A Shore Thing
A Bethesda couple's extraordinary second home in Easton is a gathering place for their kids and grandkids.
In 2003, Brendan O’Neill Sr. and his wife, Susan, stood on the banks of Gross Creek near Easton, Md., watching the swans and osprey. After years of looking for property for a second home, the Bethesda couple knew that these 13 acres, bordered by creek waters on two sides and wetlands on a third, was the idyllic spot.
“Our plan was to build a barn and cabin as part of our setting,” says Brendan, a residential builder who specializes in traditional architecture. “For years, we had wanted to try building an authentic homestead for ourselves and this land gave us the opportunity to do it.”
The couple spent months locating the historic barn in Pennsylvania that would be dismantled and moved to their Eastern Shore property. A team of Amish men disassembled the 150-year-old barn at its original location in Sugar Valley, carefully labeling each piece to ensure proper reconstruction.
“Getting the barn across the Bay Bridge was the most difficult part,” says the couple’s oldest son, Brendan O’Neill Jr., 41. “It required the right equipment, truck and permits.” Using traditional hewn post and beam with mortise and tenon joinery—meaning no nails, screws or bolts—the O’Neills created a slightly smaller version of the barn and set aside the remaining timbers for use in building the house.
Brendan Sr., Brendan Jr. and the O’Neills’ son-in-law Adam Theeke, 41—all of whom work for the family business, O’Neill Development—drew up plans for the house, a replica of a mid-18th-century Tidewater telescope house. Perhaps the most popular style of historic Eastern Shore farmhouses, many of which still exist today, the Tidewater telescope house is comprised of three proportional wings of descending height—two stories, a story and a half and one story—aligned in a row, giving the appearance of the sections of a collapsible telescope. Many Eastern Shore historians believe that homeowners first built the middle section of the home; their growing families caused them to eventually add larger and smaller wings on each side.
True to tradition, the O’Neills constructed what they refer to as “the cabin” or middle section of the home first. They used leftover timbers from the barn to form the cabin walls, filling the spaces between the logs with synthetic chinking to create an authentic appearance and keep the structure energy efficient. “You might say this was the ultimate recycling project,” says Brendan Sr. “We used every bit of the original barn, including stones from the foundation in the cabin’s fireplaces and pine plank flooring in the cabin milled from the barn’s threshing floor.”
The cabin, which took almost two years to build, was also put together without nails, screws or bolts. A host of carpenters and tradesmen sized, graded, cut and notched a tractor trailer full of old barn timbers from a pattern created on-site. “The timbers lock together like Lincoln Logs,” says Adam. “It’s the weight of the building that keeps it there.” He adds that there was a tremendous learning curve in using traditional methods. “There was a lot of ‘put it up, take it down, put it up again’ until we got it exactly right,” he says.
Adam, along with the project foreman, camped out on the property during the early construction phase. His wife, Katie, 36, and their then infant son, Finnegan, now 4, occasionally joined him from their home in Gaithersburg. Adam returned home every other week to work for O’Neill Development.
In May 2005, the Theekes bought a historic house in downtown Easton and moved there, allowing Adam to spend more time overseeing the telescope house project. “Somewhere along the way we fell in love with the area,” Katie says. Notwithstanding a detailed architectural plan, Brendan Sr. brought a list of modifications to the site almost weekly. “There was a lot of starting and stopping,” says Katie, “but everyone persevered. And the beauty of the place was worth the wait.”
The cabin includes a kitchen, small family room and, on the upper floor, the master bedroom. When planning the cabin, Susan had one requirement—the place she refers to as “the Heidi loft.” Based on a scene from her favorite childhood book, Heidi, Susan asked her husband to build a loft and window seat where she could fall asleep looking at the moon. “I crank these windows open and often sleep here with my grandchildren,” she says. “We listen to the night sounds and look at the stars.”
The couple sees great beauty in old materials and in leaving imperfections exposed. Throughout the cabin, peg holes and sizzle marks from the cut of an adze or saw are visible. Susan, responsible for much of the home’s décor, found antique glass with bubbles and warps for the cabin’s windows and for the doors of the custom-made chestnut kitchen cabinets. Crooked tobacco stickers—long thinpieces of old-fashioned wooden racks used to dry tobacco on the Eastern Shore—serve as pickets to support railings on the home’s several staircases.
In some instances, the O’Neills opted for aesthetics over convenience. “We could’ve put a nice big closet in that corner of our room and another nice big closet in the other corner,” says Susan, but they wanted to see the original structure, not interior walls.
The second wing of the house, just completed this year, is larger than the cabin—a traditional two-story shingle structure with a great room that encompasses the entire first floor and with three bedrooms for guests on the second floor. The great room, with identical stone fireplaces at each end, provides space for large family gatherings and dinners when the O’Neills’ four children, their spouses and nine grandchildren come to visit, which is often.
“As you cross the Bay Bridge, things just slow down, get laid-back. All your problems are left on the west coast of the bay,” Brendan Jr. says. All 19 family members gather here each year for Brendan Sr.’s birthday in September, and for Thanksgiving and other major family events. Periodically, the O’Neills also host extended family gatherings, inviting aunts, uncles and cousins. “People stay in the barn, the cabin and camp in tents on the grounds,” says Susan, who loves to organize barn dances with strings of white lights in the rafters, tables covered in quilts and vintage linens.
Perhaps the most joyous visitors are the O’Neills’ nine grandchildren. Living so close, Katie and Adam often visit with Finnegan and Ember, 2. “It’s like a retreat for us,” Katie says. “The kids can run and stretch their legs, be in nature and explore.” Brendan Jr. agrees. He and his wife, Kristina, 36, say that the property presents the perfect learning opportunity for Grace, 7; Brendan III, 5; and Jack, 2. “Grace will ask, ‘Oh, what’s that bird?’ and we’ll look it up,” says Brendan Jr. Katie says she and her children often discover new wildlife—a nest of nuthatches, baby bunnies, deer or osprey. “Sometimes they’re just excited to go to the water’s edge and throw stones,” she says. Tractors offer a popular diversion as well. The children climb on a small red tractor in the barn that Katie remembers riding on as a child. And Brendan III is infatuated with his grandfather’s John Deere. “For his birthday, he doesn’t want to have a party at home,” says Brendan Jr. “He wants to go down to [the house] and have his party with the tractor.”
The property attracts visitors yearround and its beauty changes with each season. The house’s five fireplaces and two wood-burning stoves ensure a cozy atmosphere during winter. And when the leaves have fallen, says Katie, you can see all the way down the creek. “The winter sunset over the creek is especially beautiful,” she says. During the spring and fall, the water comes to life as flocks of geese cover the creek and all sorts of wildlife emerge from the woods and wetlands. During the summer, the family takes advantage of all the water has to offer—swimming, boating and crabbing. When granddaughter Grace caught her first crab, says Susan, her excitement was contagious.
The first two wings of the telescope house have taken the O’Neill team four years to build. “I have to say that our clients would never have put up with such a slow pace of construction,” says Brendan Sr. In the future, the family will complete the telescope by adding a one-story wing adjacent to the cabin that will serve as a first-floor bedroom for when the couple decides to retire. “But we don’t need that yet,” says Susan, “the way we keep flying up and down the stairs.” As a builder fascinated by historic renovation and remodeling, Adam would love to see the telescope completed. “The house is crying out for it,” he says.
For Brendan Sr. and Susan, the property is a tonic. “We have a hard time going back to Bethesda,” Brendan says. Susan laughs. “Well, not so hard,” she says. “It’s pretty easy when seven of our nine grandchildren live there.”
Gabriele McCormick writes frequently about homes for Bethesda Magazine.