February 2011: Cabins, for now


 “I don’t throw away things that still have life in them.” With that simple credo, Peggy Mucklo explains why she chose her house. The 1825 log cabin—moved from Milam, West Virginia, and reconstructed on her land near Lovingston—was in remarkably good shape when she found it nearly 20 years ago. But more than that, it breathes the history of the many people who lived in it before her. In this lovingly restored building, you can sense the presence of decades.

RUSTIC BY NATURE. Architect Bahlmann Abbot helped move and restore a 1840s-era cabin in Western Albemarle. 

That’s true despite modernizations like a kitchen, closets, and central air. Mucklo called on architect Russell Skinner to help her update the cabin for modern living while respecting its past. The result is a thoroughly liveable home that clearly preserves the craftsmanship and pioneer spirit of its origins. 

Five years later, Skinner’s business partner, Bahlmann Abbot, would undertake a cabin project of his own, this one with a different history and goals. Together, the two cabins—one a full-time home and the other a rustic retreat—illustrate a range of ways to honor an Appalachian icon.

The texture of time


“I was really fascinated by frontier life when I was a kid, and read a lot about it,” says Mucklo. In 1992, she owned part of a wooded mountainside in Nelson County and felt it called out for an old-fashioned house. She considered building a new cabin until she saw an ad in the Daily Progress listing this one for sale by a company called Latchstring Corporation. Its owner, Tom Thorpe, “would see [cabins] falling into ruin in the middle of fields, and would buy them,” she says.

Mucklo drove out to West Virginia to see the place, expecting something quite humble, and was surprised by the cabin’s size: 20’x30′, two stories plus an attic, with ceilings much higher than the usual 7′. The house had been inhabited until the 1950s and was electrified. “It had always had a good roof,” Mucklo says—key to its excellent condition. 

She planned to make one big change: adding a basement level to contain a modern kitchen, bathroom and utility room. Since her site is sloped, this floor would be half underground. “My role was getting some light in the basement,” says Skinner, who put French doors along the east wall and laid out the kitchen so that when Mucklo stands at her sink, she can take in the view. 

Cabinets are made of fir and designed in a simple, timeless style; Mucklo found a large soapstone laundry sink which Skinner complemented with soapstone countertops. The floor is made of brick salvaged from a building with the same vintage as the cabin, 1825, and it continues outside onto a patio, linking indoors and out. “I like a lot of natural textures,” Mucklo says, “so I love this kitchen.”

A steward of her house


She has an unerring eye for objects with which to adorn the space, both new (a bathroom sink, for example, made by local ceramic artist Janice Arone) and old. A collection of antique ladles lines one kitchen wall, and framed needlework pieces hang upstairs. 

MOBILE HOME. Peggy Mucklo shows a photo of her cabin in its original site in Milam, West Virginia (its summer kitchen found a different destination in Albemarle County).

Each room has a fireplace or woodstove, which not only serve a function but make a palpable connection to the past. Mucklo imagines all the fires—for cooking and heat—that must have burned in the main room upstairs. “1825” is carved into chimney stones and logs here and there.

The intervening years are visible in the lathe marks where previous owners added plaster rather than rechinking between the huge white pine timbers. But overwhelmingly, this cabin is original: walls, floors, stonework, even door hardware. 

Mucklo is very choosy about making changes. Contractor Leroy Yancey imitated original doors, for example, when making new ones for the basement. And when he asked Mucklo if she wanted a closet in her bedroom, she saw it as “a big decision.” Ultimately, she did opt to carve a closet and bathroom from the large second-floor space, also adding a spacious front porch.

She and Skinner share a sense of delight at the whole project. “You’re a steward,” he says, and she responds with a story about the first night she spent here, on the floor by the fireplace, sleepless with excitement. “How did this happen to me?” she remembers thinking. “The idea that I might be the one to keep this cabin going…” Skinner recalls his first glimpse of the cabin after reconstruction. “I was amazed,” he says. “They had just finished it and it looked like it had been here for 100 years.”

Uphill move


Abbot-Skinner Architects are not cabin specialists—primarily, they design contemporary dwellings—but it’s clear that Bahlmann Abbot, like Skinner, takes deep pleasure in working with a building that brings its own history to the table. 

NEW HORIZON. The cabin in Bahlmann Abbot’s family now commands a western view that can extend to West Virginia. 4: The cabin sits inside a simple yard marked out by a split-rail fence.

On a mountaintop in Western Albemarle, in 1997, Abbot oversaw a cabin move much shorter than the journey made by Peggy Mucklo’s house—in this case, only a quarter-mile. His father-in-law, Bob Buford, had bought a piece of property on the mountain that included an 1840s-era cabin. “It was [on] a good site beside a spring,” he says, “somewhat sheltered. It faced the southwest, so it wasn’t the dark holler that everybody talks about. It had this natural protection to it, but we had a field just a quarter-mile away. Then you would have a 270-degree view”: on a good day, all the way to West Virginia.

The family agreed to move the cabin and restore it as a special place for gatherings and quiet retreats. It would have no electricity or plumbing, and its small size and simple layout would be preserved. The goal, Abbot says, was “to make it look not unlike something that people would have lived in.” 

Walls (made from oak and chestnut timbers) and chimney were in good enough shape to reuse, but the cabin needed a new floor system and roof. The team—including builder Peter Hunter and mason Shelton Sprouse—looked for ways to repurpose old materials that could no longer serve their original functions. For example, one timber that wasn’t structurally sound anymore became a mantelpiece. “We tried not to use anything out of place, like pressure-treated wood,” says Abbot.

Changes for the better


Still, Abbot and his partners weren’t overly precious about preservation: They enlarged a window, raised ceilings and eliminated half the second floor to create a loft. All these moves make the cabin more comfortable for modern occupants (though one still has to cook outside, build a fire to stay warm, and use an outhouse). 

Abbot created a loft by removing half the second floor and added a rhododendron-branch railing. He also enlarged a window somewhat to take advantage of the new view. The family agreed to keep the cabin very rustic, with no plumbing or electricity, and decorated it with antiques.

Adding a porch on the west side must have been a no-brainer: The view here is enormous. In the distance are the Shenandoah Valley and Skyline Drive. In the foreground is the sloping ground of an open meadow, populated by one formidable oak and a number of old apple trees where bears and deer like to forage. A split-rail fence marks out a rectangular yard, and furnishings are sparse indoor and out, keeping the focus on the setting. 

Creativity blends with an appreciation for history, as in the railing made of rhododendron branches that Abbot built for the loft. “It’s probably a little bit out of place in that cabin but it’s in keeping with the rustic nature of it,” he says. Another family member made a book for invited guests to sign, along with “anybody who happened to walk along and discover the cabin,” Abbot says. “We’re on the third book now and people from all over the world.”

The family calls the place “Pa’s Folly,” but the effort to dismantle and restore this little house has clearly paid off. “There have been three weddings up there,” says Abbot. “More often than not it’s a place to hike to, hang out and watch the wildlife. A lot of times we’ll go over an hour before dark and sit quietly and watch it get dark, and the animals come out. It’s a retreat.”