The American landscape is covered with houses built in unique and fanciful styles — from Victorian folk Gothic to Arts and Crafts — but nothing pledges allegiance to our national identity as sweetly as the humble log cabin. "It recalls pioneers in the wilderness, felling trees and turning them into honest, simple shelters — the kind of place Abe Lincoln was born in," says architect Robert A.M. Stern. "Its spirit is irresistible to all of us." That spirit is so appealing that Barbara Martin of the National Association of Home Builders estimates that 25,000 new log houses went up last year. Our love of logs is as basic as our love of trees. Because logs are durable, there is no need to cover the exterior of a log house with shingles or clapboards or to smooth over the interior with plaster or wallboard. "The beauty of log construction is that it provides its own structural logic — and even its own insulation," says Stern. "What you see is what you get, and this is why everyone loves logs."
That wasn't always the case. The log cabin was not the first form of housing in colonial America. The Pilgrims came with a taste for late-medieval architecture: post-and-beam construction, sawn-plank siding and diamond-paned windows. Log houses did not become popular here until the westward expansion of the 18th century. And they were rarely intended to be permanent. Like sod houses, log cabins were temporary shelters built for use only until settlers could afford something more elaborate, often constructed in a fashionable style of the day. When the frontier closed in 1890 and the industrial revolution shifted into gear, the yearning to recapture America's lost wilderness — a nostalgia promoted by both writers and painters — triggered a revival in log construction, although the structures were more like mansions, less like the Little House on the Prairie. The most interesting and grand examples were built in the Adirondacks of northern New York State. There, log-style summer "camps" for the rich rivaled the glorious "cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island.
To judge by the numbers being built, log houses have again become fashionable, many as vacation, retirement or weekend houses for urbanites. "They work best with the woods and the mountains surrounding them. You won't really find them in the suburbs," says Ken Thuerbach, the owner of Alpine Log Homes in Victor, Montana. Like the previous revival, this may also be a reaction to technology. "The more industrialized we become — or as today the more computerized we become — the more dissociated we are from real things," says Stern. "With a log house, we can return to living at least a part of our time in a more natural way." Today's log houses have little in common with Lincoln's fabled birthplace or even with the log toys that bear his name. Instead, architects use logs in creative ways that are more connected with the Adirondack camps of the past. Stern designed a 14,000-square-foot retreat in the Colorado Rockies that marries log construction to the Shingle Style, for which he is perhaps most famous. By adding a steel frame, he was able to build longer spans than logs alone would have allowed, and the cedar-shingled gables give variety to what could otherwise have been a monotonous exterior. To soften the boxy quality inherent in a log cabin, Stern changed the geometry by adding one wing on a diagonal. "Architects have taken this style, which represented the first effort of a people in a new land to scratch together a shelter, and lifted it up to these huge houses built in the log manner," he says. "Yet no matter how big, the spirit of rusticity remains."
Not everyone adores the result. This Old House founder Russ Morash finds a great deal of charm in older log structures but seldom likes newer ones. "Log houses are visually active — perhaps too active. I don't like my eye dancing around from log to log, over their round ends, through crevices, then back out the other side," he says. "You run the risk of having a house look contrived if you try to impose a Ye Olde Frontier look on a modern landscape." Stern agrees. Designing with logs demands an enormous amount of creativity. For example, in bathrooms and small bedrooms, where logs might make the space seem claustrophobic, Stern uses them sparingly. Yet he allows himself to go log-wild in larger rooms, bringing in sunlight through massive windows, an embellishment beyond the means of the average pioneer. "The rooms fill with wonderful golden colors, quite unlike anything else," he says. "When it's done correctly, it's easy to see why the romance with log houses endures."