Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
Usually, when we round up older houses, we’re looking for one thing above all: gorgeous details. It’s in the architectural flourishes—walk-in fireplaces with beehive ovens, wide floorboards, hand-forged hardware, and abundant woodwork—that we usually recognize the stamp of history.
But, to be honest, it would be short-sighted to only value opulent older houses, even ones on a smaller scale. Many historic structures stand out for their simplicity. And one such type is the log cabin.
Built in the 18th and 19th centuries, log cabins were popularized by Swedish and German settlers (it’s a bit of a toss up as to who started building first) in the Mid-Atlantic states stretching from Pennsylvania to Virginia. It was fairly uncommon to see log buildings by English settlers because, simply, log construction was not widely practiced in England.
Regardless of who built these structures, though, a few things remain consistent: They all have fairly simple floorplans, and forego excessive interior ornamentation. In fact, the beauty of their interiors lies in how the carved logs and hand-troweled mortar is not covered up by drywall or plaster. (Consider this the better version of exposed brick walls.) And above all, log cabins can all be organized based on the ways that the ends of the logs were carved into notches so they could fit together.
There are four main notch types:
- Saddle notch: When a semi-circular chunk is carved out of the ends of the log. Anybody who has played with a set of Lincoln Logs is familiar with saddle notches.
- Square notch: The end of each log is whittled down to a square end. This type wasn’t used often, since square notches weren’t the most stable building method.
- V-notch: The end of each log is carved into an upward-pointing V-shape (and a corresponding v-shaped notch is carved out of the log), allowing each to lock together.
- Dovetail notch: Each log terminates in a dovetail that fits together not unlike a piece of furniture.
With this in mind, lets take a look at a few log buildings that are up for grabs right now.
Free Union, Virginia (4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, $1.375 million)
Built around 1830 (with portions dating back to the late 18th century), this house on about 20 acres of land has been expanded upon since it was originally built, which is a testament to how simplistic these floorplans were originally. If you look at just the log structure, there’s essentially enough space for a single room on each floor, anchored by a fireplace. That layout is called a single-pen cabin, which was usually just one story tall.
But can we take a second to appreciate the beauty of the saddle-notch logs and the white mortar? They are not meant to be grand rooms, but they are warm and filled with personality. That bathroom, definitely not a part of the original floorplan, but sensitively added, is especially inviting.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (4 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, $750,000)
Something that we didn’t realize before we really started to look at the log cabins on the market was how many of the cabins have been added onto throughout the years, again in support of the originally streamlined floorplans these cabins had. Similar to the house in Virginia, the portion of this house that is made of logs has just one room per floor. Want more space? There’s a whole 1800s stone house attached.
Built with saddle notches, the log portion of this 216-year-old house has been renovated to cover up the majority of the logs inside. While the house has been adapted to more modern sensibilities, it would be very interesting to see what lies underneath the sheetrock. That large fireplace would look especially striking set against a wall of logs and mortar.
Columbia, Tennessee (4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $825,000)
Not every log cabins is found in the areas around Pennsylvania and Virginia. As German settlers started to migrate south and west, through the 19th century, they brought their building styles with them.
If you are somebody who is looking for a slightly more impressive house, then this 90-acre farm built in the early 19th century about an hour from Nashville might do the trick. The double-height porch, probably a later addition, projects a bit more grandiosity than we have seen in the previous houses. But you’ll notice that once inside, the quirky charm that comes with these hand-carved log homes shines through.
Actually, the reason why we love this house so much is because it’s clearly grand in one sense—look at how big the six-over-six windows are; they are so generously sized and let in a ton of light—but still allows hand craftsmanship show without apology. Look at the irregularities in each log, how the gaps between each log, filled with a gray mortar, are put in the spotlight. There’s no attempt to cover them up.
That’s the best thing about these log cabins—they underscore a different type of hand craftsmanship. It may not be so intricate or delicate like the woodwork around a Federal doorway, but it’s powerful and gives a sense of process and history. And that goes back to the heart of why we love old homes, doesn’t it?