The following is a 20 year journey embarked upon by Susan and David to create a vacation home for ourselves, our family and friends. We hope that we have created a legacy for our children and grandchildren to enjoy long after we are gone.
Sometime in the 1990s I decided that I would like to use some of the money I received from a prior employer’s stock plan to invest in some real estate. David had been investing for years in Chicago, so I wanted to buy something in a vacation area. I spent many years looking online, getting familiar with various options. We decided that our first choice was the coast of South Carolina, specifically in the islands off the coast of Beaufort where we had had a few wonderful trips to Hunting Island. We took a trip there in 1998 and hooked up with a realtor so that we could look at some properties that were on the market. To our delight, we found a house on an inland waterway where we could dock a boat at the back of the property. However, when I mentioned to the realtor that there were no signs of outdoor living at the house (patio, patio furniture, grill) she said “oh, you can’t sit outside here – the bugs are too bad. Maybe for a couple of weeks in January.” That, together with the fact that the coast of South Carolina was a two day drive from Chicago and the threat of hurricanes convinced us that wasn’t where we wanted to buy. The other area we had been considering was the Smoky Mountain as it was often our first stop as we headed to other destinations and we loved it there.
On our way home we stopped in the Smoky Mountains and looked at various properties (with and without houses). We considered buying a house that we could rent seasonally, but that thought was short lived.
Much to Michael’s chagrin we returned to that area the following spring break. He was not enthused about being driven around by various realtors, so he usually stayed at the cabin we rented. He entertained himself by obliterating empty pop and beer cans with his BB gun and making parachutes out of tooth picks and kleenex and timing them as they fell from the loft of our cabin. We looked at properties on the north, south, east and west side of the National Park, in North Carolina and Tennessee, but didn’t find anything that met our criteria of having a creek on the property and not having a perilous road going up to the house.
In July 1999 we took a vacation of Michael’s design visiting many Civil War spots including Gettsburg, Appomatox Court House, as well as Valley Forge, Mt. Vernon, Monticello and Washington D.C. One of Michael’s conditions was that we wouldn’t do any house hunting. But, as fate would have it, two days before we were to get home we got a call from a realtor we had been working with who told us that she had a new listing that she thought we should see. SO – we had planned to spend the last night of our vacation in a campsite in the Smoky Mountain area anyway, and we agreed. We pulled into our campsite about 5PM, met the realtor and drove out to see the cabin, nicely nestled on 13.5 acres. It seemed to be everything we were looking for, so we signed an offer within an hour and were back at the campsite for dinner. The next morning she called us to say our offer had been accepted. We packed up the camper, went back to the property to sign papers and were on our way home. Not TOO painful for Michael, although he did say that he was never going back to North Carolina and the property that we bought was mostly vertical.
This is the little cabin we bought. Technically it was a no-bedroom cabin as they only counted a bedroom if it had a closet, and there weren’t any closets in this cabin. Built into the side of hill, the main floor had a bedroom, living/dining room and kitchen. Downstairs there was a bedroom of sorts, a bathroom and the owner’s Harley Davidson motorcycle! The door to the outside of the lower level was very oversized to allow easy entry for the motorcycle. But, there was a lovely, very noisy creek running through the property and behind this cabin.
The cabin would not serve as a seasonal rental, but we believed that in order for us to be able to rent it on a year-round basis we would need to make improvements. We immediately hired people to add a bathroom, closet and changing area to the bedroom on the main floor and to finish off the lower level including a closet in the bedroom, a bonus room (with closets) a utility room and a standard size entry door. No need for a motorcycle garage.
That fall, before renting the cabin, our friend Bob took a trip with Dave and Linda took a trip with me and we stayed in the cabin sleeping on inflatable mattresses that were flat by the morning. Since then the cabin has been rented by people and their horses, chickens and roosters, cats, dogs and a goat who preferred to eat our flowers.
In August of 2000 we were anxious to share our new property with the grandmothers. We drove to Knoxville where we rented an RV and parked it on what is currently the lane off the road towards the house. The former owner parked an RV there for his mother-in-law, so there was an electric hook up.
I began thinking about additions to the cabin to make it a vacation home for us to use in the future. There were many variations that I came up with, but they all included a very large family room with a fireplace behind the cabin with a large wrap around deck that would overlook the creek. I imagined a two car garage in front of it, creating an additional two bedrooms in the existing space so we could all comfortably enjoy the house. They were ambitious, but very doable in my opinion. Dave was not impressed. He was adamant that the cabin remain a rental to help offset expenses and insisted that we build a new house a ways up the mountain for a good long range view. I finally agreed on a new house, but said that the only place that I was willing to build was right above the creek so that I could have a deck overlooking it.
Every year we would use all of our vacation time to go down to the Smoky’s and battle the forest. We quickly learned that the immaculately maintained grounds that we had purchased soon became overgrown.
We would bring our pop-up camper and park at a nearby campground and spend every day of our trip chopping, cutting and burning weeds and brush. There were a LOT of hawthorns on the property. Hawthorns are very nasty bushes with 3 inch thorns that were planted by farmers years ago to keep the livestock from wandering off. We were finally successful in eradicating those, at least at the lower elevation. But, we were not as successful with the multifloral roses, an invasive species from China and Japan that had been used to prevent erosion. They continue to grow on the property, although we certainly burned hundreds of them and continue to cut and burn them in areas where we walk.
Elizabeth and Amber made their first trip to the property in 2001. There was no electricity as it had been shut off between renters, so they played cards by candle light and coped with smoke alarms that kept going off. They showed the cabin and rented it to the longest tenant we ever had – a single mother and her young son. Michael had pretty much decided he was not going back any time soon.
I spent winter evenings looking for a house plan. There were several internet sites that sold them and I quickly realized that we would need a “lake house” design – one where you entered the house in the rear as the house was oriented toward the lake, or in our case, the creek. But, those houses weren’t designed for a mountain environment so I wasn’t able to find something that would work for us. We had a computer program for designing a house that I tried my hand at, but I wasn’t able to become proficient with it. I decided to use the program that I was comfortable with – Excel. By formatting the cells to be squares I began creating a floor plan and then elevations. One of the main objectives was to be able to see the mountain top in the range beyond the range closest to us. That was solved by having a deck on the second floor, facing west. The house would face south so that the main deck would overlook the creek. Taking advantage of the elevation change I had it built into the hill with access to sun and ground level from the “basement”. There were many variations as the house plan evolved. The kitchen panty had to be sacrificed, the closet in the upstairs sitting room disappeared. Originally, there were three bedrooms upstairs with a large loft area that changed into a large closet/storage room. I showed the plans to Elizabeth and Amber. Amber suggested that the second floor hallway be open to the living area below. I remember being at a restaurant with Michael while he was away at college and showing the plans to him. He nixed the idea of the storage room and said it should be another bedroom, creating a second dormer. (He did say to me years later that if he had believed at the time that the house was going to be built he would have paid more attention and insisted that it be wired for internet.) I happily incorporated their ideas and the plan was final. We sent it to an engineering company who drew up the plans for the builder.
Before we could begin building a house we needed to have a road over the creek to accommodate construction traffic – our wooden foot bridge wasn’t going to suffice. We contacted three excavating companies for quotes. The first one just shook his head and left. The second one said he could do the job but asked us “where do you want me to put the dirt?” We figured that a) we really didn’t have an answer to his question and b) if he didn’t know where it should go he wasn’t the man for the job. The third man said no problem and we hired him.
More details. We had to have a well dug. Those magical people come out and find water and drill and install a pump. We needed a well cover and the well people suggested that they move the dog house that was next to the cabin and use that. Perfect! We had to get electricity to the site. Larry, the neighbor across the road allowed us to have a line run across his property. (We would have been in trouble if he had refused, which was his right. Wonderful man.) Once the power was across the road we had it buried in our new driveway so David wouldn’t have to look at power lines. We had to order and have a propane tank installed so that we could heat the house. These are things that city folk don’t think much about, we just expect our homes to have utility service. The land line telephone was installed after the house was built and we survived without internet until November 2019!
The weeds and grass continued to grow. I can remember driving up the drive when they were so tall that when I looked out the car windows all I could see were weeds. We would have the meadow bush hogged (which is a rotary mower pulled by a tractor to tackle very high weeds) once a year. Then Dave decided to buy a Husqvarna riding mower (with trailer) for himself and a Husqvarna weed wacker for me. We would arrive at the property and spend 2 1/2 days laboring in the field – he cutting the grass (and scaring me as he navigated that mower over the dips in the meadow) and I climbed the rocks of the culvert keeping them neat and tidy and unearthing stone walls that had long been buried by mother nature. There were walls by the picnic area, along the creek on the walk between the cabin and the house site and a significant one to the west of cabin along the creek embankment. Dave borrowed my week hacker and created the beginning of the zig-zag trail that goes up the mountain a piece.
Having a house built is a challenging, sometimes scary, time consuming project. Having a house built 650 miles away is daunting, to say the least. We interviewed a couple of builders who were unwilling to build a custom home before we found one who would. He took us to see a couple of houses that he had built, one of which had an unusual roof shape that he called Salt Box and we decided that we wanted the same kind. (This ended up creating the high ceiling in the upstairs sitting room and the very large attic.) Construction began in July 2005.We made MANY trips to see how things were going. Dave and I went together, we each went alone, we went with a friend or relative. Dave and Michael took a trip to help the contractor sand the trim when things weren’t moving as quickly as we liked.
Other chores we had to do when we were in town were to pick out tile and fixtures for each bathroom. We had to pick out trim style, and appliances so that they had all the measurements. We had to pick out interior doors. Much to our dismay we were unable to find interior doors that pleased us, but we found them at home at Menards in Illinois! No problem, they would have them shipped down. Except that when they arrived they were all damaged. The contractor said it looked like someone had purposely damaged them. We had purchased insurance for the shipment but were told by the shipping company that we were not covered, although they would generously refund the shipping charge. After several attempts to get them to pay we had no choice but to sue them in small claims court for the $5,000 cost of the doors. I assembled what I believed to be adequate back-up for our claim, including research on carrier liability. Dave handled all of the phone interaction with the shipping company, but as we were unable to come to an agreement a court date was set. He had to work, so I showed up in court with the binders I had assembled. The shipping company had a lawyer who requested a delay which the judge granted. The lawyer caught up with me in the hallway and made me an offer of $4,000 which I refused. Eventually, we prevailed.
Dave had considerable input on some of the interior design elements of the house. On one of his trips down to check on construction he and Lenny took a side trip to see a Better Homes and Garden house that had been featured on television and eventually awarded to a viewer via a lottery. That house had Craftsman moulding, instead of the common ranch style moulding and he decided that was what we should use in the house. He liked the Arts and Crafts style and had the contractor use that style in building the bannister to the second floor and the railing overlooking the living room. In the same vein, the furniture that we purchased was Mission style which evolved from the Arts and Crafts movement.
Although most of the furniture was purchased for the house there are a few pieces that may be worthy of mention:
- The wardrobe in the first dormer bedroom was Dave’s grandparents’. (I painted it and a dresser that we later purchased at a local antique store almost matches it.)
- The bunk bed and matching furniture in the children’s room was my brothers’ childhood bedroom set.
- The dresser in the “bear room” was the dresser that matched the crib that we purchased for Elizabeth and later used by Michael.
- The large painting in the upstairs sitting room was Dave’s mom, as was the easel which she used to encourage Elizabeth’s painting.
- The organ was purchased for Michael, as a child, to encourage him to continue piano lessons (a failed attempt).
- The large sofa and overstuffed chair in the living room were my mom’s.
- The Mission sofa in the living room was purchased at an Amish store in Illinois which we had admired for years, until it was finally marked down 50%.
- I made the pine cone wreath in the living room during my craftier days and the painting was a house warming gift from my friend, Roberta.
- The globe in the library was my childhood globe and the oil paintings were done by Dave’s step-grandfather.
- The framed sail in the den was from Seas the Day, our 27 foot Catalina, the butler’s table was originally in Amber’s office. the small black table was made by Dave’s grandfather and the small table with a drawer was his mother’s.
- All of the desks, the mantle in the den, the bar in the concession room, as well as some other items including the two pedestals on the main floor came from the Tobacco Barn and other local antique dealers.
- The pool table was purchased for our home in Illinois and I found it hard to believe that we would be able to move it, but we did!
- And last, but not least, the large green vase was an item we won, much to Michael’s chagrin, at a silent auction at his fraternity house.
It turned out that the builder that we hired was an excellent builder, but not so good on the business end. He had neglected to count a couple of the draws against the construction loan and was out of money before the house was finished. The structure was complete, including interior walls, bathrooms and kitchen cabinets, but none of the “fit and finish” was. Unfortunately, the builder also had several serious personal problems and he ended up in jail for defrauding another potential customer. Somehow we found another father/son team who said they could finish the job. The did the stone work on the main fireplace, tile in the kitchen, construction of the gas fire place and library shelves, etc. When they were almost finished they, too, disappeared with an advance that they didn’t earn. And then – we got sued by a couple of subcontractors who hadn’t been paid by the first builder. We had to hire a lawyer and prove that we had paid the first contractor more than 100% of the agreed upon price so the subcontractors would have to sue him and not us. SO, the whole project was way over budget, but so things go…….. A workman from the first contractor contacted us and said that he could finish up the odds and ends. We hired him and he did what he agreed to do. Only took three contractors!
Besides the doors, we were unable to find light fixtures that we liked, so those were purchased at home, as were the fans and many other items which we had to deliver for installation.
In the spring we rented a U-Haul trailed and loaded it up with furniture, piled linens, comforters, pillows, new pots and pans and lots of duplicates from our kitchen and pulled them down with the Aerostar. We went shopping for furniture and bought all of the mattresses, bedroom sets for the two first floor bedrooms, dining room set and Amish chair, rug and coffee and end tables for the living room. The appliances were delivered. The refrigerator fit, but the contractor had decreased the size of the opening so that the freezer door didn’t open so we loaded that up in the Aerostar and brought it back to Morton Grove! We had to buy a different refrigerator which Dave decided he didn’t like so we ordered a third refrigerator for the house and had the appliance store take the second refrigerator to the cabin which was in need of a new one. (The third refrigerator had a busted seal so they had to deliver a fourth one!)
By the end of May the house was ready for us to officially move in, but the building department wouldn’t give us an occupancy permit because the hearth of the fire place in the living room wasn’t finished creating a potential fire hazard. Linda and I were scheduled to go down to stay in the house and Michael and ten of his friends were scheduled to arrive for Memorial Day weekend. All was up in the air until the morning Linda and I were to leave when we heard that the occupancy permit had been issued so we could legally sleep in the house. The only problem was that the electric company wouldn’t be able to turn on the electricity until after Michael and friends left. The contractors had been using a VERY long electric cord from the dog house in the picnic area up to the house for their electric tools. That extension cord was hooked up to the main house meaning that we had enough juice to run lights, but not the stove, microwave or water heater. Cooking could be done on the gas grills, but no hot water! Linda and I showered at the Pilot, but Michael and his friends were unwilling to pay $7 for a shower so they had cold showers!
The contract specified that the main and second floors would be complete, but the lower level was left completely raw. Dave designed the layout for this level, including the main room, a den, a small room under the stairs, a bathroom and men and women’s changing rooms in the northwest corner for the hot tub we planned to purchase. He did all of of the work to frame out the rooms.
We received a total of 29 loads of boulders. Each load weighed approximately 16 tons. Some from a supplier, a few from the neighbor across the road. When they were delivered the house shook!
The boulders were all shapes and sizes, but when they were correctly placed they all had a uniform look. What an amazing artist!
And so I said – “Construction is done, but maintenance is forever!”