December is a time of gatherings and celebrations and often conjures up visions of log cabins in the snow with roaring fires in a massive, stone fireplace, and flannel pajamas. Log homes’ distinctive construction material can create a rustic Lincoln cabin or a grand Adirondack camp. For this holiday issue we researched the history of log homes, their presence in our region, and visit some that are available for purchase just in time for Christmas.
A very brief history of log home building
Log homes have always occupied a special place in the American psyche. They express the freedom and self-reliance of the frontier, and our beginnings as a nation. Historically logs were the preferred construction material in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe as early as the Bronze Age with log structures still standing that date before 1200 AD. In North America the earliest log buildings were built in New Sweden, a short-lived Swedish colony, in the Delaware and Brandy Wine River valleys. One of the oldest homes in the United States is a rustic log cabin built by Forest Finns in 1638 located in Greenwich, NJ. The cabin is looking for a new owner who will protect its history and is listed for sale for the seventh time since 2015 for $475,000.
Fast forward to frontier log forts, Daniel Boone, Lincoln’s log home to the “Great Camps” of the Gilded Age, and Gustaf Stickley’s Arts & Craft log buildings. By the 1970s, log home manufacturers across the nation offered easy to construct, log buildings, often for the second home market. Many of these companies are still in business while others, like New England Log Homes in Great Barrington, MA, used toxic chemicals used to treat logs and became superfund sites. Today the thriving companies offer elaborate custom designs with architects on staff, and tout their environmental sustainability and energy efficiency. There are more than 300 log home manufacturers building an estimated 25,000 customized log homes every year in the United States according to the Log Homes Council.
Building contractors seem to be attracted to log construction when they build their own homes. Twenty-five years ago, master builder Rick McCue decided to build his own hand-hewn log home in Sharon, CT, in the Appalachian style with flat logs and dovetailed corners. “I built so many white clapboard houses. I wanted something different for myself.”
The old growth 10” timbers were harvested in Canada during the winter using horses to prevent the damage caused by the equipment of commercial loggers. McCue, his wife and an architect designed the house at their kitchen table maximizing the interior light. It took about 14 months to construct once the materials were on site. Every six to eight years a light stain is applied to preserve the wood with a touch up on the chink joints.
The lodge pole pine logs of Jim Krissel’s home were shipped from British Columbia to Montana where they were cut, pre-assembled and numbered, delivered to the Northeast corner, and finished by Whetstone Builders of Sharon in 1992. It only took a week to set the logs on a pre-poured foundation, another six weeks to put on the roof and then a year to complete the interior. The inspiration for the 6,500-square-foot house was Krissel’s family vacation home in Beaver Creek Resorts in Vail, CO. Asked what he would have done differently Krissel observed that he should have made the roof overhang wider to protect the exterior from extreme weather and sheet rocked the bathrooms to make them warmer (see photo next page).
Pluses and minuses of log homes
Log homes are often touted as being energy efficient because of the insulating quality of the thick exterior wood walls; however, McCue observed that current building codes which increase the required R-value of new homes makes them at least comparable to traditional log construction. Custom log homes do not cost less than a traditional “stick” built house, but manufacturers maintain that they sell for 30% to 40% more than traditional homes. This is an impossible claim to verify in our region; however, the unique appeal of log homes, just like indoor swimming pools, translates to a smaller potential buyer segment.
“In my experience most buyers seem to be looking for the quintessential traditional New England country home that evokes our local history,” observed John Harney of William Pitt Sotheby’s. “And not being in Tennessee, log cabins are not part of that equation. While they are usually well built, many times they are dark inside with lots of exposed wood. So, the buyer market is much smaller for them, which discounts their value. On the other hand, the owners that have them seem pleased, so it is a matter of taste in the end.”
“Insurance used to be a real issue with log homes ten or 15 years ago,” according to Kirk Kneller of Kneller Insurance. “There’s the same insect issue with renovated barns. You can’t see inside an old beam. If termites or powder post beetles are present, replacing a deteriorating log is difficult. Although quality has improved, some insurance companies will still not cover them and those which do may charge higher premiums.”
Dark, woody interiors are the primary complaint about log homes, especially off the shelf cabins with small windows that are surrounded by trees. Stagers who prepare homes for listing focus on brightening up the interior space with light colored carpets and contemporary, eclectic furnishings. They draw attention to the views that log homes so often have and avoid large, dark furniture. Architect Jimmy Crisp observed that stylistically and structurally log homes can difficult to renovate or expand.
Like any home, log homes require maintenance with particular attention to refreshing the staining every five years or so to protect the wood from moisture and insects and to repair the chinking between the logs to keep out critters that want to get inside. Krissel observed that birds like nesting under the eaves, but it doesn’t bother him.
Log mansions for sale
“In my entire real estate career, I’ve never seen anything like it,” exclaimed veteran real estate broker Paula Redmond with Corcoran Country Living of her new $11,950,000 Millbrook listing at 521 Stanford Road (see photo on previous page). It took seven years to finish building the extraordinary 11,500-square-foot Colorado lodge-style home. Constructed of standing dead timber from the West with individual logs as large as 41” in diameter, the magnificent house comes with a vaulted 32’ high great room, a huge stone fireplace tall enough to stand up in, and five bedrooms situated on 75 acres. Redmond remarked that it is an ideal get-away for a sportsman with its professional indoor shooting range, a musician who can play in the soundproof recording studio, or a chef who likes to throw large dinner parties.
Overlooking Mudge Pond in Sharon, CT, is another log retreat built in 2004 listed for sale at just over $2,000,000. The large 5,400 square foot hilltop home also boasts five bedrooms on 18+ acres plus another three-acre building lot. The open floor plan, great room fireplace, and views of Mudge Pond make it ideal year-round for entertaining or sharing with family and guests.
The American dream
On the East Coast, log homes are most popular in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, ski resorts, camps and vacation home communities. New York and Colorado have the most log homes in the country, which are infrequently found in New England villages and hamlets influenced by English architectural tradition. While some people find log homes unsophisticated in this era of white walls for others log homes evoke pioneer independence and the beauty of natural materials. To build or buy a log house is a personal statement about sustainability, nature, and tradition.
Christine Bates is a registered real estate agent in New York and Connecticut with William Pitt Sotheby’s. She has written about real estate and business since Main Street Magazine’s first issue in 2013.