Journey Man IX
A Carpenter’s Story
By Daniel Foster
WALNUT AND PINE
My brother Rick and his wife Michelle came down from Rhode Island in 1988 and visited us for a few days at our house in Vienna, Virginia. Michelle was on her way to becoming a very successful architect. She would start her own practice within a year or two and would eventually design large projects throughout the New England coast and in California and Canada.
Building was booming in Virginia.
Michelle was glancing through the local paper and had come across a line drawing of a spec mansion offered for sale. “Oh my God, look at this!” she said. The ad described umpteen rooms, umpteen fireplaces, paneled library, maid quarters and more. It went on and on. Michelle was aghast at the extreme pretension. It was, the ad proclaimed, a modern redesign of an historic house of Virginia’s Tidewater region. It was completely over-the-top. The price was 3.5 million bucks, which was a lot of money for a house in Virginia at that time. It was a great example of the display of excess that characterized wealth in Virginia, a region founded by aristocracy, where once upon a time poor whites in gray went forth and gave their lives to protect that aristocracy and where the reverence for the aristocratic still lived. Construction was to begin soon, the ad proclaimed.
The name of the ‘estate’ was ‘Eight Oaks’ and though I had never heard of it until Michelle’s exclamation, a little over two years later I would be working on its completion.
In 1988 and into 1989 a friend and I were preoccupied with finding land and building a spec house ourselves. The price of land had soared in the Virginia suburbs closer to Washington and after searching unsuccessfully for a lot closer in, we widened our search to include areas further out.
We eventually found a building lot in a newly developed subdivision of 8 parcels in Lovettsville, approximately one hour west of Washington, D.C. in Loudoun County, Virginia. It was near a train line into DC and within a few miles of route 70, which led into DC and toward Baltimore and which was itself becoming a fast-growing corridor of business and home development. The lot was beautiful, set on a high knoll in rolling farmland, looking north into Maryland, just a mile away across the Potomac River. The asking price was $89,000 and we bought it for just a bit less.
After looking at many stock house plans I concluded that we should design a house that fit the land. I had been studying house design for years and wanted a design for this lot that took advantage of the views and the sun and the topography. In short, I cared far too much about the quality of the project than one should when building a spec house. Taste and the quest for quality don’t necessarily spell success in the spec house business.
I designed a house, which had living space of approximately 4000 square feet on three levels and took advantage of the terrain and the views. We broke ground in May of 1989.
The bubble burst in late 1989. We would have slipped in under the wire, but our project had been delayed in a bizarre turn of events. The owner of the property just north of our little subdivision and our lot sued the subdivision developer over a minor surveying detail. We were named in the suit, as our land bordered the area in question. It took four months to settle the suit and our project was delayed accordingly, as the bank would not continue to allow us to draw on our construction funds until the suit lien was released. In the end we were required to accept some additional land added to our lot, but the delay in our construction meant that we were still short of completion when the market turned and values took a very steep dive.
Things could have been worse. I had been so enthusiastic over the spec house project I was ready to begin another when we were halfway through the construction of our first. Thankfully we didn’t have the finances to allow us to do that and when the market went bad we were able to move into the spec house in order to reduce our carrying costs in an attempt to ride out the worst of the bad market. If we had proceeded to construct more than one house it would have been an even greater disaster.
Deanna and I, along with our 12-year-old son and our baby daughter moved into one half of the house, while my partner moved into the other half.
I took whatever jobs I could find and commuted however far was required to continue working. Pickings were slim. Some of those jobs were awful, in terms of the work and whom I was working for. I was bidding low on jobs in desperation to get work, a practice that would hurt us time and time again, as I was never able to stop caring about the quality of the work I was doing.
Some of the jobs were good. One that was good involved working with my friend Steve Robinson. Steve had been a structural engineer for years and had moved into the spec building business and had successfully built and sold a large spec house in McLean just before the bubble burst. Steve would later go on to win several annual awards from the Northern Virginia Home Builders association for best house. He had a real talent for knowing how to design for the market and where in the project to put the money.
Steve had been approached by Ed Carlin, developer of the ‘Eight Oaks’ estate, who asked him to assist in the construction and engineering of the project. In return for engineering the construction details, Ed would give Steve a cut of the project.
I had gone to look at the ‘Eight Oaks’ project with Steve when he was first approached by Ed and was considering it. I had met Ed in that process and I told Steve that I didn’t really trust the guy, which echoed his feelings. But it was all quite an adventure. Here was Steve, living a frugal life in a very small and basic home, having successfully built a large spec mansion and now being pursued to be part of this architectural study in excess.
Steve turned Ed down, though he did participate in designing some aspects, including the library. Steve had spent a lot of time studying Georgian trim details and had a great talent for it. He had recommended a friend of his for the engineering role Ed was trying to fill, and had also recommended a cabinetry friend, Roger, to build the cabinetry for the kitchen and baths. Instead of becoming deeply involved with the ‘Eight Oaks’ project Steve had taken on another job, which entailed rebuilding large portions of a 30-year-old building in McLean, and had asked me to help him with that project.
One day, while Steve and I were involved with tearing off large sections of siding on his McLean Project, Roger showed up to discuss a situation he was having with Ed. Ed had wanted him to do the library as well, but the two of them had disagreed on how it should be done. Roger said he refused to do it, but said he thought he knew of someone who would, and it turned out it was me he had in mind. Though we had never met, Steve had evidently told Roger about me and Roger had conceived the idea that I should do the library, thus letting him out of a project where he was having disagreements with Ed.
I had never constructed anything of this order before. It was an entire paneled room that included enclosed cabinets and window seats as well as a very detailed fireplace surround. Both Roger and Steve were enthusiastic that I should do this, however. “It’s just paint-grade”, they said. Steve felt it would be a great thing for me to do it, even though it would mean that he would have to find someone else to fill in helping him on his project. The library, of course, was also one of his projects, having designed it, and he liked the idea of having someone he trusted doing it. He promised to help me with any details I needed help with.
So I met with Ed. I studied the plans and came up with a number for doing the labor, with Ed supplying all the materials. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing and gave him a number that was lower than it should have been, but in the end I had a complex job that would occupy me for several months. In a way I had no business taking on this work. I was running on blind faith that I could do almost anything just as I had many times before. It was through this kind of blind faith that I had learned almost everything I knew to date about building. You take it on and figure it out. But I had no idea how complex this project was or would become.
The room had already been prepared for paneling by the framers. This means that the walls had all been sheathed with 1/2” plywood. The wiring was all installed in the walls, of course, with switch boxes and receptacle boxes in place, or on wire pigtails that would allow me to install them into the places where cabinetry extended out from the walls.
Steve’s plans were perfectly drawn, showing all the details I needed. Most fundamental to the work were the detailed elevations he had drawn. An elevation is a drawing showing each wall as you face it. The elevations clearly showed the types of mouldings and the placements for each, as well as some detailed blown-up drawings where needed. Mostly the elevations comprised a picture that I had to duplicate, but in wood.
He and Roger explained the process and it quickly became clear to me how to do the work. A paneled library, like most building projects, is a sequence of steps. You do one step and then you do the next. If the first one is done correctly the next will go smoothly.
In the case of a paneled library the sequence begins with building the cabinet boxes, out of plywood, that will be covered with the paneling wood and mouldings. These cabinet boxes are attached to the wall and then the frames are assembled and attached to the remaining wall area and to the cabinetry. These frames are essentially a series of interconnected ‘picture frames’ that will house the panels that go inside them, or, in the case of cabinet fronts, that will house the doors or shelving that goes inside them. These frames essentially cover every inch of the walls. Then the doors are built and installed, and panels are fabricated and installed in their places within the frames. Then layers and layers of moulding are added. These included baseboard mouldings, chair rail mouldings, pilaster (or flat column) mouldings, and crown mouldings. Because this was an especially fancy style of paneling, there would also be an additional ‘picture frame’ of moulding around each of the panels, covering a gap between the panels and the frames.
I began by building the plywood boxes that would become the cabinets and screwing them in place on bases that raised them the right height off the floor. Then I constructed the plywood boxes that would become the window seats. Once these items were completed I had the structure on which I would overlay all my wood face frames and paneling frames.
The entire principle behind paneling of any kind is that the wood must be allowed to expand and contract with changes in the moisture content of the air that occurs from season to season. This is the same principle behind the basic solid wood kitchen cabinet door. It’s not simply for looks that the doors on many of our cabinets or the doors to our rooms have panels. The panels are not attached with glue or nails in the framework that surrounds them. They are held in grooves in the door frame and can shrink or expand as needed without cracking. It is an ancient solution to one of the problems of working with solid wood.
Ed had specified that the library would be paint-grade, which is easier that stain-grade, since mistakes can be more easily repaired in a number of ways with fillers or additional pieces of wood attached with glue. Once it is all painted, no one can tell. Paint-grade also often allows one to use lesser grades of wood, as flaws can be filled in or painted over or otherwise hidden by the finish. Ed wanted me to use clear pine for the frames, however. I selected a first load of pine boards from our supplier.
The supplier of our wood was Smoot Lumber in Alexandria, Virginia, the oldest lumberyard in the country and perhaps, at that time, the best. It is not the same now as it was then. It was privately owned when I first knew it. Then it was bought by one corporation and then by another and now it is part of a national chain of yards. I’m sure that some of its greatness remains, but I am also sure that the greatness is dimmed. A visit to its website shows that it is no longer called Smoot Lumber. It is now called Smoot Building Solutions. That says a lot. It’s clearly now run by the guys in suits.
Smoot had the largest stock of mouldings I have ever seen in a lumberyard with the additional capability to create any moulding you desired. Draw it and they would make it. Virginia, and especially Alexandria, was the heart of fancy Georgian and Federal-style architecture in America and Smoot had a centuries-old tradition of supplying mouldings for those styles.
I joined together the first few sections of panel frames, sanded them smooth and attached them to the plywood on the walls with glue and fasteners. Ed was thrilled. He stood and stared, thinking. “It looks so good”, he said, “I think we should make it stain-grade”. Then we started talking about colors and tones and that turned into a discussion of the possibility of using a different wood for the panels. In the end I suggested that we use walnut for the panels and Ed loved the idea. Ed wanted to create something special and he didn’t hold back when he thought we were on to something. I give him great credit for that.
None of us completely understood Ed and none of us ever would. He claimed a colorful history with stories of involvement in various nefarious activities. He had been in Vietnam and claimed to know personally of CIA transportation of drugs into the US inside the body bags carrying the fallen home. He had been a drug-tester in San Francisco for the famous underground LSD king Stanley Owsley, who had manufactured more than 1.25 million doses of LSD between 1965 and 1967. He had raced cigarette boats in Florida. None of us had any idea how Ed was financing this large project or who else was involved.
Ed could argue and hold a grudge. He could form an opinion of a person and never budge from it. But Ed got things done. He had a vision and he had high standards for the construction of the building. Thinking of him now I can’t help but be impressed with his conception and the never-ending forward movement of his project.
He also always paid me when a payment was due and held my work in high regard.
So what had started as a simple paint-grade library had turned into a stain-grade library comprised of clear pine rails and stiles and mouldings with bookmatched and sequentially patterned walnut raised panels. In short, it had turned into a paneled room as complex as they come.
As I neared completion of the pine frames I began to search for walnut both at Smoot and other local sources. None of it was of great quality. Then I learned of a small independent sawmill in The Plains, Virginia, run by Redmond Manierre. Reddy had a good supply of fine walnut and I was able to purchase the wood of three large logs which had been sawn and kiln dried and the planks from each tree kept together, in order. Some of the boards were well over 24” across. The wood was rich and dark with good grain character. It was perhaps the finest wood I had ever purchased. I had stumbled onto a very fine source of wood created by someone who cared deeply about producing fine wood. Reddy would become my first choice for wood and also a very good friend as time went by.
Reddy delivered the wood to the site on his very old and very large delivery truck and I set up shop in the dining room and library of Eight Oaks. The boards were all rough sawn, unlike the boards that one typically found at a lumberyard. This meant that the thickness of each board varied slightly and the surface of the board was still rough.
With the boards laid out for processing, I proceeded to cut them into their rough sizes and process them through the jointer and planer to create flat boards of uniform thickness. The jointer creates a perfectly flat surface on one side. Then the planer creates an even thickness and a smooth face on the other side. Then I cut each piece to its exact finished size on the table saw and the sliding miter crosscut saw.
The panels that one sees in a paneled room, as in a kitchen cabinet door or a paneled room door are either flat panels or raised panels. In either case the edge of the panel is very thin – about a quarter of an inch – and fits into grooves in the rails and stiles framework that holds it. Nowadays flat panels are usually made of plywood or some other manufactured material with a veneer of quality wood on the surface and in this case the panel can be glued in place, because plywood doesn’t shrink or expand as solid wood does.
To make a raised panel one cuts the wood at the edge in a tapering pattern so that the edge is about a quarter of an inch thick and the wood an inch or so away is full thickness. Until the advent of plywood, both flat panels and raised panels were really made in the same way. What distinguished a flat panel or a raised panel was really only a matter of which side was out and the attention that was paid to the edge treatment that resulted in the 1/4” edge. While cabinetmakers could have made the whole panel a quarter of in inch thick it would mean a lot more work and it would result in a panel that was very weak and prone to cracking.
For millennia cabinetmakers used special hand planes to shape the edges of panels by hand, but for the last few hundred years this task has been done by machine and now one can do it with quite simple electrical power tools. Steve had lent me a router table to create the raised panel profile on the library panels. Making numerous passes of each edge of each panel over the machine resulted in an edge with an attractive tapered profile and a 1/4” edge, requiring only sanding to produce a completed panel.
While I worked on the library tensions were building on the job site. Roger would often be complaining about Ed or someone else. The guys doing the trim would be complaining about something. The guys doing the painting would complain about some aspect of the trim work. And so forth. Most of the complaints were directed at Ed, who kept himself at a distance from everyone else.
Ed also had me design the buildout of the wine cellar, which was then fabricated by the trim crew. He was thrilled with the progress of the library, the fabrication of which I had become very comfortable with. I was able to take the instruction Steve and Roger had given to me and take it a step further. I was a more careful and skilled craftsman than Roger and also had more knowledge of tools and woodworking techniques. Roger was good at developing methods that were quick and rough but that resulted in pretty good-looking cabinetry. He was working on the kitchen and bathroom vanities, while I continued in the library.
There were a dozen cabinet doors in the library also, half of which were paneled wood and half of which were wood frames holding glass panels. I made these door parts on the router table as well, using a pair of special matched cutters made for this purpose. The first cutter shaped the inside edges of the frame pieces to accept the wood or glass panels and the second shaped the ends of the top and bottom frame pieces to perfectly fit into the groove profile for a tight joint. With some glue, clamping and cleanup, they were done and ready for sanding. The wood panels were inserted before the frames were glued up. The glass panels were inserted after the frame was glued together, by cutting away an additional small amount of the frame so the glass could be inserted and then held in place with special flexible fasteners held with screws. This would allow the glass to be replaced if ever broken.
There were also numerous fluted square pilasters in the library. A pilaster is like a partial column placed against a wall. Some of these were partial columns that wrapped the edges of cabinetry. I cut the boards for each face and then made flutes using a router with a bit which cut a rounded trough in the wood about 5/8 of an inch wide. I attached fences on either side of the router, which positioned the router exactly for each of these trough cuts. Each column face had five of these flutes evenly spaced across its width. These were stopped flutes, meaning that they didn’t run the full length of the board, but stopped a certain distance above the mouldings that comprised the column base and below the mouldings that comprised the column cap. This was the tricky part, for I had to make sure that each of them stopped exactly where they should. This was the kind of work that made stain-grade work so much more difficult than paint grade. If you made an error in paint-grade, you simply filled the goof in with a filler of some kind and then recut. If you made any mistake in stain-grade, you threw the piece out and started over. There were hundreds, if not over a thousand, pieces of wood in the library, many of which went through multiple processes and each had to be made without mistakes.
When Steve had declined the job of working as an engineer with Ed, he suggested a friend of his, named Brian, for the job. Brian would arrive from time to time and troubleshoot some aspect of construction. As engineer, Brian would run any calculations required and have the respected authority as a licensed engineer to tell the building department that a solution will work. A licensed engineer’s signed stamp on a document carried the authority of God with a building department. There is nothing above an engineer in the building chain of authority. By having an engineer attached to the job many aspects could proceed much more quickly as well as with a greater certainty that they would hold up over time.
Brian was a very nice guy. He and I would become friends later on and work together on a number of projects, including some small projects on his own house, which was a never-ending construction project in the mountains to the south. It was a combination building project and motorcycle and race car modification shop, as Brian was seriously into amateur racing. He was for many years one of the top Ford Cobra racing drivers in the country and attended races nationwide. You could tell when Brian was coming onsite because you could hear his car coming up the driveway at high speed. Despite the cars, Brian was a very considerate, thoughtful and sensitive guy, in addition to being intelligent.
For some reason, Roger had it in for Brian and was always giving him a difficult time. It was probably based on the fact that Brian was sensitive and not an aggressive person. Roger, and to a lesser degree the trim crew, took it upon themselves to make Brian’s life as miserable as they could whenever the opportunity arose. I’ve been in the same place at times in my life, when people could just reduce me to near tears with verbal attacks. The tensions that Roger and the trim crew felt with Ed found an outlet with Brian. Brian had the ill fortune of being their scapegoat, since Ed was too strong and aggressive for them to attack.
So a new element of the job arose, beginning with the sound of Brian’s car coming up the long curving drive and Brian arriving with a friendly smile and greeting. He and I would exchange a few friendly words, as the library was just inside the front door. Brian would attend to some problem on the site and offer solutions. Roger would tell him why that was a shitty idea and ask how he could be so stupid to think of it. Brian would try to find an acceptable solution. Things would deteriorate from there. I wish I could have seen more clearly the dynamics at the time, but it has only been with years of distance that I can look back and see clearly the patterns. I like to think I would have given Brian more support. The job had turned either into some kind of group therapy or soap opera or both. Meanwhile I moved onto mouldings.
I am Massachusetts and New England born and bred. This means that I grew up learning that simple is good. Ostentatiousness is a fault. If you got it, don’t flaunt it. Treat others as equals, and so forth. Virginia was never bothered with any of this. It was, and is, a different country, and values its aristocrats and the symbols of their power and wealth. If your neighbor has a more grand house and car, face it: they’re better than you.
This difference is well shown in the use of crown. Crown is the trim that runs around the perimeter of the ceiling. Some houses have none. Some have a simple one-piece crown. But in some circles, as you rise up the ladder of success, architecturally, crown gets larger. It becomes a series of layered mouldings, built up and out, to a height of as much as a foot or so.
The perimeter of the library now consisted of a series of deep cabinets, with columns bumping out at each corner, window seats with open spaces above, some open shelves with faces rising to the ceiling, and a fireplace with a mantle surround that rose to the ceiling with fluted columns on each side. At the ceiling the leading edge of the woodwork went in and out and around and in and out and so forth. Where a simple ceiling had four runs of crown, this ceiling had about eighty; all of it needing a five-piece crown with additional pieces at the columns.
Crown is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the trim carpenter’s art. It is comprised of wood milled into complex profiles that are then cut and attached at an exact angle to the wall and ceiling. The pieces must all be carefully aligned so that the moulding lines match up perfectly and each joint needs to come together without gaps, so that the glue and nails will hold the joints together. Each of the outside joints is a miter joint, which is exactly like those in a typical wood picture frame, which is four pieces of wood joined together with miter joints. The most unusual aspect of crown involves the method one uses to attach the inside joints together. Most often this is done by cutting one piece as a negative of the other, so that the two halves of the inside corner interlock like pieces in a puzzle. This is called a coped joint.
After a while you just get into whacking and shaping these pieces of wood and getting them up there. You learn tricks to make the joints work out or to glue pieces together, or how to measure them or how to cheat and do something simpler than a coped joint when it will work. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of cutting a piece, getting up on the ladder to try it out, coming back down to fiddle with it, getting back up and so forth. When there are 400 or so pieces of wood in the crown, it just takes a while.
It was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to make decent money on this job. It was simply too complex and too demanding. Once into it, I just couldn’t compromise on the quality. People were oohing and ahing and I was in love with what I was making. It’s a bad pattern I have fallen into over and over and it never results in good money. I have built a lot of subsidized art in rich people’s houses.
We were getting closer and closer to the end of the job. Ed was starting to push a little bit. One day he told us that the woman who was inspecting for his financiers was due to come in two days, so we should really try to get things completed. When we asked when, exactly, she was coming, Ed replied that she was a very busy person and that she came in the middle of the night. It was unusual but it was what worked for her, he said. I don’t think any of us actually believed any of this, but Ed was good at saying outrageous things as if they were believable.
As it turned out I was working late the night she was due to come. I had decided that I would stay until I was finished with the crown, no matter how late that was. It turned out to be all night. I left shortly after the sun came up and just before others would arrive. The mystery inspector had not appeared.
A large team of finishers had arrived onsite to do all the cabinet finishing. This meant a lot of decorative finishing on the bathroom cabinetry, which Steve had designed and Roger had built, along with applying finish to my work in the library. They would also be applying finish to the surrounds on the eight fireplaces. Roger’s work in the kitchen was still ongoing and I was not yet finished with the library when they arrived. Most of the bathroom cabinetry work involved flat panel doors and paneling with several layers of mouldings. All of it was paint grade, but the finishers would take it several levels beyond standard paint finish. Most of the finishes were strie (pronounced stree-yay), which involved applying a colored glaze of vertical brush strokes over a base color, all of which was then sealed with a clear coat.
The finishers were largely a group of art school students and musicians working for an outfit called Valley Craftsmen. There were about a dozen of them and they drove down from the Baltimore area in a large van each morning. They were an enjoyable bunch and they brought with them a light-hearted party atmosphere. They did superb work and I learned a lot just being around them. Ed had asked me to help with the decisions on finishing the library. He and I took several field trips to view the work of Valley Craftsmen at other projects and I spent a lot of time with the finishing foreman as he developed samples.
When I had finally completed the library Ed asked me to build a bar in the basement. In addition to a lot of mechanical items for heat and plumbing, the basement included a very large gym, the wine cellar, changing rooms and showers for folks using the pool, a sauna, and a large entertainment area with French doors leading out to the pool area. The framing crew built a rough structure for the bar in this entertainment area and I built and applied a stain-grade frame and panel system to the outside, trim to the inside, and a fine solid walnut bar top with an immense bar edge moulding that we had milled at Smoot. Once again, all of the wood was absolutely beautiful and came from Reddy Manierre. The most unusual aspect was in the details surrounding a section of bar top that was hinged and lifted to allow entry or exit to the area behind the bar and I was particularly proud of some of that work.
When it was time for Ed to pay me for my last bit of work he asked me if I would mind being paid in gold Krugerrand coins. Nothing shady about it, he said. I would still give him an invoice, but he would just give me Krugerrands instead of a check or dollars. We’d check on the currency rate and I would take the coins to the currency exchange in Tyson’s Corner and get cash. Of course I thought there had to be something funny about all this, but I agreed and it ended up being a simple thing to go to the exchange and get dollars for the gold coins. I thought for a long time that there must have been some real funny business involved with Ed paying me that way, but I now think it was just a way for him to hide the capital gains on the coins from the taxman – still a little shady, but nothing exotic.
I moved on to my next job and left Eight Oaks behind. Roger was still working on the kitchen. The relationship between him and Ed had deteriorated further. Ed was unmovable, calm and strong. Roger was hotheaded and angry.
I got a call from Ed several weeks later. Things had descended further between him and Roger. Roger had come onto the site and removed all the kitchen cabinet doors and taken them away and said he wouldn’t return them unless Ed met his demands. Ed was having a meeting at his place to discuss this and wanted me to be a part of the meeting. Would I please come?
The meeting included Ed, the trim and framing subcontractors, each of whom had worked steadily onsite themselves rather than as managers from afar, and Ed’s lawyer. The discussion centered on Roger’s behavior onsite, which was definitely not of a cooperative or professional quality and on the quality of his work. Ed was out for blood and his lawyer actually played the role of tempering the discussion. In the end each of us was asked if we would be willing to testify in a court proceeding at a later date and all of us were.
The actual court experience was short. I was called up to the witness stand and asked to state my name and swear to tell the truth and so on and I was asked some questions about Roger’s work and behavior and that was that. I left and proceeded to my work.
I didn’t hear about the outcome for a long time, but many months later I spent some time with Steve, who had been a witness to all of it. Basically, Steve said, the judge ordered the two of them to grow up. Roger had to return the doors, Ed had to pay the money he had agreed to pay Roger, but not the extra payments Roger was demanding, and no, the judge was not going to award any compensation to Ed for damages of delay. They were wasting the court’s time, he said.
End of story, or nearly.
A couple of years later, Ed called to ask me if I would be willing to do some additional work for the new owners of Eight Oaks. They were looking for someone to design and build cabinetry in their closet. This closet was 18 by 24 feet and ten feet high, so it wasn’t a small thing. In the end, it was almost more complex than the library, but it was paint-grade, and by now I was a cabinet-maker, in addition to being a carpenter and contractor. I had to compete with a big-name designer for the job, but I was awarded the job on the basis of design and price and completed it over several interesting months, but that is another story.
I haven’t seen or communicated with Ed since, but Steve later told me that Ed was developing a large property on the coast somewhere in Canada. I have no doubt that he was successful, or that he has gone on to further grand schemes. I wish him well.
I think that Ed was not conflicted by the moral issues that burden some of us. He had a vision of something he was going to do and he did it. Nothing got in his way. I never really completely trusted Ed, but I respected his ability and focus. He was colorful and determined and was able to hold on to a vision and do whatever it took to make it happen. I always got along with him, but I get along with most people.
Roger wasn’t a bad guy. He, too, was a very intelligent person but he insisted that his view of the world was the only valid one, his taste the best and his opinions always correct. In truth, we all look at the world differently. Roger couldn’t allow for the world to be perceived in any fashion other than the one with which he perceived it. There was a right way and a wrong way and that was it. He was also a social disaster. Maybe he was a victim of some kind of disorder that crippled his ability to value others.
I would see Roger again, some 15 years later. We were both at a large hardwood supplier in Haymarket, Virginia, where stacks and stacks of rough sawn oak, cherry, poplar and walnut were carefully placed in open sheds. I saw him at some distance. He was cutting boards into shorter lengths for transporting. There was a still a frenetic energy about him, as there always had been. He was angry and making complaint to a yardman. He hadn’t changed at all. Maybe he was worse. I didn’t say hello, concerned that the meeting would be unpleasant. I kept my distance and by the time I had loaded a supply of wood onto my truck and returned to the exiting area, he had gone. I live across the country now and I doubt I will ever see him again.
At about the same time that I returned to Eight Oaks to build out the master bedroom closet the new owners held a special gathering of friends and family for a blessing of the house, officiated by the priest of their church. They asked me to attend as a representative of all those who had worked on the house. My wife and I attended and it was very pleasant. At the event they asked me to say a few words about having been part of building the house. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I recall that I spoke to the fact that the house was built by a number of people who really gave the best of what they were able. I still think that is true.