A medieval cottage comes to life with the artistic touch and perseverance of a dedicated couple.
Small Southern towns are known for porch houses from another era—think "Gone with the Wind's" Tara Manor. But when Terry and Wendy Weisenfeld moved to York, South Carolina, they had to reach a bit further back—by about 600 years—to fulfill their vision of home.
This image was inspired by another era enveloped in the warm atmosphere of medieval timber frame structures with cozy nooks and soaring, sun-drenched rooms. It came to Terry early on, when he was a teenager biking around the narrow streets of Europe. The craftsmanship of the buildings he saw moved him so much that he got a degree in architecture. Now, he is an airline pilot but keeps his creative juices flowing by drawing period renderings of English castles and timber frame buildings that served as a starting point for his vision.
Wendy, however, wasn't so sure. The day the couple met, when Terry brought Wendy in on his plan to build a timber frame, she initially thought he was talking about a log cabin. Her initial response was tentative. "I said, 'Okaaaaay, that sounds neat,' " she recalls. "But deep in the back of my mind I was thinking we'll cross that bridge if we get that far."
But once she actually stepped into a timber frame home, she was sold. "I always thought a house was the furniture you put in it and how you decorated it," she says. "But when I saw my first timber frame home, I was just engulfed. It was so pretty by itself without much decor."
A Place to Call Home
Terry and Wendy were living in Texas as newlyweds, but due to the high cost of land there, they decided to build their home on the East Coast. "We both moved around a lot when we were little so we weren't tied to any certain place," says Terry.
They found a 3-acre pie-shaped lot on a hillside in South Carolina, halfway between relatives in Washington, D.C. and Florida. They liked being close to Charlotte, one of the fastest growing areas in the country, and the nearby hardwood forest meant plenty of timbers and a talented pool of timber frame companies to choose from. After some research, Terry and Wendy chose Blue Ridge Timberwrights in Christiansburg, Virginia, to build their three-bedroom, three-bath home.
The Weisenfelds were impressed with Blue Ridge's package, price and talent, having seen the Chateau Morisette winery in the Shenandoah Valley. This is one of Blue Ridge's boldest projects and is the oldest salvaged timber frame structure in country. "I figured if they could build something this size, they can certainly build my house," says Terry.
Life Imitates Art
Terry already had the 3,500-square-foot floorplan and elevations laid out, which he had based on his period drawings. Blue Ridge's job was to transform them into a CAD design. "The Weisenfelds wanted a unique custom home, and because they had personally done a lot of detailed design work on it, they had a clear understanding of what they wanted," says owner Sandy Bennett.
The couple's philosophy was to build a warm, friendly space that they could live in the rest of their lives. "We wanted big trees and a house nestled in the forest. A place where we could raise our kids and they'd look forward to coming back to that house years later, maybe even inheriting it," Terry says.
The designer worked hand in hand with the couple to get all their ideas down. Knowing the major investment they were about to make, Terry and Wendy wanted to do it right or not at all. "They were very attentive and, even though they came in knowing what they wanted, they were always prepared to listen to alternative ideas," Sandy says.
Compromise came early on when Terry and Wendy set out to marry their priorities with their budget. When a builder asked whether size or detail was more important, Terry answered details while Wendy leaned toward size, knowing they wanted to fill up their house with kids. "I didn't want to be sitting at the dinner table one night and realize that we needed more room," she says. Terry was set on the details because he knew those were important in the types of homes he'd been drawing all those years. So Wendy sacrificed the garage and Terry settled on fewer details.
Trial by Fire
Still in the design stages, the Weisenfelds moved into a rental house on Lake Wylie, 10 minutes from their property. This time served as a dress rehearsal as Terry and Wendy tried their hands at some home improvement projects in their rental, including retiling the floor and painting the bathroom. Terry also built a tree house on their new property. The tree house raised some eyebrows with neighbors who thought a hermit mountain man was building a hunting station in the neighborhood.
But once they were ready to actually raise the frame, the once skeptical neighbors were out in full force to celebrate. The timbers already had been assembled in Christiansburg at Blue Ridge's headquarters. (Blue Ridge also provided super-insulated stress skin panels and windows with Douglas fir casement.) As soon as the timbers were shipped to South Carolina, the couple's friends helped reassemble the frame with direction from three Blue Ridge experts.
The Weisenfelds hired a builder friend to manage the construction process. Unfortunately, the builder miscalculated the labor costs and, to make matters worse, Terry sealed the deal with a handshake rather than a contract. So when costs started rising and, at the same time, work wasn't getting done as planned, Terry and Wendy ended up doing most of the finish work themselves to make up for the cost of labor. "If you don't have building experience, go with the turn-key package from the timber frame company," Terry advises. "Make sure you have the experts working for you and be prepared to pay for that expertise."
For Wendy, who had never done any home construction except for the trial period in their rental, this was a whole new experience. "With Terry, you just jump in and you do it. There's no room for 'I can't,' " Wendy says with a laugh. The couple tiled their own floors (she cut the tile, he laid it) and painted the walls. Terry also did all the trim and custom woodwork.
The construction was done in nine months, but they still missed their closing date and ended up owing even more money. No trial is without a revelation, however, and for Terry and Wendy, there's an enormous sense of pride having built their home. "When Wendy brings people into the house she says, 'See those floors, I did that,' " Terry says proudly. "And I am personally familiar with this house. I know where everything is and the way it was put together."
An Authentic Frame
The home's authentic look starts with the massive oak timbers, which check and look aged in about a year and a half. The timbers were c
ut green in Michigan. "As you walk into the house, you get the impression of wood all over the place, which is what we wanted," Terry says.
For the frame, Terry and Wendy incorporated the components found in the historic timber frames they toured in Europe. This meant a decorative hammerbeam at one end of house, queen and king posts, curved braces and purlins. Ceiling heights vary from room to room, creating closed-in rooms that lead into soaring spaces. To create a cozy and intimate dining room, large supporting beams give the appearance of a shorter ceiling than that of the 8-feet required by code.
Old English Eclectic
The home's exterior porch is decorated with a timber truss to hint at what's to come on the inside. The house is dressed in panels of shake cedar siding with a wavy shingle design in the front and rear gables to create a storybook look. Terry and Wendy even went as far as finding someone who could put on a thatch roof just like the homes in Terry's renderings. But the liability was too high and the cost prohibitive. So they went with a shake shingle roof and found an old English chimney that ties the exterior together.
Arch top doors on the front and the back of the house are wire-brushed Mexican cedar that look 400 to 500 years old. The front door is adorned with a lion-head knocker from Turkey that Terry had been holding onto for 20 years. Custom leaded-glass windows line the entry and 100-year-old stained glass windows from an old British pub found their way to the wall in the main foyer.
The Weisenfelds wove other styles into their interior design including Mission- and Prairie-influenced windows and window seat. Rustic notes crop up with the whiskey-barrel sink in the master bathroom and the stone fireplace. Terry and Wendy also brought a bit of the outdoors in by using wood from trees cut down on their property to build the staircase, poplar rails and spindles, as well as the two major oak beams in the house.
To balance the often heavy, masculine feel of the timbers, Wendy lightened up the decor with paint and accessories. "I used little things like throws on the couch, pillows, candles, picture frames and beaded lamps," Wendy says.
Molding work, berry swags and hanging stained glass shapes replace bulky drapes to decorate the windows. This also keeps the view of the surrounding trees accessible from inside their home and lets in as much sunlight as possible. "There's not a house right next door to be concerned over people looking inside, so we didn't want to do too much to the windows," she explains. Autumnal colors light up the walls: gold for the great room, red for the master bedroom and pumpkin for the kitchen.
Even though this Renaissance couple was determined to stay true to the medieval period, a six-cable system controls sound, computer and lights. Wires hidden behind timbers keep any sense of modern convenience out of sight.
Now, the Weisenfelds' home is the centerpiece for neighborhood gatherings. Visitors are impressed with the strength of the timbers and the homey atmosphere. The Weisenfelds are just as content. "Terry never said he couldn't wait to get home when he was traveling a lot," Wendy says. "But now he says it all the time."
Wendy, too, enjoys being at home with their children and has taken up cooking and baking along with their ongoing interior decorating projects. "You grow into the attitude that you want to build a place that is unique, that friends and relatives will like coming to," Terry says. "I think we found it."
Story by Rachel Machacek
Photography by Roger Wade