Jamie Lester’s house outside Morgantown gives a third life to old-growth Preston County timbers.
In 2017, when Morgantown artist and sculptor Jamie Lester was ready to build a house, he got intrigued by something he saw on Facebook. It was a dismantled post and beam house that Premium Weathered had in storage, just ready for the right buyer.
It was a structure with some history. Back in the 1990s, WVU pilot Charles Whiston Jr. sourced old-growth chestnut timbers from old Preston County barns. He was building them into a house on Cheat Lake using all-wood mortise and tenon construction secured with wooden pegs when he died in a plane crash in 1998. The family eventually contacted Frederick, who took the house apart and numbered each piece for reassembly.
As it turned out, Lester already had somewhat of a connection with Whiston. He’d been sculpting for only a few years when Whiston died, and he was hired to create a bronze plaque honoring the pilot. That plaque now hangs in WVU’s Coliseum.
Lester and Frederick struck a deal for the frame and reassembly and, in November 2017, they broke ground.
The frame went up like an old-fashioned barn-raising, Lester says. “You hammer the beams together, put the pegs into the joints—you do that on the ground, then you raise the thing up,” he says. “It’s almost like an erector set or Lincoln logs. It’s an ancient method that uses very little wood, and it’s very strong.” Once the frame was up, Structural Insulated Panels, or SIPs, fitted between the timbers formed the walls and ceiling.
It’s taken some time. Lester and his wife, Nadia Caterina—they were married on the deck in June of 2018 after the structure was roofed over but before it was habitable—lived in a small structure on their property while they did much of the work themselves.
But today the house is a richly textured, 1,300-square-foot haven. It’s sited to take advantage of passive solar heating, with a wall of windows facing the sun. Radiant heat installed in the concrete pad makes for warm floors, and the couple will soon add a wood-burning stove.
As an artist who works with materials in three dimensions, Lester particularly enjoyed projects like casting concrete countertops and creating an oversized concrete bathtub. “It’s been an adventure from start to finish,” he says. He loves the look of the big exposed beams. “It’s so nice feeling the strength of the structure right there—it’s not hidden in the walls, behind drywall; it’s there and it’s beautiful.” White walls are perfect for displaying art. “We’ve already hung a few of our prize pieces, and I’m looking forward to building some little pedestals that come off the wall to put our 3-dimensional pieces on.”
The supply of solid old structures just waiting to be disassembled and reassembled is “virtually unlimited,” says Premium Weathered owner Scott Frederick. He has two frames in storage right now, tagged and numbered and ready to be rebuilt.
Reassembling can be quite a bit less expensive than building from scratch, Frederick says, because the pieces are already cut to size—Lester’s house was standing and ready to get under roof in four days. The big old timbers give greater structural stability than new lumber, he says, allowing for larger open spaces. “Plus, the character is unmatched,” he says. “It’s the ultimate in green building.”