Yesterday I meditated a minute on bygone barns. Ancient farm buildings. Tempered by time, tempted by gravity, and sowbacked beneath the burdens of generations, these rugged utility structures retain (and sometimes gain) a minimalist elegance long after design and construction and use fade into history. My meditation was meandering and inconclusive. In part this was due to the wandering wonder these timeworn buildings inspire in me. And in part it was because my observations are still evolving and inconclusive. I’m not a barn expert, an agricultural architecture preservationist, or even a particularly astute student of barns and farms. But I am a barnophile.
Barn·o·phile /bärnəˌfīl/ noun (from Greek philos ‘loving’)
- a connoisseur of farm buildings
- a person with a fondness for structures used to house livestock, grain, etc.
- an admirer and/or collector of agricultural outbuildings
Aside from the hubris I’ve just exercised in birthing this barnophile definition, I’m generally inclined to a humbler and less presumptuous relationship with the mostly agrarian artifacts we categorize as barns.
[As an unabashed barnophile with a] weakness for wabi-sabi, I’m especially keen on bygone barns.
By “bygone barns” I’m conjuring an entire class of rural farm and utility buildings belonging to an earlier time. Classic lines, practical design, form following function, wearing age and even obsolescence with pride,… I’m even smitten with buildings so dilapidated that they’ve been reduced to their skeletal essence by the forces of nature. Sunlight, moonlight, weather, wildlife, and vegetation permeate these carcasses. The sparse assembly of materials — beaten by the elements for more years than anyone alive can definitively claim to know — endure erect, monumental, lavishly adorned with forgotten functions and the patina of passing time. (Source: Bygone Barns)
But why do forgotten farm buildings enchant me? What reason lurks beneath the tidy text, what foundation for my unusual fascination with these vestiges of a simpler, more local, perhaps even a slower time? Katie Shepard, so very rarely off target, suggests this childhood reminiscence might play into my barn-centric attraction.
My parents, living and working in New York City, had purchased an 1840s farmhouse on 85 acres in Greenwich, New York five months after getting married. I was born less than two years later.
Although The Farm served primarily as a weekend getaway for the next five years, it dominates the geography of my earliest childhood. A stream of nostalgia gilded memories flow from this pastoral source: exploring the time-worn barns, absent livestock except for those conjured up by my energetic imagination and the swallows which darted in and out, building nests in the rafters, gliding like darts through dusty sunbeams; vegetable gardening with my mother; tending apple, pear and quince trees with my father; eating fresh rhubarb, strawberries and blackberries; discovering deer and raccoons and snakes and even a snapping turtle. (Source: The Farm)
As usual, Katie is right. Woven into the earliest tapestries of my childhood are fond associations with barns. This was undoubtedly further reinforced during our years at Homeport given the inordinate amount of time that my brother, sister and I occupied ourselves in the mysterious old barn complete with ballroom and servant’s quarters long since adapted to other uses. And in my grade school years my siblings and I memorized Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” to recite as a birthday gift for my father. I wish I could take credit for this creative gift giving tradition, but it was my mother, Melissa Davis, who gently guided the three of us each winter to select a poem that would appeal to my father, and then to memorize it during our daily 45-60 minute commute to school each morning and and each evening. Three days after Christmas, on my father’s birthday, we would recite the poem together, and (with one notable exception that’s better reserved for another day) my father enjoyed the gift, leaning back, sometimes closing his eyes, and listening attentively. I think “Fern Hill” may have been the best received, and it became a go-to for family recitation over the years, hypnotically weaving itself into the ethos of our childhood the way a prayer might.
Boundaries of a Barnophile
There comes a time to focus the “philos”, or at least to try and narrow or delineate the subject of interest.
I’ve talked around my fascination with barns, barn architecture, barn construction, and barn aesthetics… But I haven’t outlined the tenets for my enduring intrigue, nor have I articulated exactly what I mean when I refer to a barn vernacular. It’s time to draft at least a preliminary look at my love of barns. […]
In the vernacular vocabulary of quintessentially North American architecture, the barn endures as a practical yet proud icon of rural living. […]
Although my fascination with barn vernacular isn’t limited to Yankee barns, it is my most consistent and encompassing vision.(Source: Toward a Barn Vernacular)
In other words, I’m inclined toward classic geometry, roofs steep enough to shed water and snow (with a particular fondness for 9:12 pitch), and unembellished details. And I will always favor bygone barns to new construction. The quality of workmanship and materials stands out, but so too does the story stretching across decades, even centuries.
I consider aging utility buildings — barns, boathouses, icehouses, sugarshacks, etc. — to be at least as intriguing as old houses. More sometimes. So many relics, unselfconscious, candid. Less penchant for concealing, fewer makeovers, more concurrently present years and lives. Sometimes it’s the old, banged up subjects and objects that look the best. Thank goodness for that! (Source: Horse Stall Haiku)
And what of other barn-like buildings, rural utility buildings designed and constructed after the same manner?
They appeal to me as well. In fact, the agricultural DNA isn’t essential to me at all. I suppose I’m somewhat “barn androgynous”, equally smitten with similarly origined buildings even if they’ve never seen a horse, cow, chicken, pig, or hay bale.
That said, it’s worth acknowledging that the architecture of New England barns, Yankee barns, and even — drifting a little further southeast — tobacco barns are especially appealing to me. And if it’s fair to assume that my affinity is at least partly nostalgia-driven, then it’s probably worth adding another influence the those sited above. Four year of boarding school in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts definitely instilled in me an appreciation for early colonial building, and there were a couple of barns that still loom proud in my memory.
Although I wish I could gather these strings and call it caput, I must further complicate the boundaries I’ve endeavored to delineate above.
While there’s something alluring about the volume and the efficiency of barns, the unpretentious posture with no attempt to conceal functions or mechanism, scale isn’t essential. The small corn crib above, for example, intoxicates my imagination nearly as much as the grand barn at the top of this post.
Baked into my identity as a barnophile, into this somewhat esoteric aesthetic and philosophical appetite, is a tendency to stretch my definition of barns to include other similar outbuildings.
While Rosslyn didn’t fit squarely into the vision of an old farm or a collection of dilapidated barns that I originally was hunting for, this stately home does have three remarkable outbuildings, all three of which lured me as much as the house. In fact, well before we completed our top-to-bottom rehabilitation of the home, we tackled the icehouse, boathouse, and carriage barn. All of them were on the brink. Actually much of the house was as well. But just as we committed to salvaging the home, returning it to its former grandeur, we likewise undertook laborious, challenging efforts to salve the icehouse, boathouse, and carriage barn. All buildings were dilapidated, but the icehouse and boathouse were both succumbing to the omnipresent challenges of weather and neglect.
I’ve posted plenty in the past about Rosslyn’s boathouse, the lakeside folly that beckoned to us from the beginning. For a whimsical mind like my own, smitten with boating adventures — real and imagined — becoming irreversibly enchanted with our small dock house protruding out into Lake Champlain was pretty much inevitable. Although its mission has always been tied to watery locomotion, it is for all practical purposes a sort of barn. A diminutive lakeside barn purpose-built for boating. A utility outbuilding conceived and specifically confected to serve the Kestrel just over a century and a quarter ago.
And Rosslyn’s icehouse, occupying much of my attention these last few months as we cartwheel through an ambitious rehabilitation and adaptive reuse project, is likewise a barn. We often refer to the carriage barn and icehouse, standing as they do side-by-side, as “the barns”. As a utility building designed to complement the architecture of the carriage barn and home, it was nevertheless first and foremost a utility building constructed to support the residents with year round cooling at a time when refrigeration did not yet exist. It was an ice barn!
And so you see perhaps the elasticity of my identity as a barnophile. A barn might not immediately appear to be a barn. But the rudiments, the purpose, and likely the longevity have profited from the heritage of barn building. And this, my friends strikes me as the right place to wrap up. If this this post was intended as a more intimate look at the romance of bygone barns, those that have endured a looong time and even those no longer viable, then I’ve covered my bases. And too, I’ve revisited my original hope of locating an old barn to convert into a home, a hope that has not altogether faded away.
In fact, Susan and I have been for a few years brainstorming a barn-inspired for the future, our future, that just might begin to emerge in the years ahead. Stay tuned…