By Margaret Morton, Loudoun Now, March 31, 2016
In today’s fast-moving high-tech world, it seems most work is done with hands on keyboards. But one Loudoun craftsman is finding his work with stone and timber in high demand.
The word ubiquitous, meaning “everywhere,” fits stonemason Allen Cochran well. You’ve likely seen his work in your daily travels around the county, including in one of Loudoun’s newest developments, a public park, the county’s courthouse, and a shopping center. Individually and together, these projects provide a connection between old and new Loudoun.
His latest project is more personal, but no less important. The old Janney Store in Lincoln has served the community in many ways over the years—a general store, a lawyer’s office, a coffee shop, an antiques outlet and a potting studio. Today, it houses the post office. And it is also the headquarters and showroom for Cochran Stonemasonry & Timberframing.
Since moving in last November, Cochran and his crew have been busy putting the lessons they’ve learned in rehabbing centuries-old buildings and barns around the region to work on their new home. There was a lot to do from taking the flooring up and insulating it, replastering the ceiling, to restoring the huge chimney, and building cabinets from salvaged materials.
“Almost all we do, and use, is salvaged or reused local stone or timber,” Cochran said
The Learning Process
Cochran, 51, got his start in stone masonry when he worked for one of his father’s friends, Craig Haggerman, during the summers. He was a good builder, who taught more by example than by giving “do this, or do that” instructions, Cochran said. “He inspired me. He sowed the seeds of attention to detail in me.”
In 1988, Cochran met stone mason Lewis Whitesell. Three weeks later, “I was up on the scaffolding.”
He worked for Whitesell for three years.
“He showed me what stone masonry meant, what a real corner is supposed to look like, how to rock the hammer—not everyone knows that today,” Cochran said.
As he gained knowledge, Cochran developed an interest in restoration work, repairing old buildings as well as building new structures using traditional stonework and timber framing techniques.
A hallmark of his work is the use of lime clay mortar. Modern cement doesn’t allow masonry to work the way it’s supposed to, he said. The clay mortar is more compatible with the stone, and he inserts the material between the stones to form a strong wall in the traditional method of old—a technique that has brought him a number of preservation projects throughout the region.
The old construction mortar, according to Cochran, was made of weak lime clay—that allowed water to get in with ensuing erosion, also insects and reptiles.
“Then they started using a harder mortar—with a high lime basis that prevented water getting in and repelled rodents,” he said.
It took him a while to get the hang of it. “I goofed up. I learned a lot more about failing than succeeding,” he said.
Getting the Call
But success did come.
The buildings he’s worked on run the gamut—from two modern stone buildings for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, to Henry Harris’ barn in Digges Valley near Hamilton, to a conversion of a brick pre-Civil War barn to a house, to cite just a few.
Increasingly, Cochran is whom you call when you have a special project. The developers of Purcellville’s Gateway Shopping Center called him when they decided to take apart the Cole Farm barn on the property and use the material—including the silo—to incorporate the agricultural theme in the new retail development. And Cochran got the call from One Loudoun’s Bill May when the developer got the idea to relocate and rebuild an Ashburn barn as a centerpiece of the new community.
In 2004, a call came from the late Joe Rogers and his wife, Donna, when a microburst damaged an 1836 barn on their Hamilton farm. The barn is a rare survivor of the infamous 1864 Civil War Burning Raid that destroyed countless farm buildings in Loudoun, and Donna Rogers wondered how they were going to be able to repair it.
Cochran walked their farm with her, picking out suitable trees to use for the restoration. “A lot of the wood in the barn was poplar, and they had a lot of it,” Cochran said. He used the poplar for the upstairs work and found oak for structural timbers. “We couldn’t have done it without Allen,” a grateful Rogers said..
Sometimes buildings are put to better use elsewhere. Harris’ barn in Digges Valley is another example of adaptive reuse. It was an old 19th century bank barn, with a lot of original details, and Harris asked Cochran to see what was salvageable. It didn’t make financial sense to restore the structure, but the barn’s timbers, siding and foundation stone will be put to use in another project Cochran is working on. “We’re going to move all the structural members from Digges Valley to Bluemont, using almost all the salvageable stone for the foundation and the same siding.”
“That’s the stuff that we do,” he said of his team’s work.
Cochran points to the DC Water and Sewer Authority project in Algonkian Park. The DC Water Authority’s odor abatement building along the Potomac Heritage Trail at Algonkian Park as one of his most unusual and most rewarding undertakings.
When the authority built the Potomac Interceptor sewer line to serve eastern Loudoun, there were few humans living along the route—and the cows didn’t much mind the smell. But as the area was developed, residents began to complain.
“About five or six years ago, I was sitting at my desk, when I got a call from the engineer, who was in a panic. He’d presented plans for the odor abatement building at Algonkian Park to the county. But they rejected them and wanted something more scenic,” Cochran said.
The engineer’s call came after Loudoun County Preservation Planner Heidi Siebentritt advised him to call Cochran to see if he could help.
He did, writing specs for a stone building that were approved. Today, residents strolling along the Potomac Heritage Trail see a stone building that looks as if it could have blended with the landscape just as well a century ago.
A couple of years later, he got the same panicked call again, this time for a second odor abatement building near Great Falls. Cochran said the two modern stone buildings housing the deodorizing equipment are among his nicest projects.
Today, he’s converting a brick barn near Hamilton, built in the 1830s, to livable space.
“It’s fabulous,” he said of the project for the Vicks family. The interior brick gives off a warm feeling, and has a lot of salvaged materials.
Not all his projects are in Loudoun. Chuck Akre, who has a financial management business in Middleburg, asked him to build a barn at his property near Little Washington, where there is a 19th century Italianate-style house but no amenities. Madison Spencer Architects is designing a large bank barn that will include office space. The traditional-looking barn will have all concrete walls with a stone face.
“He’s exceptional. It’s rare to find someone so committed to learning a trade in the truly classical sense—something beyond building fashion,” Spencer said. “It was very clear to me when I first met him that he implicitly understood the fundamentals of working with stone and the artistry—so few people are schooled in these building arts.”
After all these years in the business, Cochran knows what to look for when he’s hiring.
“You’ve got to want to beat on rocks in heat and cold,” he said, not just want a job. Stonemasonry takes a lot of time to learn and to practice. He noted that Kelly’s Masonry was just voted top mason in the county. “He trained here,” he says proudly.
And he has a great team today, all Loudoun natives, Cochran said, calling them “his backbone.” His lead mason is William Brown, who has been with him for 18 years. Brown’s great-great grandfather times three was a Loudoun stonemason also. Stonemason Adam Shehan has been with him for eight years, plus stone apprentice Craig Hahn for four years. Lead timber framer Mike Shockey has worked for Cochran for 10 years, while apprentice Joe Reidel has worked for four years. Sue McDonough has worked as office manager “for ever,” Cochran says, calling them all “a super staff.”
That tribute is typical of Cochran, Madison Spencer says. “He treats them all as partners, not employees.”