A house's best-kept secret can be that it's made of logs

Surprise: Plaster walls or shingles may conceal true nature of rural homes built before the 1880s.

September 12, 2004|By Linda Garman-Weimer | Linda Garman-Weimer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dorothy Alban, Dorothy and Milton Alban knew that one exterior wall of their old Manchester brick house was buckling, but they didn't know the repair this year would disclose history.

After a mason was called in to fix the problem, the Albans' two-story "brick" house turned out to be made of logs.

"I've lived here for 73 years, and I never knew it," said Dorothy Alban, 80, who inherited the property from her father. "People tell me I should be proud to have such a historic place."

Although unusual, discoveries such as the Albans' have popped up in the Baltimore area during the past several decades. Several experts say many homes outside Baltimore were built as log structures as late as the 1880s.

"The farther west you go [in Maryland], the more the style hung on and the more likely that the original house is still logs underneath," said Richard Blacksten of Uniontown.

Blacksten, a consultant on old log houses, said that of the five metropolitan counties, Carroll County might be particularly rich in log survivors.

The neighbor across the street from the Albans made a similar discovery years ago.

"I just wanted to put in a new outlet in the living room," recalled John Timberman. "I figured it would take me a half-hour or so."

Instead, Timberman spent several hours chiseling a recess into solid wood to make room for the outlet.

"For as long as I can remember, this place has had these [asphalt] shingles on it, and I figured it was just a plain frame house," said Timberman, the third generation of his family to live there.

Unless a homeowner is curious about the structure's history, most of the log discoveries are uncovered during remodeling or repair projects, local historians say.

Experts said it's easy to see why many homeowners don't know about the nature of their home's structure.

Various sidings have been applied to many log houses over the decades, creating the mystery. Interior walls have been covered, generally with lath and plaster.

Such log findings lend historic significance to homes but can present maintenance challenges for unsuspecting homeowners. Age and weather can cause distress, with cracks developing in the wood, mortar or chinking between logs. That can lead to drafts, water leaks or insect infestations, experts said.

"Once moisture gets into them, you cannot get it out," Blacksten said. "If you're going to leave your logs exposed, it definitely ups your maintenance."

When owners learn the truth, many find themselves wondering what to do with the old place. With some of the recent discoverers, their practical interest conflicts with their sentimental or history-loving side.

"We like the history side of it, but what if the mortar falls out in the weather?" asked Milton "Jake" Alban, 79.

Dr. Lydia Temoshok of Oella, in southwestern Baltimore County, said she had "a general idea" that the old two-story house she wanted to rescue near her home was made of logs. There were several clues, including a chimney that is 6 feet wide and wooden-peg framing in the attic.

After she bought the house in 2001, her contractor worked for weeks removing "layers and layers." A two-story log house was revealed once thin asbestos shingles and cedar shakes were removed. Subsequent research revealed that the log home, which makes up half of the current structure, was built in 1830.

Charles McGrain, Baltimore County's historian, said old log houses remain a celebrated feature in the region even though they are more common than most people realize. In 1989, the Baltimore County Historical Society conducted a tour of seven log buildings, all in the area near Towson.

"All of them are occupied still, and all of them have the logs visible from the outside," he said.

McGrain recalled a recent log house discovery in Maryland Line that he visited during a 1980-1981 survey. A resident tried to put in a new pipe for a hot water heater and found that there was no space in the wall.

A similar finding awaited Rick and Brenda Barber of Dennings, near New Windsor in Carroll County, whose bathroom renovation revealed a log surprise.

"We started tearing out the [bathroom] walls, and here were those big, magnificent logs," said Rick Barber, who raises feeder pigs on his family's farm.

Like the Timbermans and the Albans, the prior generations apparently never knew chestnut logs 14 to 16 inches thick were in their walls.

Alban, the owner of the recently discovered log house in Manchester, asked his mason, Kirk Bankert of Hanover, Pa., to rebuild the brick facing over the logs, this time with rigid metal tie-ins so that it stays attached. The job was completed this summer.

The choice was not popular among the Albans' friends and neighbors in Manchester.

"I must have had 10 people in all tell me, `Keep it logs.' I heard it when I went to the hairdresser's, and one of my friends made a special call about it," Dorothy Alban said.

Temoshok said she plans to let her logs show on the Oella exterior.

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