Charles McRaven: Renaissance man

Photo: Christian Hommel Photo: Christian Hommel

Charles “Mac” McRaven sits in the basement of a house he built, flipping through a book he wrote about a trade he’s mastered. As the 78-year-old master craftsman describes his work in a smooth Arkansas drawl, he radiates energy, passion, and wisdom gained over a half-century in the field.

Among the country’s preeminent stonemasons, builders, and blacksmiths, McRaven wrote the book (five of them, actually) on building and restoring traditional stone, log, and post-and-beam structures. He’s done restoration work across the country, including local landmarks Monticello, Michie Tavern, and Sam Black Tavern. More than your average construction worker, McRaven is the go-to guy for preserving the historical authenticity and identity of a building.

“There are a lot of masons with one style, and that’s all they do,” he said. “Since we did restorations, we learned to do every style. Anything anyone can do, we can duplicate it.”

McRaven moved from Missouri to Virginia in 1978, drawn to Charlottesville’s tradition of historic architecture.

“A characteristic of the Charlottesville area is that we have some really fine craftsmen,” he said. “Virginians have always had an appreciation for history. I came here 35 years ago because there is such an interest in historical structures.”

Within four months of his move, McRaven was hired to do a restoration, and the work hasn’t let up since.

But a lifetime of building is only part of the story. McRaven is a Renaissance man. He practiced and taught journalism after college. He’s an avid reader—two books per week, 100 per year, he said—and a history buff. In addition to his five published books, he’s written award-winning fiction—in March he won The Hook’s annual short story contest judged by John Grisham, making him the only two-time winner. He also spends 20 hours a week at small, Presbyterian church in Orange County where he serves as a minister.

Often, these passions collide. McRaven writes articles for trade magazines Fine Homebuilding and Country Journal; he leads weekend blacksmithing workshops at his church; and during several restoration jobs, he’s discovered historical artifacts.

“We were taking down a huge plantation house in Goochland,” he said. “Behind some of the plaster we found a newspaper ad from 1838: ‘Slave carpenter being sold.’ That gave us the crawls.”

Another time, McRaven and his crew found a Richmond Dispatch edition containing an eyewitness account of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

“You run into things like that, and it’s fascinating,” he said. “I love the historical aspect of it.”

McRaven said he’s been semi-retired for eight years. He mostly does consulting now, but when he shows up to a site, he often can’t resist getting his hands dirty. He always enjoyed physical labor more than supervising, he said.

While he’s much more selective with commercial jobs now, McRaven has plenty of personal projects to keep him busy, whether it’s fixing up his church or reassembling classic cars.

“I like working with my hands,” he said. “It’s what I do.”

It’s what he’s always done. When he was 11, McRaven helped his parents build a new house. Over the next 60 years, he would pass along his passion and experience for stonework and logwork to countless others through books, workshops, and mentoring. None of his five children are craftsmen by profession, but building is in their blood. McRaven taught each of them his trade at an early age, and they still work with their father in the field.

Next on McRaven’s agenda: building one last log cabin on his property, making a timber frame for one of his kids, and, possibly, restoring the slave cabins at Monticello.

“If we do it, we’ll do it totally authentically,” he said. “I can even hand-forge the nails if they want.”

If not, McRaven said, he has enough work to keep him busy for years. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.