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Originally published in

March 8, 2009

Saving the Barns, Before They Vanish



Until recently, Samuel Averill never gave much thought to the historic significance of the weather-beaten dairy barn he keeps crammed with apple crates and farm machinery for his orchard.

Barns were part and parcel of the rural landscape when Mr. Averill, 62, was growing up. But now, the faded structures — with collapsing cupolas, tilting eaves and sagging rooflines — are fast disappearing, despite the outcry of preservationists.

“We’re losing our barns by the droves,” said Todd Levine, an architectural historian for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the administrator of the Historic Barns of Connecticut grant project.

Many tumbled down because of decay, or were torn down for new development. Others were simply too costly to maintain. And, as agriculture declined, barns no longer served a purpose.

No one knows how many barns have been lost. Thomas Durant Visser, author of “Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings,” found that 25 percent of the structures he photographed for his 1997 book are no longer standing more than a decade later.

Hoping to document what is left before it is gone, the trust has been conducting a census of sorts of Connecticut’s iconic historic barns. And to stem the decline of these outbuildings, it is offering grants to nonprofit organizations, municipalities and private property owners to encourage them to preserve them.

So far, about 1,700 barns have been identified, from stylized Gothic Victorian carriage houses hidden in urban backyards to plain-and-simple tobacco sheds in the north central part of the state. Eventually, the list will include onion barns, sheep sheds, dairy barns, round and octagonal barns, bank barns, crib barns, English barns and those built with Yankee ingenuity that do not fit any category, except as quirky symbols of the state’s farming past.

“Barns are one of the identifying features of our state because they reflect our agricultural origins,” said Mr. Levine. “If you live in the Midwest, and you think of Connecticut, you think of rolling hillsides and red barns.”

And though they were built for utilitarian purposes, barns became objects of beauty to artists and architects.

European architects of the early 20th century became enamored with the spare construction of American barns, said Sandy Isenstadt, a professor of modern architecture at Yale. “To them, barns and silos represented exactly the sort of strict functional thinking, without concern for aesthetics, that a new architecture might be founded upon,” he said. “So they saw such buildings as beautiful — a beauty that descends from attention to function rather than from concern for appearance.”

Wendell Minor, an artist who lives in Washington, Conn., and has used many of Connecticut’s barns in his illustrations — including one in a United States Postal Service postcard series — compares barns to lighthouses. “They have the same strong visual elements,” he said. “People are nostalgic for them in the same way they are for lighthouses.”

Most people recognize that barns are worth saving because they give the state part of its appeal, preservationists say.

Kent Gilyard, 68, a barn restorer who owns two 19th-century barns in Litchfield, said there is something about them that just makes people feel good. “Maybe it reminds them of a simpler time, even though farming wasn’t simple,” he said.

The grant project, funded through the Connecticut General Assembly, is intended to help property owners understand that “barns and outbuildings do not necessarily have to be torn down,” said Mr. Levine.

Mr. Averill, a ninth-generation farmer, operates his apple orchard on land that his ancestors bought from the Indians in 1746. Even though he spent his childhood milking cows and building forts out of hay bales, he said, he sometimes wonders whether building a new barn would not be easier than fixing an old one. One side of his barn buckles out, possibly the result of a shifting stone foundation, he said.

The grant Mr. Averill is applying for would help pay for a conditions assessment, a feasibility study to explore reuse options and stabilization for minor repairs, up to $5,000.

To be eligible for a grant, a structure must meet at least three criteria set by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Among barns that would meet some of them: structures that are at least 75 years old, are used for agriculture, and contain hand-hewn beams.

The grants will not cover major restoration. But even small grants are important “because they provide a catalyst for preservation projects to move forward,” said Alicia Leuba, director of programs for the Northeast Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“You can easily spend a half million restoring a barn, or you can spend enough to get it to a point where it won’t get worse and save it,” said Eric Lundgren, a New Milford restoration contractor.

Often, people simply do not know what to do with their barns, and the majority remain unused, which leads to decay, Mr. Lundgren said.

Some structures have a renewed purpose as a result of the revival of small-scale agriculture. With the growing popularity of community-supported agriculture, eat-local campaigns and organic farming, “some historic barns are being put back into service,” said Rebecca Williams, a field representative for the National Trust.

Others have been renovated as art galleries, wine bars, restaurants, antique shops, offices and any number of other businesses. But the most common reuse is housing.

Typically, barns are not ideally located for homes. They are often too close to the road, so builders frequently dismantle them and use the materials to rebuild at a better setting, said Peter Klemm of Klemm Real Estate in Washington Depot. Plenty of converted barns in Connecticut were recycled from structures that came from upstate New York or elsewhere, he said.

Since many barn owners inherit the structures when they buy property, and do not know how to date or identify them, the Connecticut Trust is conducting workshops to help them.

Local historic commissions and barn enthusiasts have also volunteered for the barn census.

“So far, we’ve come up with about 175 barns,” said Georgette Miller, a clerk with Roxbury Historic District Commission who has spent weekends canvassing the back roads of her town to document farm buildings.

“We care immensely about our historic structures, but barns tend to get overlooked,” Ms. Miller said. To raise awareness, the commission published a calendar of its barns, and gave an award to a homeowner for his sensitive renovation of a dairy barn that was turned into a home and studio.

Similar barn inventories and grant projects are under way throughout New England and the rest of the nation. Washington State distributed $500,000 in barns grants last year, largely to private property owners. In previous years, New York allocated $12 million toward preserving its barns.

But considering Connecticut’s current fiscal crisis, Mr. Levine, the architectural historian, worries that this fledgling project, like the barns, is in jeopardy.

“We’re under the gun with the budget cuts,” he said. “We’ve tried to show how important these structures are to our state’s heritage and to its future. Years hence, when all we have left to offer in Connecticut is sprawl, the barns will already be gone. It will be too late.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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