Guest Post: Reed Cabin Restoration 2008-2019

*In this guest post, my good friend, Andrew Lloyd, gives us a glimpse into the history, motivations, and philosophy behind a decade-long restoration project. I’m privileged enough to get to spend time in this lovely place a couple of times per year and it has inspired me to consider my home and land carefully.

Every day in the late 80’s, I walked the sidewalk from the main Jackson High School building, past a mobile home that hosted a cutting-edge word-processing class, and into a very plain concrete building. There were a dozen large drafting tables inside that were manned by a dozen mullet clad students under the supervision of Mr. Sites, an old-school paddle-wielding teacher of mechanical drawing and architecture. The final exam for architecture was to build a model of the house we had spent all semester designing. Despite waiting until the last minute to finish it, I absolutely loved doing this. The designs weren’t really anything special, but the details in my models were amazing. I remember staying up all night with my dad, cutting black sandpaper into shingles, landscaping a pond filled with clear Jell-O, and making an electric meter to scale—similar to the ones Dad read as a meter reader when I was growing up. Something about surprising people with such small creative details gave me a huge rush of adrenaline.

At the same time, thirteen miles down a rural highway road from the school, the last known occupant of an old, dilapidated house had shut and locked its door, never to return. Its outside was covered in rolled asphalt siding that was supposed to look like brick; a thick cluster of vines had begun to work their way up the sides. Inside, there were six layers of wallpaper covered in soot. Worthless junk was everywhere though, unbeknownst to most, was intermingled with priceless treasures. Inside, there were over a hundred years of memories starting in the 1880’s when Philip Reed, my great-great grandfather, built the house that fourteen people once called home all at the same time. Inside, there were also the logs of a cabin that wasn’t ready to die.

Philip Reed

They say time flies when you are having fun. Nearly twenty years flew by – college, marriage, job, family, becoming a homeowner. I didn’t notice it at first, but my practicality had caused me to buy a house with no soul. I began to dream of not just a place with more character, but also of a creative outlet and the adult equivalent of that architecture model from high school. Most of those years were before there were good design ideas online so I collected books – about 60 books covering all styles from rustic to modern. I was particularly intrigued by one book called The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka which focused on quality over quantity and described ways to add comfort, beauty and inspiring detail to a home. I wasn’t sure what style of home or retreat I wanted yet, but I knew it would speak to the soul in the ways she described.

Time passed for the old Reed homestead too, but it wasn’t having as much fun. The vines engulfed the walls and infiltrated every crack much like the six-foot black snake we later found living in the wall. A storm blew off a corner of the roof and for years water leaked down one wall through a bedroom and living room taking its toll on the logs and floor. A white goat, appropriately named Billy, mercifully kept the high grass at bay, but could not keep the outhouse from nearly falling in the creek. The situation, quite literally, did not look good.

“They are going to burn the old homeplace down,” my dad called to tell me one summer day in 2005. A Reed cousin owned it and their intent was to eliminate the eye sore and make room for a new barn. Dad wanted to know if I’d help him tear it down and move all that was worth salvaging down the road nine miles to his farm. Now, most people would think this was a crazy idea, and well, they would be absolutely correct! However, in our case it was not without precedent. Twenty years prior, he meticulously tagged and moved three different 1800’s log structures, combining them into a home located just a few miles away. The result was gorgeous, but to say it was a huge amount of work would be an understatement. So, I did what any rational person would do and, along with my two brothers, agreed to help with the project.

Cousin Philip, who was named after the cabin patriarch, and his green John Deere tractor with two big protruding hay forks were a life and back saver. It was filthy work and we’d never been dirtier than we were that hot summer, sticky and covered in the dust of our ancestors. In all, we loaded over two hundred tagged logs, hundreds of mostly oak boards as wide as 24 inches, six amazing hand-made doors, hand-hewn foundation stones around which my 96 year old grandmother had crawled as a child, and well-worn green antique furniture onto an old hay wagon destined for a barn on dad’s farm.

While the work was noble, we were all glad to be done and more than happy to take a break – a three-year break to be exact. However, none of us were getting any younger, so in 2008 Dad offered me a plot of land to stand the cabin back up on and restore its family legacy. Enough time had passed that I’d forgotten how much work it was, so happily accepted. I had a design epiphany at work one day shortly afterward and left early to draw up plans for a three-year project that ended up being an amazing 11-year journey. The irony is not lost on me that I started this in my mid-thirties, the same age as my father and my great-great grandfather when they built their cabins. It must be that sweet spot between being young enough to have the energy to tackle it, but not yet wise enough to know better.

I ended up designing around many of the key concepts in Susanka’s “Not So Big House”. There is shelter around activity on the wrap around porch and fire ring. There are interior and diagonal views that make the small cabin feel bigger than it is. There are a variety of ceiling heights from the open gabled kitchen to the cozy living room with original exposed rafters. There are framed openings, honest materials, a light filled kitchen, repeating themes, built-ins, it’s rooted to the ground and more. To top it all off, just like my high school architecture model, there is detail everywhere – copper accents, well-lit antique bottles, restored newspaper articles found in the cabin, old floors as good as new and new floors as good as old.

I’m always happy to discuss the project, how we did certain things, or what we learned. Not all the learning was about the design or building, but much about ourselves and our family – past, present, and how it is helping to shape our future. It’s a place I’m proud of and I know my dad is proud of it as well. I like to think my great-great grandfather would be too, although I’m sure he’d wonder why we chose to invest so much in such a poor old house. Enjoy the Reed Cabin restored 2008-2019, but over a century in the making.

99% Invisible – Podcast Recommendation

99% Invisible is a podcast about design; the way it blends into the background, but also the way it shapes the way we think and act in the world. They engage topics as diverse as suspension bridges and the Toronto Raptors Barney uniforms. One of my favorites is an episode entitled The Infantorium where, in the early 1900’s, “Visitors would pay ten cents to enter a spacious room full of glass boxes that were incubators with tiny premature babies on display.” Premature babies on display at amusement parks, that was a thing.

The episode entitled Usonia, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s home designs, is an excellent gateway to considering the design of your home. What makes a home conducive to human thriving? It is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the designs that impact us most every day. I’m excited about an upcoming guest post by my longtime friend, Andrew Lloyd (not Webber or Wright), about building a cabin and the concepts that influenced it’s design.