Material world: A Valley house tells stories in wood

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Photo: Justin Ide Photo: Justin Ide

Behind Kelley and Susan Blanton’s home, outside Staunton, is a symbol of its new-meets-old spirit. In a juxtaposition of technologies from different eras, a large array of solar panels, propped on an angle, shelters a stack of firewood.

The Blantons have a deep appreciation for what’s old: low-tech craftsmanship and natural materials. When they built their home in 2009-2010, they also opted for geothermal heat, solar hot water, and at least one brand-new construction technique. This is a unique and surprising structure, woven through with history despite having been perched on its windy hilltop for just a handful of years. “The house is all about the wood, and the wood has stories,” said Susan.

The master bedroom was constructed with logs from a c. 1810 barn in Middlebrook. Quilts and perforated-tin light fixtures add a historical feel to the space. Photo: Justin Ide
The master bedroom was constructed with logs from a c. 1810 barn in Middlebrook. Quilts and perforated-tin light fixtures add a historical feel to the space. Photo: Justin Ide

Kelley, an expert woodworker for more than 30 years, has built cabinets at Colonial Williamsburg and wooden cases for a Staunton pipe organ company. Both Blantons have what Kelley calls a “sense of the item itself being the beauty”—a belief that wood and stone, craftsmanship and patina, need no other adornment.

The pair were living in Staunton, their three children grown, when they heard about a c. 1810 log barn in Middlebrook, facing demolition. “Kelley came home from work and said ‘Would you like to build a log house?’” Susan remembered. “I said sure.” They didn’t yet know how they’d turn the barn into a house, or where they’d put it.

The answer to the second question turned out to be a bucolic, sloping lot in Swoope, which offered something Kelley had always wanted: a view of the sun setting behind mountains. “This is just far enough from town, but not wild and mountainy,” Susan said. And the lot had a trailer where they could live while building.

The home’s timber-frame structure lends graceful lines to the common areas. Photo: Justin Ide
The home’s timber-frame structure lends graceful lines to the common areas. Photo: Justin Ide

Parts of a whole

The other question—how and what to build—was complex. “It started out to just be a log cabin,” said Susan. But the Blantons ended up waiting five years to begin the project, and during that time their ambitions grew. “Kelley really wanted a timber frame house,” said Susan, “and we needed some part to be conventional stick-built so we could have all the bits we wanted”—modern plumbing, HVAC, and so on.

They hired architect Peter Aaslestad, who devised a way to include all these elements into one not-too-large house. “His concept was that it would look like it had grown over time,” said Kelley. “There would be three distinct characteristics, but not jarring.”

In the final scheme, the logs from the barn make the master bedroom and an office (with a “dogtrot” hallway between them); a soaring timber frame structure contains the living and dining areas; and the frame portion houses the kitchen.

Lots of different materials—many salvaged from historical buildings—enliven the house, inside and out. They’re united by their organic qualities and by the finest workmanship, courtesy of Kelley and a large supporting cast of craftspeople.

A second local barn yielded stone for the foundation—90 tons of it, moved one pickup load at a time. And a third provided sandstone used in the Blantons’ chimney. “It’s very unusual stone for this area,” said Kelley. The Blantons and their crew, led by builder Lewis Wright, weren’t afraid to supplement these salvaged materials with newer ones: huge chunks of freshly quarried rock for their hearthstone, or yellow pine logs they milled into flooring.

While the log-walled rooms are cozy and modest, the common areas soar with the graceful lines of the timber-frame structure. Local carpenter Jordan Finch used contrasting woods: light-colored cypress from South Carolina and red, locally sourced cherry. “There’s not a nail or screw in this whole thing,” said Kelley. “It’s made the way a barn or church frame would have been made in 1300 or 1400.”

Between the timbers, said Kelley, “We put up drywall, and I thought no, the other surfaces are too organic, too rich; this won’t work.” Instead they opted for plaster—warm in color and smooth to the touch.

The couple opted for plaster over drywall to give the space a richer, more organic feel. “There’s not a nail or screw in this whole thing,” said Kelley Blanton. Photo: Justin Ide
The couple opted for plaster over drywall to give the space a richer, more organic feel. “There’s not a nail or screw in this whole thing,” said Kelley Blanton. Photo: Justin Ide

From the outside, the home achieves the rustic, settled look that Aaslestad hoped for. Log walls contrast with a very unusual type of exterior siding, made from large poplar-bark shingles. Such shingles are a vernacular tradition in North Carolina, originally made from chestnut. Kelley worked with a crew to harvest the bark and flatten it into shingles, some of which also line an interior wall.

Despite so many different building techniques and types of wood, the Blantons’ home has a unifying sensibility. Quilts and perforated-tin light fixtures sound a historical note, while modern comforts (think radiant floor heat and an up-to-the-minute kitchen) keep the place supremely liveable. “The house was a long time coming, and I want to stay until I die,” Susan said. “So I wanted it to be comfortable and easy to maintain.”

  • Steward

    I have had the pleasure to know and work along side Jordan Finch. He is a Master Craftsman and Joiner with the eye of an artist. Truly one of the Shenandoah Valley’s best kept secrets. If you are looking to build something timeless, with lasting beauty, he is absolutely the one you want.

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