Originally published in
March 8, 2009
Saving the Barns, Before They Vanish
By WENDY CARLSON
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
“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
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
“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
Often, people simply do not know what to do with their barns,
and the majority remain unused, which leads to decay, Mr.
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
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