Civil War Survivor
A farmhouse near Antietam National Battlefield shines after a painstaking restoration
By James H. Schwartz | From Preservation | January/February 2010
Ten years ago, Brent Stinar was leafing through Preservation magazine when he saw an ad about a historic house for sale 90 minutes north of Washington, D.C. "State of Maryland seeks resident-curator to restore and maintain historic Jacob Rohrback farmhouse, adjacent to Antietam Battlefield," it read. Intrigued by the accompanying black-and-white photograph and the promise of enough acreage to support a small farm, he decided to drive out and see the place for himself. But Stinar was thoroughly unprepared for what he found.
The two-story clapboard-over-log structure (near Burnside Bridge, where 12,000 Union troops battled Confederate sharpshooters in the bloodiest single day of battle in American history) was an unmitigated disaster. There were hornets in the attic, evidence of cows and raccoons in the basement, a collapsed chimney, and foot-long mud stalactites formed by termites hanging from beams atop the stone foundation. So Stinar took the only reasonable course of action for a man passionate about history and historic buildings: He called his wife and said, "You've got to come out here and see this place."
Julie Gray Stinar made the trip to Washington County and was immediately struck by the beauty of the rural landscape. She shared her husband's enthusiasm for sustainable agriculture, and had long considered starting a farm in the Maryland countryside.
Still, the condition of the Rohrback farmhouse gave her pause. "Brent and I had lived in an older house that had been renovated when we moved in. We didn't have any experience to prepare us for a restoration like this one. Quite frankly, we didn't know what we were getting into." In need of guidance, they approached a historic structures consultant named Doug Reed, recommended by an official from Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. After walking through the farmhouse and crawling into every hidden corner, they asked him a simple question: Was this house a lost cause—a place just too far gone—or could they safely restore and enjoy it? "Doug didn't hesitate at all," Brent remembers. "He told us, 'Ah, this is nothing. You can save this place.' "
Buoyed by Reed's reassurance, the Stinars formulated a comprehensive restoration proposal, the first step toward acquiring title from the state. Not only did they describe what they would do, and when they would do it, they also delved into "the nuts and bolts of the project," Julie says. "We viewed the proposal as something to which we would strictly adhere." Maryland officials gave the go ahead in the summer of 2000, and by fall, Brent and Julie had divided up all the restoration jobs they could handle and shared the rest with Doug Reed. The second Battle of Burnside Bridge was joined.
Several glaring problems demanded immediate action. The chimney that had collapsed into the attic threatened to deteriorate even further. The house had no electricity, no running water, and no insulation. Vandals had stripped much of what they could find, including doorknobs and mantelpieces. They had even tried to pry the dining room mantel off the wall but ended up leaving it behind. And of course, there were the termites. "When we bought the house," Brent remembers, "two of the sill logs near the steps were completely shot and so was the summer beam carrying the first floor. I recall the day a carpenter told us, 'There are so many termites crawling around one corner it looks like a bag of white rice broke open.' "
Spraying—and a new termite contract—dealt with the threat from vermin. The Stinars decided that they could live with two working chimneys, so they dismantled what was left of the one in the attic. Repairs to the electrical and plumbing systems were also fairly straightforward. Insulation, on the other hand, demanded an innovative plan of attack.
"We didn't want any brand new siding," Julie Stinar says. "We wanted to honor the structure and not change anything unless it was desperately needed—including clapboards."
That meant insulating the original log walls from the interior of the house. And that, in turn, required the removal of the horsehair plaster applied to the logs. Such a laborious process proved time consuming (and dusty beyond all imagining). Eventually, with the logs revealed, workers filled open spaces with a sealing agent called Air Krete, which creates a strong bond and provides high thermal insulation. "We did that in January when we had no electricity," Brent says. "I spent 48 hours in 20-degree weather with four propane heaters because we had to maintain a 50-degree temperature for the Air Krete to set." Only then could crews begin applying new layers of plaster by hand.
With the walls (as well as the attic floor) insulated, Julie moved on to the 32 windows in the house. "I had a really good incentive to restore them," she remembers. "I was pregnant with our first son, Gray, and I wanted to get as much done as I possibly could." In what would become a nearly year-long window campaign, the Stinars pulled out sashes. Then Julie carefully removed old glazing, replaced broken glass, and reglazed every pane, "staying up until about 2 a.m. one day after another to prime and repaint them all," she says. As each window dried, she fitted the finished sashes back into place.
Relieved that the envelope of the house was secure for the first time in decades, the Stinars evaluated their 21st-century needs. "We didn't want to change the original floor plan that had survived for 150 years," Brent says, "but there were no baths upstairs." They came up with a solution that was both low impact and affordable, splitting one bedroom down the middle and creating two baths in its place. Now the second floor contains two bedrooms, a small playroom for Gray and Luka Stinar, a study, and the two baths.
First-floor rooms also revealed surprises. Hidden behind the kitchen fireplace Julie found an extraordinary beehive oven with a broad brick baking surface and elaborate arched ceiling. Historians have confirmed that fewer than five ovens of this form and quality survive in the state. The oven is on the growing list of projects the Stinars hope to tackle in the future.
Then there's the living room ceiling, where Julie unearthed remnants of ornate plaster flourishes. A craftsman who came to examine the room explained that 19th-century plasterers pressed artful designs directly into wet plaster overhead. What Julie first identified as an extremely poor patch job turned out to be fine decorative work covered under layers of paint. She has saved deteriorating portions of the ceiling in hopes of restoring the decorative plasterwork.
That may take some time. Several years after buying the house on Burnside Bridge Road and embarking upon their ambitious restoration, the Stinars established Evensong Farm, a diversified operation producing heirloom vegetables, eggs, grass-fed heritage beef, pasture-raised pork, and chickens. "We follow sustainable agriculture techniques, with five acres dedicated to vegetables and 60 to 70 acres of pasture," Julie says. The remainder of the property is woodland and unfenced hayfields. Evensong products are sold from the farm and at farmers markets in Silver Spring and Hagerstown.
"Julie handled the farm the same way we handled restoring the house," Brent says. "We asked a lot of questions, dealt with extremely honest and knowledgeable professionals—like Doug Reed—and worked aggressively to contain costs. And we read just about everything we could get our hands on."
Including a black-and-white ad in a magazine called Preservation.
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