Home | Services | Gallery | References

Vanishing Beauty

Lost to a changing economy or sacrificed for their wood's rustic charm, America's barns are disappearing. But a trickle of interest in barn preservation has become a groundswell of advocacy.

Charles Leroux, Tribune senior correspondent. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Oct 21, 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Chicago Tribune

Barns find new lives as houses, art galleries

"For sixty years the pine lumber barn had held cows, horses, hay, harness, tools, junk amid the prairie winds ... and the corn crops came and went, plows and wagon and hands milked, hands husked and harnessed and held the leather reins of horse teams in dust and dog days, in late fall sleet 'til the work was done that fall. And the barn was a witness, stood and saw it all."
"The People Yes," Carl Sandburg


Barns watched the building of America.

As early as 1630, there were barns along the Hudson River in New York state built by Dutch settlers. Early immigrant groups came not only with a distinctive language but a distinctive style of barn -- low-roofed Dutch barns, Czech barns with room for the family, three- bay English barns, Finnish log barns. Over time, regional barn styles developed to suit specific needs. In the West, huge prairie barns were built for the larger herds of cattle there. There were tobacco-drying barns in the East and Southeast, hop-drying barns in the Northwest, rice barns in South Carolina. In a never quite achieved attempt at efficiency, there were, all over the country, round (or, earlier, 12- or 16-sided) barns. In 1792, George Washington had built at Mt. Vernon a 16-sided barn of his own design.

As homesteaders claimed the plains, they lived through harsh winters in hastily put up, drafty lean-tos, having put most of their energies into erecting sturdy barns to shelter animals and feed. What those built-first barns witnessed was Thomas Jefferson's vision of America's expansion, a nation relying on citizen farmers. Barns became the symbols of those farmers' determination and enterprise.

Bringing in the bulldozer

But the nation changed, and its old barns declined as urban encroached on rural, highways widened, wind and fire and neglect took a toll and new technologies (metal barns, for instance, or outsize farm equipment) replaced the old. Many a farmer looked up at the swaybacked old barn no longer usable and looked down at the tax bill for that structure and decided to call in the bulldozer or the guy who wanted to buy barn board or the local volunteer fire department who needed practice.

Recently, things rural have twinkled in the eyes of urbanites. Designers like Ralph Lauren, the lifestyle diva Martha Stewart and stores like Pottery Barn helped make country chic. As an old song said, "You Always Hurt the One You Love;" and the icon of actual rural life, the barn, paid a price for being so desired.

Old barns were sacrificed for their body parts; and the oldest, most history-rich had the best bones. Straight, sturdy, massive centenarian beams no longer available since old growth forests have been depleted were transplanted to family rooms to lend that rustic charm. Siding beautifully weathered by decades of sun and rain moved indoors to country-style kitchens. Companies with names like Barnbusters, Barns n Boards, Barnstorming and Born in a Barn took down old barns (some admittedly beyond repair) and spread their parts across the nation.

Though there is no one definitive statistic on how many old wooden and stone barns have disappeared, there are disturbing clues. A 1938 survey in Wisconsin counted 200,000 barns. Now, there are about 40,000 there. At the peak of the ad campaign in which a barn would be painted free if the owner agreed to have a Mail Pouch tobacco ad painted on as well, there were some 10,000 such barns across the Midwest. A few hundred remain. Vermont loses about 1,000 of its 30,000 old barns each year. New Hampshire's losses are similar, including one 1770 barn that, though lost to the "Live Free or Die" state, now sits -- no doubt stunned by its new surroundings - - in Napa Valley, Calif. It's happening all across agricultural America.

"At first no one paid much attention," said Jay Marshall "Marsh" Davis. "Barns were taken for granted. Then [in 1955], Eric Sloane's `Vanishing Landscape' was published. That book opened an awareness of barns and a sense of nostalgia for them."

Gaining momentum

A trickle of interest in barn preservation became a groundswell of advocacy. In Indiana, Davis was one such advocate and became one of the founders of the National Barn Alliance in 1996 (he's now fighting other preservation battles in barnless Galveston, Texas.) Earlier, in the 1980s, The National Trust for Historic Preservation teamed with Successful Farming Magazine to create the Barn Again program, which stepped beyond nostalgia as a reason to save barns to lay out the economic advantages of restoration and renovation over bulldozing and building anew.

A national touring exhibit called "Barn Again! Celebrating an American Icon" has been making its way across the country. Here in the heartland, the exhibit has visited Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, and goes to Michigan in 2004. This year, it is crossing Wisconsin -- which has declared 2003 as "The Year of the Barn" and where the photos that accompany this piece were taken. Four communities have hosted the exhibit in the Badger state so far, and it's in Bayfield on the Lake Superior shore through Nov. 1. The exhibit originally was developed by the National Building Museum in collaboration with the National Trust. It was made into a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution and travels Wisconsin under the auspices of the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Homing in on heritage

In each site, the exhibit speaks to the importance of agriculture in general and in particular the heritage of barns. The visiting exhibit becomes the core of a host of local activities -- barn tours in the area, photo exhibits, seminars on restoration, history of the ethnic group that built barns in that community, etc. For more information, log on to http://barnstorm.cvol.net/barnagain.asp.

"The federal government stepped up to the plate in 2002," said Susan West Montgomery, president of the Washington-based advocacy group, Preservation Action. The federal Farm Security Act was passed that year containing a Historic Barn Preservation Program that would have -- in its draft form at least -- supplied $50 million a year for five years to local governmental and private groups. The grants would assist in physical preservation but also in such non boards- and-nails efforts as education, surveying, research, etc.

"But when the act passed," Montgomery said, "it called for `such sums as may be necessary,' and that wishy-washy wording may have sent a message to the appropriations committee. In both '03 and for '04, the committee declined to fund the program."

Montgomery noted also that the act's sponsor, Vermont's James Jeffords, switched from the Republican Party to become an independent, another possible reason that funding was not forthcoming.

Montgomery said that federal money is important because it often supplies just the funding spark an organization needs to boost it to a level where it can make a difference. "A little bit of federal funding," she said, "goes a long way."

Fixing up an old barn can be expensive.

"It varies, but most jobs are around $20,000 to $80,000," said Sam Stitt III. Stitt is one of the second and third generation barnwrights from his family who run Great Lakes Barn Preservation of Hesperia, Mich.

Old, new methods

To repair a pegged, wood-beamed old barn or take it down to move it and put it together elsewhere, Stitt, his brothers, his father and a brother-in-law, have learned the old techniques and use traditional tools alongside modern ones.

"For instance," Stitt said, "There's a big wood mallet we use called a `commander.'"

Business is brisk.

"We've done 10 so far this year," he said, "working on three now. You can fix up a barn for less money than building new, and, in some states at least, you get a tax break for preserving an old barn. A lot of my customers are young couples who buy a place in the country. Often they're attracted to the property by the barn. They just love the aesthetics."

Ben Wozniak owns a weekend place in southeastern Michigan and wanted a barn for the property. The financial adviser from Itasca fell for a battered Civil War-era barn that was for sale in the Traverse City area.

"I took my wife up to see it, a 6 1/2 hour drive," he said. "The doors were broken, birds were flying in and out, and she said, `You have lost your mind.'"

Nonetheless, he bought the barn and had Stitt's company take it apart, board by board. Each part was labeled and all were shipped south to be reassembled. The barn then was restored.

"I use it as a garage and storage for the water toys we use in the lake," Wozniak said. "I'll put in a workshop and make the hayloft into a hideaway for me. It was about double the cost of building a new three-car garage, but there's no comparison. Instead of 2x4s and vinyl siding, we have real history. The barn was made of white spruce and sassafras. The beams are 12x12s, cross-members are 10x14s, the walls are 20 feet high. The ridge board is a 10x10 that is 50 feet long -- one board!"

Though preservationists would prefer to see a barn kept as a barn, a reuse with sensitivity to the original architecture certainly beats destruction or dismemberment and dispersal. Barns have found new lives as houses, antique shops, art galleries, museums.

Wozniak's red -- its original color -- barn is loved. He says his wife has come around to the point of claiming the moving and restoration as her idea.

"And the neighbors in Michigan love it, too," Wozniak said. "One guy in his 70s -- he used to be a farmer -- he likes to come over and just sit in it."


"The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had sort of a peaceful smell -- as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world."
"Charlotte's Web," E.B. White

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.