'Rock house' has strong history

Couple restores 18th-century farmstead

Couple restores 18th-century farmstead

January 11, 2009|By PAT SCHOOLEY / Special to The Herald-Mail

o This is the 173rd in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

Mount Briar Road runs south-southeast from Dogstreet Road below Keedysville. Built on a hill close to the road stands a large log house with successive stone wings stepping up the rise. A broad, fenced yard stretches to the left. On the right, near the small run that meanders north of the house, stands a stone springhouse and a summer kitchen with plank walls and a massive stone chimney.

The two-story, three-bay log structure is built on tall stone foundations that open at ground level through a wide, plank door in the center bay. A porch the width of the house provides access to the main level. Windows have six-over-six sashes.

A central hall and stairs bisect the main level. On the south is a single room the depth of the log section. The other half of this section has two rooms with a fireplace in the southwest corner of the front room that connects to the central chimney. The mantelpiece has crossettes at the corners of the firebox moldings and applied, wooden, curvilinear, floral designs reminiscent of German folk art. Typically, corner fireplaces are not seen in Washington County houses after the end of the 18th century.


Soon after the construction of the log house, a stone wing containing two rooms was added at the rear. This block continued the north wall of the log wing, but was inset on the south, allowing a narrow, two-story porch under the main roof of the addition. A central chimney serves fireplaces on each floor of this wing. Doors open onto the porch on the south. Another door opens north on the first floor, onto the yard that faced an early road that once passed close to the house.

A single-story stone block was added to the west end of this addition. Apparently a summer kitchen abutted the house but was not connected to it with a door. This add-on had a large service fireplace on its west wall and a floor level several steps above that of the earlier addition.

Sometime in the 18th century, Conrad Snively emigrated from Germany; eventually, he settled in the Keedysville area. There he acquired large land holdings. At his death in 1804, his estate passed to his son Casper. It isn't known whether Conrad or Casper built the farmhouse. It is possible that each is responsible for parts of the farmstead. Casper's will, probated in 1839, left his property to his son Jacob, who lived on the farm and owned both a sawmill and a gristmill. The farm then passed to Washington C. Snively, whose widow sold it out of the family in 1932.

In February 2001, David and Donna Berns came to look at the house on a lark, having found it listed for sale by owner in their local newspaper in Loudoun County, Va. The Bernses found the farmstead run down. The log section of the house was covered with asbestos shingles. The upper porch had been removed and replaced with a shed roof. The attached summer kitchen's roof and floor had collapsed and its walls were unstable.

But the beautiful stone fireplace in the keeping room, with its quirky niche and the two odd holes through the face of the fireplace above the firebox, charmed them. They examined everything they could. David crawled through the boarded up window on the north faade to check the framing and fell into a root cellar in the basement - boarded up long before because of snakes.

The Bernses had spent 20 years restoring a small Victorian home in Loudoun County, so they had renovation skills. Their greatest concern was the condition of the logs in the main block of the house. Misdirected water over the years had rotted out the ends of the logs at the southwest corner where they interlock.

After several years they found Robert Bowman, a master restoration specialist. From the foundation to the attic floor he removed the damaged parts of the logs, epoxied on new log ends and carved them to look like the original ends had looked. Then he carved graining to match that in the original log so that the only evidence of the repair is a narrow, vertical seam.

The root cellar was cleared of accumulated dirt. David found a 200-year-old barn near Williamsport, dismantled it, then used the timbers to replace damaged ones in the cellar and throughout the property. New steps from beside the fireplace in the keeping room to this part of the cellar were built from the barn wood, as well.

A hand-dug, stone-lined well was found just off the south porch. After careful excavation, stones were re-laid from the bottom up, reinforced for safety and the well incorporated into the new side porch.

The most intensive task for the Bernses was the attached summer kitchen, which was to become their kitchen. In order to incorporate it into the home, a door had to be opened through the south wall, and its floor had to be excavated about two feet to meet the level of the last room of the addition. This left the mantel board of the fireplace resting about seven feet above the floor.

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