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Worth the Wait

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Worth the Wait

 

Proving the adage that good things take time, Tim and Mary Cleary toiled for eight years before moving into their Ulster County log cabin

 

by Anitra Brown • photographs by Michael Polito

 

Most people who say they built their own homes mean they hired an architect and a contractor. But Tim and Mary Cleary, landscapers who live in a two-story log home in Ulster County, really mean it.  They painstakingly built their house with their own hands (and a little help from their kids), first by felling a stand of towering white pines on their property, and eventually even milling their own lumber.

 

“I always wanted a log home,” says 64-year-old Tim, who wound up in the Hudson Valley by a circuitous route. California natives from Fresno, Tim and Mary wed back in 1960 when she was just 16 and he was 18, then had four children in quick succession. Influenced by the ideas of Helen and Scott Nearing, pioneers of the modern American homesteading movement, in 1973 the Clearys sold their home and took up dairy farming in Minnesota. Thirteen years of backbreaking work later, they lost the farm. “You lose your job, but you lose your home too,” says Mary. “We were devastated.”

 

Their children grown, the Clearys  landed in one of the world’s most exclusive enclaves — Greenwich, Connecticut — as a live-in “couple” for a family. Mary cooked and helped with child-care, while Tim did odd jobs and also worked as a meter reader for the gas company. “After dairy farming, we felt like we were on vacation,” says Tim. “That was an easy life.”

 

     But they always dreamed of buying a piece of property and building a home. The opportunity came in 1989 when they found eight wooded acres with a stream near High Falls. But they held off on building until they had paid for the land, a reaction to the trauma of losing the farm. “We just never wanted to have anything taken away from us again,” says Mary.

 

     Living in Greenwich with free room and board put them on the fast track to paying off the debt, and in 1994 they were ready to start building. They bought a set of log home plans to file with the town, and down came 40 white pines, which needed to be hand-peeled of their bark to prevent beetles from turning the lumber to dust. “You have to do it when the sap flows in March because the bark comes off easy, just like peeling a banana,” says Tim. “At least I thought it was easy. Everybody else thought it was hard.”

 

The logs were treated so they would retain their beautiful silvery patina rather than darken, then stacked up to cure for three years — a long wait. But that gave the Clearys time to work on the foundation, a four-foot high construction of cement and stone on top of a slab of Shawangunk conglomerate 400 feet deep. To get the job done, they lived in a camper on weekends. Their son Rick, who lives in Wisconsin, gave up his summer vacations to help out. The height of the trees determined the 30-by-30-foot dimensions of the house, and the walls went two stories high. For mortar, they cut Styrofoam to put between the logs and covered it with Perma-Chink, a latex and sand product that moves with the weather (unlike the usual — and less expensive — concrete mortar, which cracks over time).

 

Their son Dan, a contractor, helped with the construction and kept an eye out for salvaged material: iron gates from the brownstone where Breakfast at Tiffany’s was filmed, a big sink from a farmhouse about to be torn down, a kitchen island fabricated out of butcher block and a slab of granite that just happened to be the same length. In a culture that values conspicuous consumption, Tim and Mary Cleary take a refreshing pride in how little they spent on materials. “It’s a disgrace — we bought the floorboards,” Tim jokes.

 

Even the barn that Tim and Dan built to store the things they were collecting was made from barn wood Dan had scavenged. That building also gave them more substantial lodging for their working weekends. “We graduated from the camper to the barn,” says Mary. Clearly, when you’re building a house yourself on weekends, it takes a while, so Tim and Mary had plenty of time to think about what they really wanted. One thing was a roomy front porch, as wide as the house and deep enough for a dining room table, sofa, and the pair of rockers Dan sent them from Costa Rica.

 

Unlike many log homes, the Cleary’s house has an airy feel. Light spills into the great room downstairs from three large, high windows. The higher walls are plastered white, and some interior plastered walls have beautiful patinas created through a paint technique called dry brushing, which creates the illusion of old colors peeking through plaster.

There’s a salvaged metal staircase leading to a bedroom loft upstairs, where there’s a small fortune in California Closets (torn out of New York City apartments and discarded). Originally, the Clearys had a second covered porch along the side of the house. After they realized it was just collecting junk, they enclosed it, creating a sitting room that overlooks a garden, and a guest bedroom with an unusual but charming entrance — through the medicine chest in the bathroom, which doubles as a door.

While they were living in Greenwich, Mary frequented a favorite thrift shop and put together collections of pewter mugs, glass lemon squeezers, and old farmhouse bowls to decorate her future kitchen. She also picked up treasures like a 1950s cowboy toy chest. “I rarely paid more than $3 or $4 for anything,” she says. “I cried the day that place closed.”

 

Also during that time, while visiting homes on play dates with her young charges, she developed an eye for gardens. “I was in some of the most beautiful private gardens on the East Coast…and I paid attention,” she says. She had always gardened, but had a chance to stretch her talents when her employer bought a house in North Salem, Westchester County, and asked her to landscape the pool area. “Everyone loved it, and I thought, ‘Oh! People really like what I’m doing.’ ”

 

That enthusiastic response persuaded Tim and Mary to go into business on their own. In 1998, their house still not quite finished, the couple moved to their daughter’s weekend home in Kerhonkson, Ulster County, and started Cleary’s Garden and Hearth, a landscaping and remodeling company. Their client list now consists of about 20 homes. They also designed and installed the lovely garden at the Rosendale Cement Company, a restaurant whose barren back lot they completely transformed. “If people aren’t sure whether they want to hire us, I tell them to go look at the Rosendale Cement Company,” says Mary. “That usually makes up their minds.”

 

Living in Ulster County, they had more time to work on their house. Finally, in the spring of 2001, eight years after the trees were cut down, they completed the red steel roof and moved in. Mary created several gardens on the property, including a vegetable garden surrounded by a fanciful cedar fence; a perennial garden by the barn; a grass garden by the 12-foot-deep, stream-fed pond (which is filled with koi and large enough to launch a boat); and an herb and flower garden.

 

    In landscaping, Mary’s the artist and Tim’s the muscle. “I’m a farmer — everything has to be in straight rows,” he says. From April to November, the couple start at eight in the morning and quit by two, which leaves Tim a few hours to work on the house. “It’s still not done,” he confesses. The deck, which already has a door leading to it from the great room, is waiting to be built. There’s a $1,500 shower door in the bathroom upstairs, but no shower. But Mary’s not worried. “I know he’ll get to it,” she says. “Tim never tires out. He’s not fast, but he doesn’t quit.” ■

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