Cover Story - November 2, 2011

Preserving the past

Woodsiders preserve log cabin while building modern farmhouse next to it

by Kate Daly

From the street, the first impression is what an odd, but charming, couple. A formidable old log cabin sits squarely in the front yard where it was built more than a century ago. Directly behind it stands a sleek new modern farmhouse that looks like something out of "Architectural Digest."

The new owners couldn't be more pleased with the transformation that has occurred over the past two years on their wooded lot at Albion Ave. in Woodside.

When Jennifer and Tom Werbe first saw the flat 0.99-acre rectangular parcel, they liked the cabin, the woodsy and horsey feel of the neighborhood, and the fact that they could walk to town. They could envision possibilities beyond the old barn and existing cabin, plus a motor home and duplex that all together housed up to nine people.

Seeking a change from their ranch style house in Hillsborough, the Werbes wanted to build a home they could live in for the rest of their lives. He is a property developer in San Francisco. She worked for Disney and now consults. They have three dogs and several cats, two of which came with the Woodside property.

The first challenge on their building project was to decide what to do with the log cabin. According to the Werbes, Lois Beeby owned the property for 60 years. Back in 1904, her Norwegian stepfather was living in Redwood City when he had the cabin built to use as a hunting lodge. Over the years the structure has been modified. A kitchen was annexed in the back and a loft added upstairs.

Ms. Werbe describes the old interior as having very dark painted wood paneling, yellow shag carpet, and "it smelled like mold."

"We thought about moving the cabin, but it was too fragile and expensive," Mr. Werbe says.

They also thought about using the cabin as a grand entry for a new wider house. That plan necessitated procuring a variance from the town.

After encountering some resistance from a neighbor on setback issues, the Werbes landed on another solution: restoring the cabin to its original 700 square feet to create an office and guest house, and erecting a separate house of 3,500-plus square feet right next to the cabin.

Because they are within 14 feet of each other, the two structures are considered connected by Woodside standards. This configuration allowed for maximum building space.

The Werbes hired architect Charlie Barnett, who works in San Francisco, but was living in Woodside. His firm started with an "historic analysis" on the cabin and sought guidance from the State Historical Resources Commission.

It took nine months to remove the addition in the back, redo the dormer facing the street, fix dry rot and termite problems, and update the electrical, heating and plumbing systems.

The contractor, Brookstone Builders in Los Altos, ended up using Craigslist to locate redwood logs in Sebastopol to match the existing ones. Where there were holes in the chinking — the filler stuffed in between the logs — "we used steel wool to help keep out rodents," explains job superintendent Trevor Boland.

The front steps remain the same. They're granite and said to be salvaged from the Redwood City Courthouse that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

The knotty pine paneling was painted white to brighten up the interior, and the downstairs wooden floor is now red to match the trim on the old windows, which were refurbished, weights, pulleys and all. A new kitchenette was installed, and the upstairs was freshened up with new carpeting, but the bathtub dates back to the early 1900s.

When work on the cabin was completed in June of 2010, the focus switched to the main house. Its style, Mr. Barnett says, was "inspired by vernacular buildings, local architecture, what people built when they first moved here," such as the Woodside Store on Tripp Road.

"We were looking for a barn aesthetic to capture the feeling of Woodside," he adds.

The cedar siding of the main residence is stained with a lightly tinted wash that is offset by dark green trim. The simple gabled metal roof is made of Galvalume, and the outdoor lighting fixtures are copper.

The entrance is an oversized Dutch door located on the side of the house facing a horse trail. The entryway leads into a hall with four extra tall windows that Mr. Barnett patterned after an old schoolhouse.

The entry also spills into the great room where living, dining and kitchen spaces are combined in a large open area with an 18-foot tall ceiling crisscrossed by red cedar beams.

Dominating one wall is a 25-foot tall chimney and fireplace made out of poured-in-place concrete. Design associate Joo Oh says engineering that unique feature took more than three months to accomplish; it involved building a gigantic steel frame to form one big mold, leaving the wall and roof open during rainy season.

On the first floor the floor is made of poured and polished white concrete. The wood paneled walls are painted Navajo white, echoing the same treatment in the cabin.

The kitchen has white cabinets, black granite countertops, and high-end appliances such as Wolf and Subzero. Mrs. Werbe describes the furnishings as "kind of modern, with a little more Pottery Barn" and some antiques.

She particularly delights in one custom touch found in the guest half-bath. An entire wall is covered with white dry-stacked French limestone in a basket-weave design.

The master bedroom suite is downstairs, with easy access to a Japanese soaking tub on a cedar deck surrounded by mature oak trees.

A white oak post-and-rail style staircase with a pickled stain leads to two more bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs.

After living in the house for three months now and peering through the windows into the branches, Mrs. Werbe admits, "It does feel like living in a tree house."

The backyard has some of the original grape stake fencing, a new blue stone patio, a fire pit, and a meadow of No Mow Grass that requires little watering and cutting.

Parts of the old barn that once stood there have been salvaged and reused elsewhere in town.

Some artifacts found during construction, such as bottles and a horseshoe, are on display in the cabin. Whereas, the old tax papers and bills from the 1920s that turned up, and the newspapers that were used under the floors for insulation, have been donated to the Woodside History Museum.

Mrs. Werbe enjoyed the restoration experience so much she has joined the Woodside History Committee and is working on translating oral histories.

"I've met more people because of the cabin. ... All have stories about playing in it," she says, exclaiming with a smile, "If the walls could talk!"


Posted by Home Town Girl, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Glens
on Nov 8, 2011 at 2:43 am

This house is a rather loose definition of preserving the past, Shame on Woodside for allowing this to happen to one of the oldest preserved log cabins in the county, let alone the town.

Posted by R.Gordon, a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2011 at 7:05 am

Are there or have there been any photos of yet another "Historical Structure" or even the dimensions?
It is a bit of a mystery to me how these preservation groups put so much effort into matters that represent the "past" or postcards and remembrances of things THEY enjoyed. The group who I call "the lady in flower print dresses" would gain so much more respect if they used land for homeless veterans, build a VA hospital like the one in West LA on the BEST land and yet does not house the homeless vets on grounds that are much more beautiful than anything in Woodside.
Request photos with stories like this one.

Posted by Leslie Stepp, a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Nov 8, 2011 at 7:50 am

As a 50 year resident of Woodside, I can honestly say this newspaper article seems like a promotional rationalization. I know this site, where the setting of the cabin was in balance with the setting of nature. Now this lot is just another congested lot, clearedof the natural trees and underbrush, with a added hodgepodge of architechtural styles that says to me people on the ASRB or Planning commission did not do their job. Slip a few non-indigenous plants into the ground and you will have Atherton..... While I am sure the family that added-on to one of the oldest houses and most unique relics from the Town of Woodside's past are nice folks, what they did to that property is egregous. Shame on the Town of Woodside. This little cabin should have been left alone. Sidewalks and street lights next? A sad day for the 'development' of Woodside and one more step further away from being a 'rural' community.

Posted by Susan Smith, a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

That is a 'modern' farmhouse? Where? In New York City?

Posted by bob, a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 8, 2011 at 11:23 am

Not everything in Woodside over even 75 years old is automatically an "historical landmark". The town needs a better way to determine what is historic and what isn't. This is getting old ,the Peanut Farm which is as historical as the log cabin was turned into a house with no outcry. Leslie go look at the lot congested is not the way to describe it.

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