version of a pioneer cabin, as Winfield puts it.

Go through the door on the left, and you’re in the bright and airy great room/kitchen/dining area. The ceilings are high — sloping down from the second story of the log building — and large windows look out on the pond. The original stone chimney is mostly inside the house now.

Cabinets in the open kitchen came from Kurt Markva’s Heritage Cabinet Supply in Warrenton, but Winfield used heart pine from the cabin’s original floor to make a center island and a pantry cabinet.

Two bedrooms and two baths were added to the side of the great room/kitchen area, and a three-tier deck overlooking the pond spills off the rear of the house. The finished project is an appealing mix of new and old, open and cozy, contemporary and historic.

As any expert will tell you, the secret to preserving uncovered old log cabins is to keep the logs protected. Cladding with wood or shingles can do that — but so can making the old logs the interior core of an airy, new house.

And this modern house with a historic heart meets all the family’s needs. It stands on wooded land where Anthes, whose photographs are exhibited at the Middle Street Gallery in Sperryville, Va., can haul rocks and mow, and where Mayer likes to hike and “chill.”

Mayer’s only complaint about the rural retreat? “To get my newspaper on my Kindle, I have to walk down to the end of the road.” Says Anthes, “That’s okay. People have been walking down to the end of their driveway for years to pick up their paper.”

Nancy McKeon is a former Post editor and frequent contributor to the Magazine. To comment on this article, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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