Log cabin with mountain view in Madison County, Virginia © Thomas McGovern
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Lincoln Logs are as American as apple pie, their mythology every bit as flaky. The popular wooden construction toy of overlapping beams harks back to the days of the settlers, their humble mountain homes hewn from felled fir trees.

Yet this toy was invented by John Lloyd Wright in 1916, based on his architect father Frank’s designs for the interlocking timber foundations of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Sure, Abraham Lincoln’s father Thomas had a log cabin in Illinois, but the president never much cared to visit and its dismantling for display in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair resulted in its loss.

Today, a replica exists and Lincoln Logs continue to be sold, perpetuating the myth of presidential humility. And now the American identification with log houses promises a genuine renaissance. “Through the technology of remote working, I see the potential for a mass migration from urban centres to the hills,” says Noah Bradley, a log cabin builder who champions America’s mountain vernacular on his website handmadehouses.com.

Bradley was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1957. He recalls elderly grandparents shaped by the Depression, when “if you needed to do it, you do it yourself”. What they did was build their own house. His father was “an entrepreneur of real estate and insurance, always in a suit and tie”. Yet one day, when Noah was 15, his father exchanged his suit for overalls. “He bought 100 acres and I was assigned to be his construction assistant. I was suddenly involved in the process of housebuilding from beginning to end.”

Log cabin front elevation in Madison County with multi-level porch © Thomas McGovern

This particular house used salvage, not for ecological reasons but financial. Nonetheless, young Noah liked its solid design and weight.

Five years on, he was at college studying information systems, and miserable. So he waltzed into a bank, reeling off a story about how he’d helped his father build a house. He wanted $20,000 to build more. “The bank manager listened intently, then showed me the door.” The portal led to the great outdoors, and the culture of self-sufficiency his grandparents had known. That, and his father’s credit cards. Just $6,000 of lumber later, he’d built a house in Powhatan County, a timber ranch house with a metal roof and stone chimney.

Bedroom of a log cabin in Madison County © Thomas McGovern

He showed his accomplishment to the bank manager, who was impressed, and loaned him the $20,000. Bradley had plans for it. He had developed a hankering for life in the Appalachian mountains and with the proceeds of that first house, plus his loan, he figured he and his new wife could survive the move to Hancock County, Tennessee, where 15 newly purchased acres of mountain territory awaited. They had funds even if his housebuilding and furniture-making skills were insufficient to make a fortune in the sparsely populated area. For the first year, they lived in a tent with a stream serving as both fridge and laundry, while he sawed and hammered away at their nascent timber home. It was completed for less than $500, entirely from timbers harvested from dilapidated rustic buildings.

“It was a mellowing time,” he recalls, “not knowing what the hour was, or even the day of the week sometimes, but watching the world from the window.”

Noah Bradley's toolbox © Thomas McGovern

With the arrival of their first baby, they concluded “it wasn’t an area to raise children in”. So they upped sticks. As the car pulled away and he looked back on their achievement, Bradley realised that this had been a lesson. He had made a good job of building the house. “They were comfortable, natural materials. But I hadn’t paid enough attention to the design.”

An avid reader of books on traditional architecture, Bradley reckons he has traversed every road in Virginia in search of old houses. He likes to pull up and scrutinise a building, then take pictures. These studies feed into his house designs.

Cabin construction in Madison County © Thomas McGovern

He identifies several essential components of American mountain cabins. Perhaps the main one is a fireplace. “Oh, yeah, it’s essential. A cabin without a fireplace is like a canoe without a paddle. When you open the door, the first thing you should see is a stone fireplace.”

Today, however, he laments that honest masonry fireplaces have all but disappeared. “From early man to about 50 years ago, we gathered at a hearth. There’s a part of humanity that’s missing. We retain the memory — you sometimes see a pretend chimney on new houses, stuck on the roof for effect. But self-deception is sad, and the world is poorer for it.”

Noah Bradley © Thomas McGovern

Some features of log cabins are regional. In Virginia, for example, stone chimneys are usually attached to the outside wall rather than radiating heat from the centre, as they tend to in New England. This is because in the summer, Virginia gets humid and, as fireplaces were used for cooking through the year, half the time their heat was unwelcome.

Bradley has built small havens in the woods for clients fleeing the urban noise and energy of Washington DC at weekends, reverting to a more contemplative existence. Some 90 per cent of his cabins are one room with a bedroom above. Many could be mistaken for houses a couple of centuries old.

Reassembly of an early 1800s smokehouse as a new domestic outbuilding © Thomas McGovern

His favourite project is in the uplands of Albemarle County in the Piedmont region, between the James river and the Blue Ridge mountains. He built a stone plinth of local gneiss and granite. Here, air flow prevents rotting beneath the unseen ground-floor deck, where he uses modern planed timber. Yet the main walls are logs harvested from derelict buildings too far gone for repair, and slotted together just like a Lincoln Log set, packed with modern insulation beneath the mortar that fills the junctions in butter-coloured bands.

Wall detail of log cabin in Free Union, Virginia © Thomas McGovern

Although there are still countless weekender families that dread the Sunday evening drive home, Bradley says, things are changing. With wider broadband access in rural areas, more are leaving the city for a life in the mountains. His mission is not to build them all homes but to promote the simple virtues of the mountain vernacular, shaped by a craftsman’s hands.

Photographs: Thomas McGovern

Get alerts on House & Home when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article