Historic Log Cabin Renovation

Removing a web of vines and layers of makeshift siding, Virginia homeowner Joe Svatos discovers a retreat worth saving.
Article: Susan Stiles Dowell

Deep in the woods of Rappahannock County, Virginia, a tiny red house languished dilapidated and vine covered until Joe Svatos bought the 200 surrounding acres. Planning to tear it down, he examined what he assumed was a 1930s shack with a local salvage expert and made a startling discovery. Underneath the siding, one section of the house had late-18th-century log construction. Another section, a clapboard addition, had the circular saw marks and nails of pre-Civil War construction. Joe knew he had to save the place, but what could he do with it?

After the salvage expert mentioned a larger chestnut log cabin in Maryland that was threatened with demolition, a plan was hatched. Joe would save it, too, and have it dismantled, brought to Virginia, and attached to his discovered treasure. He enlisted Washington, D.C., architect David Haresign to design a home that cohesively connected the three different structures without losing the individual character of each. The result is a 2,400-square-foot retreat that preserves the historic, handmade log construction but is updated with an interior that offers a clean, modern look as well as state-of-the-art technology. Here, Joe and David take us through their process of sensitively combining old and new.

How surprised were you when you discovered that the house on your property was really a historic gem?
Joe: I'd always just assumed it was a derelict old house, but I wanted to be sure what it was before it fell into complete ruin. We cleared off the vines to look in the windows. What a mess! The salvage expert pulled away some of the red siding, and we saw logs and chinking underneath. We pulled siding off the other section, and it had a different construction. I knew right away I needed to do something to stabilize the place or at least get the vines off before it got engulfed. We were later able to identify the house as a 1794 log cabin with an 1856 clapboard addition—quite a find.

Why go to the trouble of saving the old buildings?
Joe: To preserve a slice of American culture. Far too often, small, abandoned wood homes just rot away and are then lost forever.

Just how hard was restoring the three structures?
David: Each building required its own special handling. We didn't disassemble the logs of the 1794 log cabin, but we removed all the chinking, realigned and reinforced its logs, and gave it a new stone foundation. We also cleaned the old logs so we could introduce efficient polystyrene insulation between them and apply a preservative coating. The 1856 addition was reinforced with new floor framing and sistered studs and given new siding inside and out. After the fully dismantled chestnut cabin was trucked here, we cleaned and restacked the logs in its new setting.

Describe the process of attaching the chestnut cabin you moved from Maryland to the two other structures.
Joe: We couldn't just slap it onto the existing cabins. The steep slope above the original structures really limited us. To say it was tricky would be an understatement.

David: I think we had about 6 feet to play with south of the slope! We provided a basement for the big chestnut cabin so we could add modern systems, a guest suite, and a media room. The chestnut cabin and the 1856 section were linked using contemporary wood, glass, and stone details. The connecting structure is placed to show a long view between the cabins, revealing the logs and clapboard sheathing with the old stone chimney visible at the end.

How did you decide to lay out the interior of the three structures so they became one big, connected house?
David: Creating a new bedroom and kitchen made the most sense in the big chestnut log cabin. We inserted a sleeping loft, elevated on a steel frame, and crafted a full kitchen below. With the connecting structure on axis with the beautiful 1856 chimney, the middle clapboard structure became the ideal place for the dining room.

Joe: The original 18th-century cabin is by the dining room at the far end of the house. It's private and quiet with few windows and almost feels chapel-like. I made it a sitting room and library.

Were you hesitant to modernize the inside?
Joe: I decided as long as it didn't detract from the original construction, we could adapt the inside to the way I like living. Once I knew I wanted more light and a soaring feeling in the main living area, we knew we had to raise the ceiling by removing the second story. This helped achieve the loft character I like. I also wanted to use simple furnishings with clean lines because I didn't want to distract from the log walls.

David: The insertion of the half-story loft lightens up the inside. It's a steel platform held up by a steel post, and the loft floor is supported by reclaimed log beams. The use of industrial steel is respectful of the cabin's rough-hewn nature while adding updated character.

Any surprising solutions that combined old and new?
Joe: David kept all the original door and window openings on the front side but added more modern, larger windows on the opposite side to capitalize on views of the Hazel River and Old Rag Mountain.

David: The imprecise nature of hand-hewn logs and the not-quite-square frame cabin required an inventive joinery solution. We devised something we called "the crumb catcher," a recessed joint painted dark gray and scribed to the irregular walls to fit the precise edge of the modern kitchen counters and cabinetry. Nearly all our materials were sourced from local craftsmen—nails, lumber, forged hardware, cabinets, and even furniture. It extends the work of the human hand and continues the tradition of sustainability that started with the colonists.