Gazing at the august 3,300-foot summit of Old Rag Mountain, visitors to Shenandoah National Park say they experience a profundity of thoughts and feelings, many spiritual in nature. In addition to its heavenly vistas, the region itself is rife with history—its lush forest floors an eternal home to Civil War cavalry and conscripts, slaves and sentries.
For homeowner and real estate developer Joe Svatos, the prospect of living in the shadow of the iconic mountain was slowly realized beginning in 2004 when he purchased a 200-acre parcel in conservation easement that was part of Rappahannock County’s Montpelier Plantation. Pre-dating the presidential Montpelier in Orange County, and built circa 1740 as a summer residence for Fredericksburg merchant Francis Thornton II, the parcel provided Hazel River frontage and unparalleled panoramas.
Somewhat inconvenienced, however, by what he labeled a dilapidated “shack” on the property he figured was makeshift 1930s housing for displaced area residents, due to construction of the national park, Svatos tolerated the blight in light of the surrounding scenery. “I really had no idea what it was,” he conceded.
Three years later, a shedding of the structure’s siding revealed the presumed 1930s shack was in fact a 1794 toll keeper’s log cabin, with an 1856 clapboard addition gilding the historical lily, so to speak— dating determined by saw blade marks and construction style. Buoyed by its provenance and in an effort to expand the tiny structure to what would ultimately become a 2,480 s.f. rustic retreat, Svatos responded to an ad in a local newspaper describing 180-year-old (presumed) slave quarters—called Chestnut (log) cabin— located at Mount Joy Farm in Howard County, Md. Earmarked for demolition due to a Howard County zoning quagmire, Chestnut cabin had been dismantled and catalogued when put up for sale, and Svatos purchased and brought it to his Virginia property. In time it would be sited and rebuilt adjacent to the 1794 cabin with its aforementioned addition.
Rallying the regiment
Initially engaging a design builder whose ideas ran contrary to his own thinking, Svatos soon inquired of David Haresign of Bonstra | Haresign Architects, with whom he had worked on larger projects. At stake was precisely how to connect and convert these inchoate structures into a comfortable contemporary retreat without destroying their historical fabric.
“I’m predominantly a commercial architect doing mostly institutional quality corporate work, master planning and multi-family housing,” Haresign said, adding it is not uncommon for him to helm million square-foot projects. But when he drove out to the property along the Old Sperryville Pike, he was struck by the sight of Old Rag Mountain where his father had taken him half-a-dozen times as a boy. “It was one of those special, touchstone places for me,” Haresign said. “I told Joe, ‘Sure, I’d love to help you out.’”
Embarking on what was clearly a virgin venture for all involved, where a confluence of reclamation and rustic luxury were the order of the day, Rappahannock County-based builder Greg Foster of Timberbuilt Construction was also brought in. With issues of connectivity and sustainability among the more obvious requisites, the triumvirate also faced engineering challenges involving modern adaptability of centuries-old notched log cabins, originally held together by mud chinking.
When fascines fail
According to Haresign, at the outset, logs were restacked as the walls for the most part had bowed. And in addition to utilizing notches as their ancestors had, modern technology suggested wood blocking to separate each log with the spaces between sprayed with 3-inch R-15 value foamed insulation, followed by an epoxy-based material troweled on the exterior: a kind of weather surface for the chinking.
Tantamount to that, Haresign described structural measures that needed to be implemented as log cabins are dynamic. While the 1794 toll house cabin was less of an issue, the larger Chestnut cabin was stabilized by a series of threaded steel rods and plates staggered and buried between the logs. “These compress everything so it doesn’t move,” Haresign explained of the bracing, the logs unable to expand, contract or break out of the chinking.
To site and integrate the cabins so that they spoke a common language—and looked as though they had simply developed that way over time, Haresign used a glass connector with stone flooring (the stone locally sourced from Culpepper, Va.) on the first floor, and glass flooring
above, where the master suite loft is located. Except for the loft, the flooring for the second story was removed to create double-height spaces. “It’s as modern as we could make it without being ‘in your face’ modern,” the architect said of the design. “In fact it’s almost ‘all window’ on either side of the connector,” he added, affirming the notion of a seamless transition.
Better than a bivouac
On approach, which is from the south, the cabins look as they did post-Revolutionary and pre-Civil War, respectively, when they were built. Desiring to honor original window placement, Haresign, Svatos and Foster elected not to alter existing fenestration with the exception of adding western exposure large scale windows and a new dormer. These frame the Hazel River and Old Rag Mountain. A sweeping curve carved into the land establishes a plinth on which the buildings sit, with a set of stairs descending to the flora and fauna below (Svatos reports he has spied wild turkeys, deer, black bears and snakes).
On the eastern side, to establish the rest of the baseline for the cabins, again the land is marked by a gently sweeping curve and also has a stone wall creating an area Haresign calls the Zen garden. “It’s quiet and contemplative there,” he said, “a contained space.”
Where materials were concerned, about 75 percent of the wood used in the project was reclaimed, for example red siding and parts of a tin roof were reused when renovating the 1856 clapboard addition ceiling. “New” flooring in the Chestnut cabin was gleaned from an 1840s Madison County, Va. courthouse, 40 miles from the site. Cherry treads and trim on the steel stair and modern oak objects inserted into the historical fabric were locally sourced and milled at a facility in Front Royal, according to Haresign, also within a 40-mile radius of the site. Fabricated industrial-grade steel for the interior railing and columns was married with locally-sourced wood filler for warmth, scale and texture—and even some additional bracing. “It’s all about how to craft common materials and make them really special,” Haresign said.
Beneath the Chestnut cabin, which works its way downhill, a newly-minted stone cellar might be considered below-grade on the east, north and south faces, but is clearly exposed on the west face. Haresign said the windows embedded in the stone foundation wall can consequently “peek above grade.” The cellar contains a guest suite and houses all of the mechanical, electrical, security and audio systems. These include a dual-purpose water heater also used for radiant floor heating. Low-flow fixtures, double pane low-emissivity glass and Energy Star appliances make the cabins modern and sustainable. Wired for iPhone docking stations in each room, state-of-the-art technology is camouflaged by design in deference to historical roots.
In the kitchen, the same Madison County courthouse wood flooring underscores modern wood cabinets and appliances, and what the architect playfully calls a translucent glass-and-wood “indoor outhouse” (i.e. powder room) punctuates the living space beyond it.
Finally, in a gesture that embraced both green energy and the past, poised inside the 1794 cabin a study with post-Jeffersonian era desk faces one of two original floor-to-ceiling stone hearth/chimneys that were severely deteriorated, according to homeowner Svatos. “We were able to restore them and bring them back. Now they are fully functioning fireplaces—and very prominent focal points in the cabin.”
“This is the most organic project I’ve ever worked on,” Haresign said, contrasting it with his prominent portfolio of mega-office buildings which are “machined…very tight.
“Cabins are not precise, and the design process never really stopped. It goes on today,” he continued, referencing an 1840s Berks County corn crib slated to become a pool house on the property, and a “drop-dead gorgeous” gate entrance projected to be a modern piece set in the pastoral landscape. The team has just been notified it is to receive a Builder’s Choice award in October.
“This project in my view is the highest form of rustic art available,” Haresign concluded.
Photos courtesy of Anice Hoachlander