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Elegance is in, antlers are out

All log homes are not created equal. One couple opts for a rustic but well-groomed space.

June 23, 2005|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

When Andrea Geller is doing chores inside her log house in Big Bear, she often thinks about the homemakers who pioneered the land -- how they scrubbed clothes with a washboard, baked bread in a smoky kitchen fireplace, swept dirt floors. Then she turns back to her work, pushing buttons on a sleek black washing machine, a stainless steel oven, a high-powered vacuum cleaner.

When she's done, the French doors in her log house's bedroom lead to a viewing deck with a sunken hot tub. There are silk-covered chairs and English antiques in the living room, a crystal chandelier in the dining room and a travertine-tiled master bath modeled after a four-star spa.

Ah, the rustic life.

With 25,000 upscale log homes being built every year by stress-escaping city slickers, it's time to close the door on the idea of the termite-riddled, drafty cabin of yore. If there are deer antlers over the mantelpiece or a fly-fishing vest hanging on a wooden peg inside a new log home, they're probably props.

"There are no more raccoons in the rafters," says Michael McCarthy, editor of Log Home Living, a glossy monthly magazine that showcases what's been called "rusticratic" living. "New log homes are bigger, grander than the old fishing cabin. They are highly styled and engineered, and furnished with granite countertops, high-speed wiring and every conceivable convenience." He even has a nickname for them: "Gucci rustics."

Ralph Kylloe, author of "The Rustic Cabin: Design & Architecture," thinks the rustic lifestyle is more popular today because "we spend our days in buildings made of Sheetrock and filled with highly manipulated furniture and we drive our metal vehicles on concrete roads. We crave nature, but we also don't want to give up the luxuries that the modern world offers."

The luxuries inside the Gellers' chic chalet -- gold faucets, heirloom chiming wall clock, plush velvet chaise longue -- are reminiscent of the Adirondack Great Camps. In the Gilded Age leading up to the Great Depression, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and other social titans built wilderness estates in the New York mountains.

Like the designers of Great Camps, there are still artisans who will handcraft a log home, but most buyers turn to one of 400 manufacturers in the U.S. that sell construction-ready logs along with the blueprints to build.

The average cost of building a log home is $120 a square foot, but it can leap to $350 to $500 if built in places with high labor costs such as Aspen or Telluride, Colo., plus the cost of land. McCarthy has seen log homes as large as 10,000 square feet, but a typical size is 2,000 square feet.

Builders have improved the structure and engineering of log homes. Logs are dried and treated better to prevent shrinking, rot and nibbling insects. Computerized saws can produce profiles that are rounded, flat, chinked or tongue-and-groove, and pieces that dovetail precisely for airtight, energy-efficient fits.

The thick logs burn slower than spindly 2-by-4s, helping these homes during a fire, and they're more soundproof. "I could stand outside and scream your name but you wouldn't hear me through these logs," says Alan Geller, 57, who moved with his wife, Andrea, 55, to Big Bear full-time last year after selling their Century City townhouse.

Twelve years ago, Alan and Andrea visited friends who had a cabin in Big Bear and the couple started reminiscing about the fun times spent outdoors when they were younger. Andrea's terrace container plants couldn't match the allure of alpine. The Gellers, who own the hosiery business Angel Intimates, bought a weekend getaway near their friends and added rooms and half-log siding.

One afternoon when they were driving up the mountain, Andrea turned to Alan and asked, "What are we doing?" Why were they in the city when they could be living and working here?

They bought three acres of land sprinkled with hundreds of pines, cypress and oaks, about four miles from Sugarloaf and 7,000 feet higher than Century City and became design-it-yourselfers. They sat in folding chairs on the property to figure out where the house should be. Andrea picked out a pine and decided it would be in the middle of the circular driveway; everything else fell into place. She then sketched a 3,500-square-foot main house and a detached 2,000-square-foot guest house, garage and office.

"We still wanted to work," says Andrea, "just not while fighting traffic or staring at smog. And when it's 5 p.m., we wanted to be enjoying the outdoors."

They took their drawings to Sugarloaf-based builder Brad Lindley and designers at Sierra Log Homes, who executed the architectural plans. For a year, a dozen workers were on the site, cutting the 13-inch-thick lodgepole pine logs and assembling the pieces.

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