When Gail and John O'Brien were engaged to be married back in 1985, their dream house was already rising out of the ground about 110 miles from where it had been originally built.
If that causes a sudden double take, it really shouldn't.
The O'Brien home, set in a dense, 15-acre grove of mature trees on the quietly ritzy Wye Cove peninsula, is a reincarnation of a Princeton, N.J., barn -- bought stripped down to the rafters and hauled to Maryland tidewater.
The house, all 3,000 square feet of it, was re-created by installing the original barn timbers in exactly the same position they occupied when first put up. "They cost us $55,000," says Gail O'Brien of the huge, rough-hewn rafters and supports that show the ax and adz marks of the late Federal era.
The dedication came in October of 1985 when the home officially opened for the O'Briens' wedding reception. It was a last-minute thing.
And "it was a disaster," adds Gail O'Brien. "They were still laying carpeting at 2 a.m. the morning of the wedding and we were expecting 150 guests for the reception. I came in to cut the cake and we found there wasn't a knife anywhere in the house. I found an old saw in the garage and we cut the wedding cake with that," the bride remembers.
In the calm of today, the O'Brien house-barn reflects radiant quiet after the uncertainty of storm. Harrison Fraker, a friend who dean of architecture at the University of Minnesota and who found the Jersey barn treasure in the first place, served as adviser on planning the building.
With tradeoffs, the spaces worked beautifully, and the couple regard their retreat as a haven they love, even though "you don't have a lot of places to put things," in Mrs. O'Brien's words. As in old houses, cupboards and armoires are necessary for storage. "The only thing really wrong is that I don't have a dining room. I have to keep the kitchen clean all the time," says Mrs. O'Brien, of her dinette and kitchen that, wall-less, adjoins the living room.
The fact is that in barn conversions you have to do what the timbers tell you to do. No big, fancy bathrooms (there isn't room for them, surprisingly) -- for the big logs dictate even the place where utilities can and cannot go, in a squared-off and sometimes confining way. In the O'Briens' case the beams had been hand-milled in 1824 (the same year Thomas Jefferson died), but there were 542 sound pieces in the truckloads of wood, re-erected on the Queen Anne's county tract by specialists of the New Jersey Barn Company of Princeton.
"All the timbers for the first floor bays were raised by hand. We only used a crane later to raise the timbers for the upper portion of the barn," John O'Brien reports in an account of the notable building project in the new volume "Your Barn House," by Hubbard and Betsy Cobb (Henry Holt & Co. Inc., $35 hardback).
Soon after, Amish carpenters took over to build the house's stairway, a spectacular wooden silo crafted by three experienced carpenters out of 1 1/2 -inch pine boards. The silo (minus its intricate stairway, installed later) was put up in seven hours (not days), a soaring 42 feet high and 14 feet in diameter, built without the use of power tools.
"The top of the silo is John's workroom," says his wife. It's a sort of aerial gazebo, unheated but glassed in and splendidly isolated, reached only by treading 40 winding steps. Though he has other work space in the home, the tower room of the silo offers Mr. O'Brien an unobstructed 360-degree view of the Wye River and the shoreline.
The giant fireplace, rising three floors and serving both the main room and adjoining sun room, used 54 tons of Pennsylvania fieldstone.
In all this, the underlying goal was to keep the structure open to light. Barns, after all, are dim, musty and leaky places; the O'Briens wanted their barn home weatherproof, dry and bright. Two islandlike bridges were built above the first floor level to link four different living areas. A quartet of skylights on the river side of the house guaranteed illumination on the upper floors.
"There's a heat pump, but we don't use it much," says Gail O'Brien. Two handsome enameled wood stoves by Vermont Casting decorate the big fieldstone fireplaces.
Elements of the house are treated warmly and attractively with a muted color scheme, dominated by off-white walls, the magnificent browns of the beams, soft woodwork in powder blue and Oriental rugs scattered over golden pine plank floors covered with four coats of polyurethane. The entry and the kitchen of the house are floored by hefty, 10-by-10-inch tan Mexican terra cotta tiles.
Decorative notes are eclectic but unobtrusive -- a mandala on a bridge rail, an antique butcher block ("I use it for my mail and filing cabinet, says Mrs. O'Brien), elegant antique Oriental prints in the hallway and a spectacular rocker bought in an Easton gallery.
All the greenery in the house is artificial, two tall ficus trees on the first floor and potted plants elsewhere. "They don't die or need water. That's the wonderful part of it," says Mrs. O'Brien. Cozy note: the house's cat (named "Rowdy" because he used to climb up rice paper walls in the foyer and mess things up) sleeps in a Dutch antique-style wood sleigh the couple bought in Colorado on a visit. The Rocky Mountains are now part of the O'Briens' life, for they have a getaway place in Vail, Colo., the fashionable ski center, which they like to visit in summer rather than in the snowy season. For recreation, they also have tennis on their riverfront lot and a dock.
"We had a 30-foot spruce for a Christmas tree last year. It was very sparsely decorated," says Mrs. O'Brien, as she surveys the truly heroic height of her main living area. The silo to the lofty gazebo is equally daunting. "If I live to retire here, we'll put in an elevator," she concludes.