Restoring buildings, history

Contractor relishes rebuilding log structures, some from 1700s and 1800s, using original pieces

December 16, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

On a recent morning, drizzling rain and chilly temperatures failed to halt work at a construction site nestled behind a historic home in Abingdon.

Wearing beige overalls and all-weather boots, Derek McGuirk sloshed through mud puddles and wood chips to the end of a 20-foot oak log.

Grasping the handles of a foot-long blade, the project foreman shaved bark off the 600-pound log.

"I work year round ... snow, rain, or shine," McGuirk, 54, said as a flurry of bark pieces fell to the ground. "But in the end, when my work is done, an old building lives on to tell the history of the county."

Built in the late 1840s, the oak and stone barn is one of dozens of historic log structures -- barns, churches, cabins and houses -- that McGuirk has restored during the past 36 years. The barn is an outbuilding at Woodside, a historic home built in 1823 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Woodside's owners, Michael and Jan Stinchcomb, wanted to restore the barn because it illustrates the way of life on a farm 184 years ago.

"The outbuildings of historic properties are the most endangered," said Jan Stinchcomb, 52, the dean of undergraduate studies and faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "And they provide a more thorough context for what the original site looked like."

Work on the project began in October. McGuirk and the couple searched for wood to replace the logs that were decayed and rotted, Jan Stinchcomb said. Many of the logs are recycled from other historic buildings. The Stinchcombs wanted to use materials that would have been used during the period the barn was built, she said, and their search took them out of state.

McGuirk says he is largely self-taught. He started rebuilding structures at age 18 on his family's farm in Bel Air. The seventh of 15 children, McGuirk said his parents instilled in him a strong work ethic.

"I was a boy growing up on a farm," said McGuirk, who earned a bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1977. "I had chores, like feeding the cows, from the time I was about 4 years old."

There was always work to do, and many of McGuirk's siblings had skills in different areas, he said. His specialty became restoration work.

His first project was disassembling and reconstructing an 1817 springhouse on the farm one summer.

"I learned from the work," he said. "When I took a house apart, I learned how they were put together."

As he got older, his interest in restoring old buildings grew, he said. He can complete about two projects a year, and in recent years has restored houses, cabins and churches.

For a project in 2004, McGuirk used wood and stone from a 19th century house in Virginia to build a log cabin in Glyndon, Baltimore County. Built from wood and materials from the bottom of the house, the cabin is used by the owner as an office and guest house.

McGuirk also worked on the restoration of Thomas Run Church in Bel Air. Originally known as the Watters Meeting House, the church was built in 1770. It was damaged by a fire about 1840, while a 1996 arson blaze left only the stone walls standing.

Hope Ruff, who lives near the church, led an effort that raised more than $250,000 to rebuild the church. Old photos were used as a guide to restore the property to what it was, she said.

"The church has been here for centuries, and it needs to continue to be here," Ruff said. "It's part of the early history of this county ... By restoring the building, Derek has helped to make sure that future generations will enjoy the church too."

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