Composing the Master Work
Hoachlander Davis Photography
Back in the 1970’s, when Potomac, Maryland was still farm country, Brendan O’Neill, Senior began a career in real estate development that would eventually lead him to a capstone on his career, a little place by the water he calls, “Presquille.” The master builder’s tour-de-force began with a search for just the right spot. He and his wife Susan rambled through central Pennsylvania, explored along the Rappahannock River and trekked through the Blue Ridge Mountains. But the answer was right across the Chesapeake Bay on Gross Creek.
“The property had been on the market for a year,” say O’Neill, “it didn’t have any mountains but it had everything else we wanted. When the real estate agent showed it to us, Susan and I both looked at each other, knowing this was the place.” The site stretches for 13 acres across a point on the creek bordered by old growth oak trees and ringed by 1000 feet of pristine waterfront. O’Neill’s background in mortgage banking, design and construction gives him the tools to build whatever he can dream up. But the object of his affection was a long throwback to the past.
“I’ve always wanted to build a log cabin or something historic. So I started looking at barns,” says O’Neill. The search for an authentic, old-school barn took him back to Pennsylvania where he contacted a group of Amish carpenters who specialize in locating and dismantling old barns. While O’Neill could have easily drawn up some plans for an old-fashioned looking barn and constructed it on site, the notion held little appeal.
“Taking a one hundred and fifty year old building apart, moving it and re-assembling it was a much more fascinating project than buying old timbers and putting up a new barn,” says O’Neill. The developer found what he was looking for in Sugar Valley, Pennsylvania and cut a deal with the Amish. The project began with the discovery of an added bonus.
As the barn was being taken apart, a cache of hewn logs was found under the threshing floor. There was enough extra lumber to launch construction on a log cabin that would also occupy the property. In some ways the idea of moving barns and restoring old buildings is nothing new for the O’Neill Development Corporation.
“Our office in old-town Gaithersburg is actually the historic Brewster-Lipscomb home that we picked up and moved,” says Brendan O’Neill, Junior, who has worked for his father since high school, “but the Presquille project is really my dad’s home building thesis.”
The thesis got off to a rough start. The disassembled barn was held up on the Bay Bridge due to a manifest issue with the driver. Once that was solved, the crew put the frame of the building up and O’Neill, Senior began imagining modifications to the layout. “I wanted lofts, a living space and room for an art studio,” he says. O’Neill worked on perfecting his design for the barn while shuttling back and forth from the property to his day job in Gaithersburg.
The day-to-day process of barn finishing and log cabin building fell to his son-in-law, Adam Theeke. “We were out there a week at a time, working sun up to sundown while living in tents,” says Theeke. Theeke and another carpenter rigged up a shower from a garden hose and literally camped out on the property working as the daylight allowed. “It was great until winter-time,” says Theeke, “it was a really exciting project for me.”
Theeke combined new and antique elements from the tool locker to put the structures together using methods not typically employed since the 1700’s. “We used a Pettibone forklift to move the timbers, cut the notches in the logs with chain saws and drawknives. We tried using an adz for awhile but it was very time consuming,” says Theeke.
Design and Construction by
To help site the buildings on the virgin piece of land, O’Neill tapped long-time collaborator, Jay Graham of Graham Landscaping in Annapolis. “We walked the property and read the layout of the land to determine where the driveway and buildings should go,” says Graham. “The existing trees already gave us a guideline for scale, we just planted the next generation.”
As the log cabin took shape and the barn continued to evolve, O’Neill added another piece to the puzzle, a more modern, “main house” that was stick built and mimicked the lines of a traditional “telescope” design of a Tidewater Maryland style home. Since the walls, floors and ceilings are mostly constructed from salvaged, rough-hewn lumber, the job of making the place feel cozy went to Susan O’Neill.
“We didn’t have any kind of decorator help,” says Susan, “we already had a lot of the furniture.” A collector of quilts who knows some choice spots for antiquing, Susan kept the interiors rustic for the cabin and traditional for the main house. She relied on neutral colors allowing the texture of the wood to carry the visual load. Although the buildings in the compound drip with authenticity, some nods to modern convenience were made along the way. Heating and cooling is handled by two hidden heat pumps.
All the buildings are fully wired and plumbed. In some cases the runs of wire and pipes were left exposed, just to keep things real. The chinking in between the logs of the cabin is actually a high-tech mix of Styrofoam and an “elastomeric” finish that expands and contracts with the ambient temperature. Back in the day they used horse hair and mud – but the foam has much better insulating qualities.
The stair railings were fashioned from “tobacco stickers” salvaged from Southern Maryland. The four foot sections of oak were originally used to spread and dry tobacco leaves. Additional cypress siding for the barn was procured from the Amish carpenters who salvaged it from a defunct mushroom farm in eastern Pennsylvania.
Sleeping porches stretch across the backs of both buildings offering to-die-for views of the creek. Five fireplaces and two wood burning stoves provide plenty of spaces to stay toasty. The barn is enjoying it’s second life as a gathering place for the O’Neill group which now encompasses 19 extended family members. Birthday parties, barn dances, and impromptu theatrical performances by the grandchildren are headquartered in the barn along with space for Brendan O’Neill, Senior to explore his latest passion of bronze sculpture.
The Presquille project took four years to complete. To christen the house, the O’Neill’s held a house blessing in the barn and chiseled the word “Continuity” into the cornerstone of the structure. The challenges along the way were many according to O’Neill, Senior. “We had to figure out how to make the old buildings fit our lifestyle and look authentic,” he says. “The construction methods we used on the cabin and barn were not normal plus I wanted to be there to know about every detail.”
Adam Theeke got to know the challenges intimately. “The set up and breakdown was tough since we were there for a week and then somewhere else for a week, plus we were constantly modifying things on the design,” he says. Despite the challenges it’s easy to look at the results and sense that it was all worth it. “Even though we are in the building business, making all the decisions was tough,” says O’Neill, Junior, “on this project I mostly played the role of sounding board. This was truly my father’s dream and vision. It was composed like a beautiful painting.”
This story originally appeared in Chesapeake Home Magazine