Preserving and Restoring Historic Barns

Nonprofits across America are working to preserve historic barns and restore them for modern uses.

by Dani Yokhna

Barn preservation groups across the U.S. are working to restore classic American barns, such as tobacco barns of the South, to modern use. Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock (
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Barn preservation groups across the U.S. are working to restore classic American barns
, such as tobacco barns of the South, to modern use.

Despite their age, many old barns of classic American style are still standing. Some are still functional, while others are mere shells of once-proud structures. People who treasure America’s early architecture are working hard to preserve these barns. A number of barn-preservation groups can be found throughout the United States, encouraging government and private citizens to restore historic barns to their original glory. (The National Barn Alliance provides a state-by-state listing of barn preservation organizations.)

“The New York State Barn Coalition is one of about two dozen groups around the country that is dedicated to continuing the use of older barns, some of which are rather remarkable survivors,” says Michael Tomlan, board chair of the New York State Barn Coalition in Ithaca, N.Y. “As a nonprofit organization, the Coalition provides information to the general public, holds conferences around the state, sponsors exhibitions and publishes work that explains the role of the agrarian landscapes.”

The Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program, part of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, is another program designed to help raise awareness of the need to preserve historic barns in the state.

The program’s website notes many threats to these buildings, including urban growth and roadway expansion, improper maintenance and upkeep, and new construction techniques, materials and design. Their approach to saving historic barns is multi-faceted and includes involvement with the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Strategies being pursued include the use of educational workshops, the production of technical resource materials, and the support of nonprofit organizations that can help orchestrate efforts to establish grants and other technical assistance programs aimed at helping barn owners interested in preservation.

“Nearly 20 years ago, representatives of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation and interested individuals began meeting to discuss barn preservation,” says Jerry Apps, author of Barns of Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society Press,  2010). “An organization called Barns Network of Wisconsin resulted from those early meetings. Every year since, this group has sponsored barn preservation meetings, providing everything from technical information about roof and wall repair to the history of barns in the state. Well over 1,000 people have attended these meetings and workshops.”

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Grants are one of the ways barn preservation organizations are working to save old barns. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission issues yearly grants to owners of historic barns to help them restore the structures to their original condition. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis and applicants must meet certain criteria to be considered:

  • The barn in question must be listed in or be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Funds must be used only for preservation and restoration, not for renovation, rehabilitation, or any other project that would change the historic function or character-defining features of the building.
  • Applicants also must be able to supply at least 50 percent of the project cost.

The Restoration Process
Bringing an old barn back to its original state is a rewarding experience that helps contribute to the historic legacy of rural America. Restoring an old barn takes time, research and dedication, but is well worth the effort.

“Historic barns are a treasure and a wonderful opportunity to keep the past alive,” says Nancy W. Ambrosiano, co-author of Complete Plans for Building Horse Barns Big & Small (Breakthrough Publishing, 2006). “If there is any way to protect and maintain an old barn, a property owner would do well to do so.”

Ambrosiano notes that safety of the humans and animals inside must take first priority when assessing an old barn for a new use.

 “It might take considerable effort to rescue an old facility, such as inserting new footers and foundation materials, shoring up walls and most importantly, determining if the roof is going to come down around your ears,” she says.

If the ridgepole—the “spine” of the building—has lost its structural integrity and the roof is beginning to lean, it’s often a death knell for the building unless some expert intervention is introduced, Ambrosiano says. Likewise, supporting vertical members have to be closely examined, as they could rot at ground level, be chewed to pencil thinness or have termite damage that turns them into standing sawdust.

It’s also important to consider current standards for dimensions, ventilation, fire safety and the like when thinking about converting an old barn to modern use.

“Many older barns were cow barns with low ceilings, narrow doors and small windows,” Ambrosiano says. “These are not always disqualifying factors, but they are critical items to consider in revamping old into new if you plan to use the barn for horses, for example. To provide safe head room for a horse, one might need to raise the barn or simply dig out the floor to achieve safe clearance. Ventilation fans might need to take the place of windows, inward-opening windows may need to be reversed to an outside angle and doorways might need to be reframed to allow the breadth of a warmblood where a sedate, little Jersey cow once stood.”

The current use of the barn should always be considered during restoration. Fortunately, historic barns often lend themselves to new uses. Such is the case of the tobacco barn, which is becoming popular as a barn for goat producers.

“Farmers are good at adaptive reuse,” says Bill MacIntire, survey coordinator for the Kentucky Heritage Council in Frankfort, Ky. “The tobacco barn is a basic barn, essentially the same type of barn as an aisled barn. It can be modified for any farm animal.”

Our nation’s rural heritage is stored inside historic barns. They are more than wood and stone, shelter and storage—they’re invaluable, irreplaceable monuments of history; symbols of our cultural and ethnic heritage. When you see one from the roadside or when you walk through its doors, remember it’s more than just an old barn—our farm memories live in its lofts and stalls, and our history remains strong in its timbers.

7 Barn Rehab Considerations

Keep these ideas in mind before you jump into a barn-preservation or -rehabilitation project:

  1. Preserve the historic setting of the barn as much as possible.
  2. Repair and repaint historic siding rather than cover barns with artificial siding.
  3. Repair rather than replace historic windows whenever possible, and avoid “blocking them down” or covering them up.
  4. Avoid changing the size of door openings whenever possible.
  5. Consider a new exterior addition only if it is essential to the continued use of a historic barn.
  6. Retain interior spaces and features as much as possible.
  7. Retain as much of the historic internal structural system as possible.

Read more about barns in these articles:

About the Author: Audrey Pavia is a freelance writer in California who specializes in animal topics.


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