The house that Elaine and Michael and Bonnie and Harold built began as a rustic cabin in the woods. But now the completed two-family Wintergreen, Va., getaway might best be described as a split-level luxury log cabin, an intentionally unique effort. The classified real estate listings aren't exactly filled with such properties.
The cabin at Wintergreen is one of the oldest new homes for miles around. Built in 1985 with 150-year-old chestnut logs from a tobacco barn near Lexington, Va., the cabin has the warmth of an older home with the conveniences of a contemporary. Inside, all the beams, the flooring, the trim, the stairs -- even some of the furniture -- is constructed with old wood that has been recycled, much of it from a cotton gin torn down three years ago in Lynchburg, Va.
Building a new house from old house parts is not economical. In this case all the wood had to be planed, treated and custom-cut to suit the plans the two families had developed with the help of architect Gilbert Goldfein, who acted as architectural consultant.
Charles McRaven, author of the book Building the Hewn Log House (Harper & Row) and a man who has spent 30 years building and restoring log houses, helped adapt the plans to a log house. McRaven advertised in a number of small Virginia newspapers to find the right size (38-foot) chestnut logs to accommodate the design. He went to four sites before he ultimately selected the best quality log structure. Then McRaven disassembled it and stored it in Charlottesville, where he is based, until the two families were ready to build.
Elaine and Michael Clayman and Bonnie and Harold Fagan wanted a vacation cabin that would house their two families simultaneously. The couples had been friends for many years (the men attended dental school together and resumed their friendship when they found themselves relocated in the Washington area). Avid skiers and campers, they had taken many vacations together with their four children.
For years they had talked of building a vacation place together -- the kind of place neither couple could afford individually. After much searching, the families chose Wintergreen because, with nearby skiing, it offered four-season use.
The design of the house dictated the selection of the site. The families wanted two living rooms, one on each floor, and two master bedrooms, each with its own bath. A split level was the obvious solution. It would allow each family privacy and yet it would provide the house with lots of views of the outdoors and natural light inside.
It seemed obvious to everyone that a site on a slope would be a perfect match. The lot they purchased in 1983 was ideal. The end of the property was defined by the Appalachian Trail. The house backs onto the George Washington National Forest -- guaranteeing privacy and ensuring that the house would be forever "in the woods," with no threat of future development to spoil the view.
The four partners in the venture worked out their respective roles in seeing the project through to its completion. During the process of making decisions about a custom house that would satisfy all four adults, four children and many house guests, the two couples discovered each other's strengths -- and weaknesses.
Elaine and Bonnie spent weekends and special day trips shopping for antiques for the cabin throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Bonnie Fagan is an interior designer, so she took the lead in tracking down everything from hand-painted French tiles for the kitchen and bathrooms to designing the stencil pattern on the floor of the dining area. The extra large antique pine table was constructed from old wood and was designed by Bonnie Fagan.
Everyone had a part in every major decision, says Elaine Clayman. "Bonnie was our design person; Harold was our money man and worrier. I handled the management end of things -- the schedule, the checkbook. And Michael, he was our communicator, our sensitivity person. If we needed to handle a difficult problem with our contractor, for example, Michael handled it."
The process of building and furnishing the cottage brought the families closer together.
They all agreed that their second home should be a dream place -- no leftovers from their primary residences. Part of that feeling can be seen not just in the muted natural tones but in the attention to lighting. The four adults had rented too many dark and dreary vacation cabins; they wanted a home with good lighting. "Often when we rented a place," says Bonnie Fagan, "we'd find just one light in the room -- it just wasn't inviting. We wanted the lighting and the colors to be muted. We wanted people to feel serene when they came to the cabin, and we wanted them to feel a touch of luxury about their environment."
The luxury comes not just in the rich heart-pine trim everywhere, still bearing nail holes from previous use. Upstairs are a living room, a large dining area and a kitchen open to the living room so that the cook can be part of what is going on. A large stone fireplace dominates the room. From the master bedroom suite on this floor, french doors open onto the deck where a hot tub has been installed. The tub is nestled in the trees overlooking the woods.
Downstairs is a second family room with a stone fireplace and a bathroom. The second master bedroom suite is entered through an antique stained and etched-glass doorway. The room is furnished in a romantic Victorian vein with a dramatic stone wall that curves around into the second master bathroom. Also downstairs are two twin bedrooms, one for the Fagan children (Mark, 13, and Erin, 10) and one for the Clayman children (Jennifer, 14, and Kerry, 11). When both families visit, they take turns using the two master bedrooms. The children use one of the two family rooms as their living room, so the adults can sit and talk together upstairs without distractions.
Mutual friends of both couples counseled them not to go through with the partnership, warning that it would ruin their friendship. It hasn't. But just in case, they have a partnership agreement that has provisions for what Elaine Clayman refers to as "buy-outs, guests, divorce or economic demise."
It took almost a year for the house to be built and furnished. The two families have now been through a full season and are still excited about the cabin. Elaine Clayman sums up that enthusiasm: "We wanted it to be special because when you're away your time is so special. It should be that way."