by Joan Evanich
The 1830s Schmidt Burnham Log House sat proudly at its new site on May 6, 2003. The move that day was an exhilarating success, but this was no time for WHS to rest on its laurels. The real work was about to begin in the pursuit to open the longest continuously occupied house in Cook County (1839-2001) to the public.
While the house had survived the move, it was in poor condition. Portland cement covered large sections of the logs. Other places had been covered with rubber sheeting in a desperate attempt to slow rotting of the wood. An expert was needed to help assess the structure and provide advice on how to proceed. Staff consulted with state and federal agencies for advice and hired a preservation consultant, John Leake of Portland, Maine. Mr. Leake, a contributing editor for Old House Journal, had over 30 years of field work in restoring historic buildings. He arrived in Winnetka in April 2005 to meet with the Log House committee. After three days in the field, he returned to Maine to analyze his findings. The subsequent conditions assessment showed significant wood rot which contributed to the deterioration of the original windows as well as destabilization of the front façade and second floor support system. A structural engineer as well as expert craftsmen were necessary to proceed.
The windows were the first part of the restoration process. History Construction Management carefully removed eight original windows leaving dark holes that looked like missing teeth. Pieces of original chinking and horsehair insulation were discovered during the removal and archived. The windows and frames were carefully wrapped and taken to the workshop in Odell, Illinois where they were stripped of all paint, caulk, glass and glazing. Rotted wood was replaced using the same materials and craftsmanship as the originals. The 1830s glass was reinstalled, and any existing modern glass was replaced with antique material. The windows and frames were then primed and painted.
While the windows were being restored, work on the logs began in earnest. American Log Restoration Inc. of Michigan arrived in the cold winter of 2006 to begin the “facelift” of the old house. Water damage had caused significant rotting to the exterior of the logs. The craftsmen from American Log carefully complied with John Leake’s recommendations to respect the visual character of the hand-hewn surfaces and retain as much authentic material as possible by using half log replacement and bore and extend methods. All replacement wood was similar to the old hardwood logs, the same shape and size of the originals, even replicating the adze and drawknife markings. The northeast corner of the house was almost completely deteriorated and had to be replaced. An identical corner notching system was utilized in the new log installation.
The dream began with a gift from the Burnham family in 2001 and became a reality when WHS hosted the grand opening on September 10, 2006. Winnetkans of all ages rubbed elbows with state senators, blue grass musicians and descendants of both the Schmidt and Burnham families. Even though it was cold and rainy, it was a glorious day.
The Schmidt-Burnham Log House is now open to the public every Sunday from 2-4 pm, May through November. Guided and self-guided tours are available as well as an exhibit of Burnham artifacts. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. ■