by Rosemary Edmiston
The Westhaven house featured in Fine Homebuilding. (Photos by Brandi Easter)
When Gene Callahan built his dream house on a plateau overlooking a shaded creek in Westhaven, he split each of the 20,000 or so shingles for the siding by hand using an old bowling pin and a rusted leaf spring from a car.
"The bowling alleys give me these for free," he said recently, displaying a worn pin, its wood chipped and dented.
He demonstrates the task, pounding the spring deep into a chunk of cedar. "Actually it's sort of a neat meditation," he says.
Callahan learned the craft from a book his father gave him in the 1970s.
"It was called The Foxfire Book, " he said. "I think it was a class in Appalachia that interviewed all these old-timers about the way they used to do things."
It's Callahan's split shingles, and the fact that the 47-year-old carpenter mills his own lumber on site, that has earned him a spot in one of this country's most prestigious industry magazines, Fine Homebuilding.
The builder's Westhaven creation will be among 10 homes from throughout the country featured in Fine Homebuilding's "Annual Issue on Houses," released at the end of April. The magazine article was written by Callahan's wife and "sidekick," Christy Callahan.
Christy and Gene Callahan take a coffee break at their Fieldbrook home.
Titled "Charm and Durability," it begins: "Most people would agree that it is at least a modest achievement to stay married to one person for 25 years. I think it is a major accomplishment to stay married that long and be house-building partners at the same time. I don't recommend it for the faint of heart. This is all prelude, however, to the story of the one that got away, a house that my husband, Gene, designed and built, hoping he might entice me to move there."
Needless to say, he didn't.
But the story of the Callahans' odyssey to the pages of Fine Homebuilding began long before the idea of building Gene's fantasy house was born. And it goes far beyond the intricacies of hand-splitting shingles.
This is the story of a man who as a youth reluctantly worked summers helping his father (and namesake) remodel homes, only to fall in love with the work years later and become one of Humboldt County's finest and most sought-after residential contractors.
Before Gene Callahan's house was accepted by Fine Homebuilding, Managing Editor Charles Miller left his offices at the Taunton Press in Connecticut and made the trek to the Callahan's home of 20 years in the secluded woods of Fieldbrook.
What Miller found was a self-described rogue carpenter who has established a niche playing by his own set of rules that include dropping his tools and heading to Big Lagoon or the North Jetty on windy days (he's passionate about sail boarding), only working for people he enjoys spending time with, rejecting jobs that aren't aesthetically to his liking and -- he cautiously admits -- cutting out the middle man. That includes architects, which has earned Callahan less-than-glowing reviews in some circles.
"I choose (jobs) because I like the people," he said, "but they also have to have a style of architecture I want to build. If they say I want a tract home with T/1/11 siding and aluminum horizontal slider windows, I'll say 'Hmm, I'm not very interested.'
"I get a backache when I'm forced to work on a job I don't like."
And he needs the freedom to change his mind.
Referring to architects' plans, he said, "I don't like working under that sort of restraint.
"Every day you walk on the job and there's things you want to change -- roof lines, pitches, doors, window locations. I need the freedom to invent as I go. Plus, I don't charge extra for it. It just comes incidental to what I do."
Gene Callahan's style -- which he has dubbed free form -- isn't for everyone, he admits. Searching for the appropriate adjective, Christy Callahan offers further explanation: "Once in a while people have a certain ... formalness and they just can't work with Gene."
But don't call him casual, he says.
"We drive up in beat-up trucks and the cabs are messy and we leave a terribly messy job site every day -- but we eventually pull off good work."
Miller, of Fine Homebuilding, was introduced to Callahan's easygoing manner when he asked to see the plans for the house that would end up featured in the magazine.
"He reached under the seat of his pickup and pulled out what looked like a mass of paper pulp," Miller said. "They looked like they had been there for three years."
Gene Callahan was working toward a degree in zoology at Humboldt State University when he was hired to help build a house on Liscom Hill in Arcata. "I didn't realize it at the time but I had all the knowledge and all the skills and I just picked up that Skillsaw. I knew how to cut stairs, I knew how to cut rafters and in about three days' time I was bumped up (in wage)."
He credits his father ( "He was Gene the greater, I'm Gene the lesser."), a retired general contractor living in the San Francisco Bay area, for giving him the skills to become who he is today. "My father was a really good carpenter. ... Whatever I learned, I learned through osmosis because I didn't think I paid any attention."
Callahan earned a degree at HSU, but never followed through on plans to get a teaching credential. He's been building houses ever since, and estimates he's constructed as many as 100 custom homes over the years.
"I guess I had a lot of boyish charm," he said of his early days. "I've never advertised. I don't have my name in the phone book. I just sort of got passed around from person to person."
Calling his business Black Oak General Contracting, Callahan had been known for a kind of gingerbread-type construction -- similar to gothic revival -- but his style has evolved and matured, eventually turning to a more traditional Craftsman look.
"What really changed my style was back in the late '70s when times were real hard. There was really no work so I borrowed money from my parents and I bought a mobile dimension saw.
"I started milling my lumber for the houses and I really liked that. So my niche became building for people who had acreage. We would build the house out of the logs we cleared on the home site. And that's what we did in Westhaven, too."
Callahan homes -- as they have come to be called in area real estate literature -- have steep-pitched roofs, skirted bases to hide the foundation, wide trim and cornice returns at the corners of the roof line. Many have a trademark finial at the peak of the roof.
He gets most of his design ideas from Eureka's older neighborhoods and when he visits his family in the Bay area he often wanders around studying architectural detail, snapping photos and admiring the work of early craftsmen.
"My philosophy is every immigrant with a handsaw at the turn of the century could do a better job than we do now with all our power tools and all the technology we have. It's just a will to do it.
"Any old home built before World War II is better than work we do now. We get a lot of credit for doing stuff that's not half as good as what they did," he said.
Fine Homebuilding says it's "sturdy ingredients, time-honored fashion" that sets Callahan apart.
Christy Callahan writes: "Gene's mother used to say that all it took to be a good cook was knowing how to read and using real butter. He says the same is true in building a home. Use real wood, stone and brick, and read the details in the good, older buildings."
To reach that objective, Callahan makes just about everything he puts into a structure. He also hates shopping for materials.
"I got into the habit of not ever wanting to buy materials," he said. "I like making everything. We hand split every shingle you see on your siding. We make the boards. I have planers and molders. We make all our interior trim, we make windows."
The method also cuts down on costs.
Get Callahan talking about money and you'll find it's not the biggest priority in his life. Although sometimes his honesty makes his wife -- who's responsible for the business side of things -- a little squeamish.
"Be gentle," she says. "The bookkeeper is fragile -- we pray a lot around here."
"We would rather lose money and have a good time ... doing it the best way," he said.
Another home he recently built in Westhaven, overlooking the ocean, might be considered "way underbid," he said, when compared with two other contractors vying for the job.
"I don't go through a set of plans and itemize it down to every detail. I look at it, I get a feel for it and I just have a per square foot price. So I bid that house in about a half hour."
A lot of his method has to do with his love of building and distaste for paperwork.
"I put on my tools every day and I work as a carpenter. This is something my dad taught me. He said, 'Every once in a while you make a profit and every once in a while you lose a ton of money, but you always make your wage. And so because I really like the craft, I would never want to be the type of contractor that just drew plans and went around and shopped. I hate shopping. I hate driving. I'd just assume get dirty and work with my friends."
The crew, clockwise form left, is Gene Callahan (seated), Gary North, John Pope, Cody Callahan, Matt Poston, Eric De Martini, Paul Simas and Meghan Callahan.
"I hire people that are my friends," he says, but Christy corrects him -- "that become your friends," she says.
"The crew," he says, "is a collection of people that are just fun to be with."
One long-time employee, John Pope, was hired because he "was the best damn windsurfer in Humboldt County," Gene Callahan said.
"When I heard he was looking for a job, I said, 'I'd like to keep this guy around, I'll offer him a job.' And John's a great carpenter now. Really good.
"All you need is the willingness, and I can turn anyone with the right attitude into a really good carpenter," he said. Of his workers, Callahan boasts, "They're excellent carpenters. They started off with (limited) knowledge but now they're all journeymen carpenters." (A good number of the employees, Christy adds, have obtained their contractors licenses since joining Black Oak.)
If Callahan comes across as overly confident, it's for good reason. He and his employees are members of a mutual adoration club.
Referring to the Fine Homebuilding article, Callahan's right-hand-man, Paul Simas, said "He deserves it. If anyone deserves it, it's Gene."
Callahan's trick to keeping his employees happy is to pay them well (they get a $1-per-hour raise for each child they produce), trust them and follow what he calls "our big Black Oak motto" -- "All the time off you want with no pay."
Callahan might be boastful about his carpentry work but he is somewhat modest when it comes to his philanthropic endeavors. Like the time a few years ago when he helped restore a dilapidated house in Eureka as a Habitat for Humanity project for a woman and her children. And last Christmas, when he and Christy learned from a friend that a local piano teacher was about to lose her home owners insurance because of needed repairs, they pulled together a work crew and -- within one weekend in the pouring rain -- ripped the roof off, repaired the chimney and reroofed the house.
As for that dream house in Westhaven? It was an idea that, Christy says, her husband "just wouldn't leave alone."
She writes: "I finally came to the conclusion I'd better get out of the way and let him build it. Little did I realize then just how much of his heart he'd give this project and how hard it would be for him to let go once it was complete."
"It wasn't for everybody," Gene Callahan said of the new house in Westhaven.
"It didn't have a floor plan that was easy to sell because people want a big TV room. Christy and I don't give a crap about that. We had a big kitchen and a great sun room. All we wanted to do is hang out with our friends."
Instead of the typical grand living room, Gene Callahan built a large master bedroom ( "We both like to read in bed.") and a cavernous master bath.
But when it was finished, Christy Callahan couldn't be lured into moving from the Hansel-and-Gretel home he built for her two decades ago on the five acres in Fieldbrook where they raised their two children.
"Even though Gene still grieves a mighty bit for the house," she wrote for the magazine, "we are both happy that its new owner found her dream after searching the three West Coast states for the quintessential beach house."
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