Cabin fever: Woods, wood define homestead

ADDRESS: 2854 Secretary's Road

NEIGHBORHOOD: Woodridge, Albemarle County

ASKING: $849,000

COUNTY ASSESSMENT: $251,100 ($173,500, under "land use" tax break)

YEAR BUILT: c. 1879

SIZE: 1,716 fin. sq. ft.

LAND: 48 acres

CURB APPEAL: 8.5 out of 10

LISTED BY: Jim Faulconer of McLean Faulconer Realtors, 295-1131

This house demonstrates how an 1870's log cabin can be updated while honoring the spirit and sensibilities of the original. The owners have significantly changed the structure over the past 25 years, but, interestingly, their approach to modernization seems to have more in common with the practices, mindset, and lifestyle of the first homesteaders than the approach of renovators who strive to preserve as much of an original structure as possible.

The owners and some friends did almost all the work, using wood and stone from the land and surrounding areas. Employing traditional rustic construction techniques, they shifted from one building project to the next, leaving loose ends and unfinished projects, and they were willing to add, tear down, or change things to suit their needs– undoubtedly characteristics of the original builders.

The original cabin consisted of a big single room with a loft above, and this room with a huge stone fireplace is still the center of the house. Chestnut logs have been cleaned to reveal their smoky patina, and the original daubing– said to have been a mix of dirt, hog's blood, and straw– has been replaced with whitish concrete. The loft has been converted into a modest bathroom and an open guest sleeping area snugged under the pitched roof.

A huge beam, at least 14 inches square, was taken from another part of the cabin to serve as a central ceiling beam reinforcing smaller beams supporting the floor above. The original 5.5-foot-high front door (with wooden hinges) now serves as a door to the upstairs bathroom. The extra-tall replacement front door has a large window that admits much-needed light, but the style jars in a log cabin.

The stone fireplace provides lots of heat, thanks to some creative improvements. The owner lined the firebox with three-inch-thick slabs of soapstone that capture and radiate heat efficiently. The same soapstone, from a quarry in Schuyler, is also used for floors.

On one side of this main room was space originally used an open-air kitchen covered by a lean-to roof supported by posts. The owners have kept that basic shape, but enclosed and expanded the room with stone walls and big windows to create one large kitchen/dining room/sunroom.

Off the back of the cabin, they almost doubled the size of the house by incorporating an old livestock pen to create a new bedroom of concrete block, Albemarle fieldstone, and lumber harvested on the property and cut at the nearby Red Brook sawmill.

The original exterior has been covered with "live-edge" cedar siding, a material with the bark and natural undulations of the tree's shape visible on its running edge. This rustic style is naturally resistant to insect and moisture damage, and it suits the building well. But it's a shame that it hides the beautiful dovetailed corners of the original logs.

The interior is almost entirely finished in wood paneling and trim of wormy maple, cedar, heart pine, cherry, walnut, and oak, and paint colors echo the colors of the wood.

But as might be expected in a do-it-yourself renovation, every room has at least one unfinished project: dangling wires in the downstairs closet, little gaps of insulation and unfinished walls throughout the house, and a questionable kitchen stove arrangement. Perhaps these are inevitable in an extensive project spanning 25 years.

The property sits atop a promontory in the middle of its 48 rolling, mostly forested acres surrounded by a couple of thousand acres of woods and fields, a slate-bottomed creek and a tiny waterfall. No other house intrudes on the solitude except the neighbor who shares the 1.5-mile gravel driveway.

The setting may be the most appealing aspect of this property. But the whole parcel will call out to modern-day homesteaders who want to add their own mark to a piece of history by finishing the job these owners have so creatively begun.