For years, Jude Plum had kept tabs on the tiny old house next to his childhood home near Bryn Mawr Hospital. He remembered the hermit with the long, gray beard who died in the backyard. And how Plum had once read a line in a local history book that suggested the dilapidated little parcel on Haverford Road had once been special.
But when the Main Line cosmetologist bought the squat eyesore out of pre-foreclosure four years ago, and removed five layers of exterior, he was shocked by what he found: a log house, formed by two stories' worth of oak logs notched together at the corners — all rotting, but otherwise untouched since it was built in 1704.
This oddity adjacent to the far more ordinary house where Plum grew up was, he would soon realize, among the oldest surviving houses in Pennsylvania and one of the two oldest extant homes in Lower Merion Township. He embarked on a staggering restoration odyssey, creating a showpiece so out-of-sync with its surroundings on a bustling Main Line thoroughfare, it's left passersby mystified by the sight of it among the concrete clutter of modern life.
"This is the beginning of our country," Plum said last week inside the refashioned abode, whose two original stone fireplaces connect like a wishbone, and whose smoky brown log walls with white chinking resemble a chocolate layer cake. "I want to put it on the National Register."
The structure was taken apart and rebuilt from scratch, each log hand-hewn using a 200-year-old broad ax to chisel the flat sides to perfection. Aside from a splashy kitchen, a motion sensor-activated toilet bowl, and a few other deliberately modern touches, Plum adorned the interior with period furniture, paintings, pewter, and other accoutrements, making it feel like the museum he hopes it will one day become.
"He seems to have done it right," said Jerry Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, whose group, uncharacteristically, had no say over the restoration because the house had been covered for centuries. Preservationists hope to add it to the local register.
How much it all cost, Plum won't say. But the end result is impressive.
"It's a restoration that's substantial," Francis said, "and should last a long, long time."
The mystery and history of this house has enchanted its 71-year-old Main Line cosmetologist owner, as well as strangers who have passed it.
The house pokes onto Haverford Road (County Line Road, officially) at Mondella Avenue from an odd corner lot across a multistory hospital parking garage. Of late, it also sits in the shadow of a towering crane that's been lifting steel for a glitzy hospital expansion project.
Since the log house was unmasked, motorists have done double-takes past the corner that, for decades prior, had been little more than the peripheral vision equivalent of white noise on a daily commute.
"People were calling the township, me, the [Lower Merion] Conservancy," Francis said. "Its skin was removed — and suddenly, this log house appeared out of nowhere."
Plum, too, was tantalized by what he didn't know. He still isn't entirely clear on the property's history and is cobbling it together with local historians and others, he said.
Although the few historic cabins in Southeastern Pennsylvania were built by Swedes, with the oldest a few miles away in nearby Upper Darby, this one appears to have been built by a Welsh Quaker, Rees Thomas, their research suggests. It was among hundreds of acres he bought from William Penn in 1682 on what today are Lower Merion and Haverford Townships in Montgomery and Delaware Counties.
The log facade was covered in clapboard around the time of the American Revolution, in the late 1700s, said Roland Cadle, who did the restoration through his Altoona-area business, Village Restorations & Consulting Inc.
In 1894, it was bought by Horace Cornog, whom Plum knew as a quiet recluse next door to where he and his siblings grew up in the 1950s. One day in 1954, Plum said, his mother found Cornog's dead body in the garden, put a blanket over him, and called police.
The Plum family home has remained in the family, providing Plum added incentive to buy the eyesore. A Monsignor Bonner graduate, he'd already built a business from scratch, starting with a hair salon for some of the Main Line's wealthiest matrons, and adding through the years high-end wigs for women with cancer. Along the way, he'd refurbished homes, too. Perhaps he could turn Cornog's old house into a cottage.
"I thought it would be a challenge," Plum said.
Then came the glorious — and inglorious — discovery. The logs beneath its facade were so damaged from water and insects, it would have been reasonable to "put a match to it," recalled Cadle, the Blair County expert who ultimately rebuilt it for Plum.
"I'm a very visual person," said Plum. "I just thought, I'm gonna make this work."
Cadle, an artisan himself, also believed it had potential. "If it were me," the 67-year-old told Plum, "I would jack up your roof and I would start down at the first log, and I would replace everything that's bad."
"Let's go for it," was Plum's response, as Cadle remembered it.
Cadle bought an 18th-century log cabin from elsewhere in Pennsylvania because its white oak was of similar vintage and wear. He trucked down the logs to replace those beyond repair in Bryn Mawr. Period window panes also were tracked down and installed. Plum, meanwhile, scavenged salvaged wood from an 18th-century Maine farmhouse to throw into the mix. He topped off the project by designing a landscaped garden and stone parking area. Cadle spent something like a year working on it, he said.
"My goal," said Cadle, "was that when I'm done it will look like it's always been there."
Plum hopes to one day donate the house to Lower Merion Township so that it can live on as a children's museum.
Cadle thinks its mere presence amid the "concrete jungle" is a powerful history lesson in and of itself.