Log Home Builder Don Chapman's Rural Virginia Retreat

A Virginia home honors master log builder Don Chapman.

A couple looks to the revered log home builder Don Chapman to design their dream home in rural Virginia.

Story and photos by Esther & Franklin Schmidt

rural retreat in Virginia by master log home builder Don Chapman

Back in 1998, Jim and Debbie Donehey fell in love with a mountain-surrounded rolling parcel of land in rural Virginia. They knew instantly that was where they wanted to live. Having previously owned a log home and loving the experience, they were ready for another one. They also felt the land called for one, as they believed that a rural house should marry its environment and not conflict with its surroundings.

As luck would have it, a friend was building a log home nearby. When they went to see the project, they met the builder, Don Chapman. Having studied drafting and design engineering, Jim instantly recognized Chapman’s renaissance character that reflected a combination of artistry, technical knowledge and skill that would be needed to build exactly the kind of house that he and Debbie wanted.

Chapman had been a fine-art sketch artist during his service in Vietnam. Upon returning home, he switched hats and became a highly regarded logsmith, even starting a school to teach the craft. He incorporated high-tech skills within his artistry by creating a computer program that would show where to place each log in a structure. Never having been done before, it proved to be ingenious and efficient. Chapman died several years ago, but the respect and affection for him remains strong among log builders and designers, as well as among the people for whom he created homes.

One of those is Jim Donehey, who recognized in Chapman the high level of craftsmanship needed in his new home. Jim had studied Frank Lloyd Wright in college and admired Wright’s concept of blending structures within their environment. While he knew the log home he designed could not adopt most of Wright’s concepts, he did follow some of the basic tenets, such as not having any hallways, which he considered a waste of space.

“I outlined the design of our three-story house, since Debbie and I really knew exactly what we wanted our home to be like and how we needed it to function,” he recalls. “We wanted it to be large and open enough for entertaining big groups of friends and business associates. With the exception of the master bedroom, bath and a den, most of the main floor is open with a large kitchen, dining area and living room space.”

The lower level of the house contains a media-wine-entertainment area. The third story is a large workout space, with plenty of room for gym equipment. A quirky feature of this 7,200-square-foot house is that it has only one bedroom. As a substitute for additional bedrooms, the Doneheys built two small log guesthouses directly behind the main house, affording space and privacy for homeowners and guests alike.

Evidence of the exterior drama is the large central gable and copper roof, which, now that it’s properly aged, shows a greenish patina that blends with the surrounding hills and pastures. The home sports 12-by-42-inch pine logs, which Chapman cut in southwestern Virginia and let dry for a year.

Jim relates, with no small sense of pride in his builder’s talents, that after the house was built using Chapman’s ingenuous computer program and artistry with wood, “You could not slip a thin playing card between the logs.”

Cedar center posts add a subtle accent. Floor-to-ceiling windows afford a wonderful view of the countryside while offering passive-solar benefits. Tongue-and-groove porches running the length of the house give it a “big house on the prairie” feeling, in part because it is sited in an expansive tract of grassy land that has not been mowed to within an inch of its life.

The interior is both practical and bold. All of the floors are slate, under which, Jim says with only slight exaggeration, are “about 50 miles of copper tubing” that provides radiant heat. This is really the only heat needed, with the exception of the fireplaces, which provide far more warmth than the couple would have expected. Also, the house faces south, letting the wall of windows bring in warming sunlight most of the day.

Jim and Debbie have fond memories of Chapman, his wife and partner Bonnie and their 10-year old son, who, even at his young age was already hewing logs by hand. The home was a sun-up to sun-down, six-month-long project for the Chapmans, who spent their time working on the home and then resting up in their camper parked on-site.

During construction, the Doneheys saw very little of the work during the week. On weekends, when they traveled to review the progress, they knew they had been right to feel entirely confident in the Chapmans to do a fabulous job. Now that Jim and Debbie have lived in the house 11 years, looking back on its planning and construction, they realize it is the perfect place for them.

One small exception is that, like most homeowners, they feel that they could have used more storage space. But they love everything else, especially the porches, butternut trim and moldings that they feel add uniqueness to log homes.

“I really had very little to do with the design of the house except for moving one of the doors that leads outside near the kitchen,” Debbie says, admitting modestly that she also created the kitchen layout.

In terms of decor, the home has dark brown leather couches adjacent to the large stone fireplace, a huge dining table with regal upholstered chairs for evenings with guests and a small round bistro table next to the kitchen when it’s just the two of them. Here, they can overlook their land during dinner.

Aside from the two-footed members of the family, the land and house also afford their two dogs the perfect life. The 42 acres immediately surrounding the house are fenced, and a doggie door lets them come and go as they please. They can chase squirrels or doze in patches of sun in the grass or snore, belly up, on couches inside.

The Doneheys’ business, Griffin Tavern — a popular pub and restaurant in Flint Hill, Virginia — is less than a 15-minute drive from their home. All in all, they are living a great life in a log home in which Don Chapman could take great pride.