Looking for the country life in the city? A two-room log cabin in Northern Liberties just hit the market for a cool $639,000.
There among redbrick rowhouses and slate gray condos on North Lawrence Street lies the architectural curiosity made of interlocking poplar tree logs that was completed by artist and owner Jeff Thomas in 1985.
After nearly 33 years, Thomas is leaving his hand-laid logs behind and looking to move into a loft with his rescue mutt, Sparky.
“I love it, but it’s going to give me the wherewithal for the next 15 years so it’s paying me forward,” Thomas, 70, said Monday.
Thomas built the cabin on four empty lots after he and his girlfriend moved back to Philadelphia, where Thomas had attended the Philadelphia College of Arts. His hands sort of instinctively knew what to do, he says, learned on piles of Lincoln Logs as a kid.
“A log cabin is actually a very simple construction,” Thomas said.
Thomas had some practice. He’d erected a similar shanty while living on a West Virginia commune in the 1970s. The cabin is still there on 50 acres atop a 4,000-foot-high mountain that borders the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
For the Northern Liberties rendition, Thomas used more than 100 poplar logs from a friend’s farm in West Virginia and oak planks for the floors. Between materials and labor (he had help from two friends), it cost $50,000 and about a year and a half to build.
Outside, Thomas planted a small forest of coffee, paulownia and black walnut trees, where squirrels and birds congregate.
The cabin features a kitchen, two wood-burning stoves, electric baseboard heating, running water, a washer-dryer, powder room and full bath. (He begrudgingly buckled and got a computer recently so the cabin also has wifi.) The top floor is big enough for a bedroom, office and small arboretum, which Thomas has filled with plants, artwork, mementos and sculptures.
He likes repurposing collected materials in his art — items he scavenges in the city, like chains and metals, paired with driftwood, logs and sticks. A recent installation featured pieces made from chewed-up beaver logs. “They’re beautiful animals,” Thomas said. “They’re builders; they build dams and lakes and they’re ingenious. They improve the neighborhoods where they live.”
When Thomas built the cabin, his was one of the only houses on the block. Now, the median selling price for the area is close to $500,000. While he’s profited from the changes himself, buying and selling several properties in the area, he misses friends and fellow artists who have since moved away. Asked about the changing scene, he pulled out a poem he wrote about his pending move — and that of several others.
His is one of the only known log cabins in the city. Given how recently it was built, it wouldn’t be eligible for a historical-preservation distinction, which means a new owner could tear it down, although that would hurt him deeply.
In a way the entire place is his homage to the spirit of Northern Liberties as he knew it when he arrived, out of place, yet perfectly at home.
“I really don’t know what other people see when they look at it,” Thomas said. “But someone new discovers it every day.”