Vermont: The Matter of an Old Barn

One of the neighbors has built himself a nice new barn. He did it between noon and quitting time last Tuesday. Well, not really: The work took a bit longer than that, and he had some help. But his barn did seem fairly to spring up. The slab was down in a day or two; […]

By Castle Freeman Jr.

Dec 29 2008

One of the neighbors has built himself a nice new barn. He did it between noon and quitting time last Tuesday. Well, not really: The work took a bit longer than that, and he had some help. But his barn did seem fairly to spring up. The slab was down in a day or two; the wall bays and roof trusses, preassembled, came in on a flatbed truck and were installed by a crane. The roof deck, siding, and clapboards went on with the help of a team of men wielding pneumatic nail guns. For a day the job site sounded like Antietam with air rifles. Now the nailers are finished, and the neighbor’s barn is, practically, a done deal–not in an afternoon, to be sure, but not wasting any time, either.

Such, today, is our way of barn building in Vermont, it seems; and, really, to do the job in any other way makes little sense. A barn is a barn. It is not a monument, it is not an architectural creation. A barn is not a work of art or, if it is, it is so by accident, because of its age and because of its demonstration of antique skills, materials, tools, and labor. In their time, the Vermont barns of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t appear to grow up overnight. Their builders weren’t heavy-equipment operators or technicians. The old barns were designed by farmer-architects and raised by farmer-artisans who possessed a level of skill–probably fairly common at the time–that today is neither enjoyed nor even aspired to by more than a very few.

Our Vermont ancestors, when they turned their hands to practical building, were clever old boys. They had a good eye, and the barns they made, if they aren’t quite works of art, look today like something pretty close to it.

Which is exactly my predicament.

I, too, own a barn; indeed, mine is about the same size as my neighbor’s: 30 by 40 feet, more or less. There the resemblance ends, however. The neighbor’s barn is brand-new. Mine was built before 1800 (nobody knows the year). The neighbor’s barn is bright and clean. Mine is a dank, dark cavern of decay. The neighbor’s barn is straight and plumb. Mine is racked and buckled, barely hanging on to verticality, like an ill-pitched tent in a high wind. Geometrically a simple structure as built, it now leans in enough different directions to puzzle Euclid himself.

And yet, despite its wrecked condition, the barn still has a charm of its own, offering to the eye a plain, unfussy rightness, a modest perfection that we may as well call beauty. It is constructed of foot-thick timbers of a hard, heavy wood–chestnut, I think. These timbers look to have been cut clean and sharp as though by a sawmill, but in fact they were squared by hand with a broadaxe. They’re put together by mortise-and-tenon joints, secured with long wooden pegs and braced near their tops by smaller diagonal members. This arrangement produces a series of lofty triangles; repeated by the hewn-timber rafters of the roof, they give the barn’s interior a cathedral-like perspective. They also give the entire structure great strength.

How great is evident in the barn’s durability. As far as I know, it hasn’t been used for any real agricultural purpose since the 1920s, when this place was last farmed. Since then it has had only the repair and maintenance that I’ve been able to give it–precious little. The barn’s sills are ripp led or rotted away altogether. Its roof is gapped. Parts of its board siding have fallen away. Some of its timbers are separating at their joints, wrenching free of their braces. In short, the building is collapsing.

It’s collapsing, but here’s the thing: It doesn’t collapse. When I came to this property 30 years ago, an experienced builder assured me that the barn wouldn’t survive the coming winter’s snows. That pessimistic expert has long since gone to his eternal reward. He wasn’t a young man at the time. He was, however, far younger than my barn, which stands yet. It stands as a monument to the excellence of its original builders, and–most pointedly, for me–as a monument to the neglect, incompetence, and lousy stewardship of their most recent successor. Am I proud to be the owner of an authentic architectural antique that I seem to be letting go steadily to hell? I am not. Well, then, what about a rescue operation?

Because its construction is simple and easily accessible, the requirements of putting my barn to rights are evident. New sills, partly new roof, replacing some timbers, splicing others, rejointing, rebracing, and pulling the structure into the perpendicular. A job of house jacks, staging, winches–a big job, but not insurmountable. Could I take it on? In theory, yes. As a matter of fact, I’ve done a bit of work with timber frames and know something of what’s involved. Will I take it on? Absolutely not. It’s not in my job description. If the barn is going to fall, that event won’t be improved by its falling on me.

What about hiring out the repairs? Here’s the obvious solution, one I’ve investigated. I’m told that for $100,000 my barn could be transformed from a standing reproach into a very plausible ruin. To me that seems like a good deal of money. It’s true, however, that others take a different view. Visitors shake their heads at the disgraceful state of the barn and deplore my neglect of it. When I explain the economics of the situation, however, and ask for their contributions, they change the subject.

A third solution to my dilemma has been suggested to me, one that reverses the terms of the last in my favor. I don’t pay the barn’s rescuers; they pay me. Very old, hand-hewn framing timbers, and the weathered pine siding boards that go with them, have value. High-priced builders, renovators, and interior designers prize them as décor for rich clients in other parts of the country. Why not advertise my barn for sale? The buyer breaks the barn down and takes it off my hands. I cash his check.

Here, plainly, is where the smart money is. But I don’t like the idea. My barn has stood (or slouched) on this spot, in use and disuse, for two centuries. It doesn’t seem right to ship it off to the Hamptons or someplace like an old horse to the glue factory, in exchange for a few pieces of silver. Sentiment forbids.

A last remedy has occurred to me, one that requires no real effort on my part and costs only the price of a half-gallon of kerosene and a kitchen match. I wouldn’t even have to buy the kerosene. Volunteer fire departments in these parts are willing to stage controlled burns of derelict structures for the benefit of their members. They call it training. I call it an elegant and utterly final way out of my predicament–but it’s a way I’m not ready to take. Not yet.

For the present, I persist in neglect. My barn, I’m sure, might suffer worse fates. After all, rural New England, as a setting, and in particular Vermont, haven’t done at all badly from neglect. Much of the atmosphere, much of the spirit, of our region derives from the fact that it’s been a backwater, out of the main current of the American future as it has unfolded, out of the range of the population as it has increased and migrated. Vermont proves that neglect can be not only survivable but a blessing.

Neglect also has the advantage of suspending an awkward question that lurks behind the matter of the barn’s disposition: not only What is to become of this barn? but also What ought to become of it? The issue goes beyond cost and convenience. It promptly moves into deeper waters. Murky, turbulent waters. Philosophical waters. A well-considered conservatism would seem to uphold two principles that aren’t always compatible: preservation and practice.

Preserving the barn would be, for me, primarily a gesture of respect for the past. Now, respect for the past is part of the mindset of every thoughtful person, and it implies a measure of susceptibility to the claims of whatever is old, tried, well-used. That susceptibility I admit to–indeed, I wouldn’t be without it. But you can take it too far. At the end of the day, I’m not a farmer. I haven’t much use for a barn. Having to rank preservation and practice in a real case, in a matter of your own, shows you what’s important to you. Nobody says you have to like what you see.

What is to become of this barn? What ought to become of it? To the latter question I don’t have an answer, but to the first the answer is clear. In the end, time runs the show, because in a manner of speaking, it is the show. For all its long endurance, my barn won’t stand forever. In fact, as I look at it today, I’m with my late advisor: I don’t see how the thing can make it through the coming winter. I wouldn’t bet against it, though.