A Michigan couple turns an old house into a new home.
When John and June Downs chose to assemble their retirement home out of 150-year-old logs that came from from the ruins of a 19th century home, they turned to a trusted builder—their son Bobby. His company, Five Mile Point Builders of Munising, Michigan, was newly formed, and at that time, had never built a log home.
“We didn’t even consider anyone else,” John says.
“There was a steep learning curve,” Bobby says, “because I never had put up a house like this, with non-uniform logs. You just have to make it up as you go.”
The house, surrounded by leafy trees on a green knoll in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, looks like it has always been there. “Even though it’s a new house, it came with a bit of history,” June explains. “The logs were cut in Ontario, Canada, in the 1830s. When log homes fell out of favor in the 1930s, the logs were covered with asphalt shingles stamped to look like brick.”
When they found the log home it was in a state of disrepair, but the logs were in good condition. “Only one log had any dry rot,” John says. “They were beautiful logs—faced, cut square with an adze and dovetailed on the ends. We bought them, put them on a flatbed and moved them down here.”
The logs sat covered for a number of years on the Downses’ property—77 acres along the shore of Lake Superior’s sparkling waters.
“Before buying the acreage, we went all over the Upper Peninsula,” John recalls. “We came up on the 4th of July and a real estate agent showed us the land. It was just perfect, the ideal spot: wooded and quite wild. The first thing we put up was a woodshed, and we lived there while we cleared the land and built a carriage houseÃ¢â¬â?a kind of garage with living quarters upstairs. Then we started building the log home.”
Originally, they desired a traditional French Canadian house—stone with a log kitchen protruding from the rear. They were looking for logs to build that portion of the house when they found the log home in Canada. “We saw how nice and big those logs were, and we did away with the stone portion and focused on log construction,” John says.
Once they had the logs, they worked on the layout of the house. The shape and size of the home were dictated by the shape of the original house. They had to follow the rectangular shape, but they lengthened it six feet by adding a larger front door and French doors in the rear.
The couple specifically wanted a den, an open cathedral ceiling and a large fireplace. Taking their needs into consideration, Bobby reworked the floorplan. “I felt pressure,” he recalls, “especially since it was my parents’ retirement home. It was either right or wrong. There wasn’t a whole lot of gray area.”
Five Mile Point Builders has completed three other log homes during its 15 years in business, but, Bobby says, “This one was far more challenging because the logs didn’t fit together perfectly.”
John did a lot of work as well, and father and son both say that the most difficult part of the construction was the beginning. Stacking those huge logs with only two or three men was no easy task. The logs are 24 to 30 inches in height and up to 30 feet long.
“The house is a story and three-quarters, and there are only nine logs stacked,” John explains, “so that gives you some idea of their size.”
They managed to hoist the logs up with a tractor and web belts. John remembers, not so fondly, “taking a big auger and drill and augering the dovetails and driving a birch rod dowel in so the logs wouldn’t shift.”
“Some days, you would work so hard and you could only get three or four logs up,” Bobby says.
The outside walls and the roof were up in about a year. Finishing the house took another six years, mostly working during the summers.
The delays were caused by a combination of factors. “It’s not like a new house,” Bobby says. “You can’t just slap an interior partition up. You have to match it up, and the logsÃ¢â¬â?since they were cut by hand so long agoÃ¢â¬â?don’t match together easily.”
They had to chink the exterior of the house twice, because the first chinking failed within a year. “The joints vary from two inches to 10 inches on the upper logs,” Bobby says. “Those gaps were huge, and when you’re asking a product to do what it wasn’t designed for, it’s tough. The second time, we used Sashco chinking, and it has held up well.”
It was difficult to make the 1,650-square-foot home as traditional as possible while also incorporating an upstairs bathroom and modern wiring-neither of which were in the original home.
John and June added historically accurate touches throughout the home. “We had the windows custom-made,” John says, “because each opening was a little bit different. We tried to be true to the old style and rebuild it in the way it was originally constructed.”
Wherever possible, they used materials and artisans found in their area. “The (wooden) interior doors are made from mine supports from Michigan copper mines,” he says. The fireplace is Wisconsin limestone. The downstairs floors are curly birch, a wood with a distinctive, decorative grain pattern. The steps and upstairs floors are curly maple. The kitchen, foyer and master bath floors are made of Michigan slate.
Jim McKendrick of Ontario created the windows, exterior doors and kitchen cabinets—a task that took a full year. Pat Murphy, a local Michigan craftsman, built the vanities and interior doors.
The traditional look continues to the outside of the home, where the logs look much darker than they do inside. “The logs inside are not stained,” Bobby says. “Mom wanted a natural look on the inside, so we just sanded them. The outside is stained to look weathered.” Sashco custom-blended the stain to create the look of an old home.
In a nod to modernity, the Downses installed in-floor radiant heating. “I wouldn’t use duct heating again,” John says. “Radiant heating is so warm and comfortable. It gets so cold here that most people can’t keep their houses warm, but this is just perfect.” Another benefit to the in-floor system is that it didn’t require any unsightly air registers.
Inside, June decorated with traditional furnishings. “All of the furniture came from our previous home, a Colonial ranch,” she says, “but I always imagined it in a house like this.”
Each of them calls a certain part of the home their own. June enjoys the kitchen. “I have a nice view of the lake out the window,” she says. John favors his den. “I love the flat logs, the warmth of them,” he says. “Guests seem overwhelmed, and they keep saying how beautiful it is. If you like good craftsmanship, this house exhibits it.”
To the Downses, the home was worth every bit of the family’s time and effort. “We have a lot of pride of ownership because we did a lot of work on it,” John says, “and that makes it especially comfortable.”
For resource information, see the September 2002 issue of Log Home Living.
Photography by Brad Simmons
Produced by Brenda Kelley