Born to Love Barns

Philadelphia Inquirer

Lindsay J. Warner

24 June 2011

It likely happened when you left the front door wide open or your jacket in a heap on the floor. But most kids - even adults - have heard this refrain: Where do you think you live? A barn?

Well, some people do.

Whether the appeal is the slanting, dusty sunshine that peeps through the cracks, the lingering smell of hay, or that old, nostalgic charm, a growing number of people are choosing to transform old barns from bovine dwelling to rustic entertaining space.

Yet the process is not for the laid back. Renovating barns requires an often endless web of decisions involving deconstruction, reconstruction, and preservation. Three local homeowners tell us the tales that led to their barn euphoria.

Peggy and Bruce Earle, Devon
Peggy Earle spent much of her childhood in an old Chester County bank barn - a two-story barn on a hillside with ground-level access to both floors - where she cared for her horses and spent time with her father. But in Devon, where she and her husband, Bruce, have lived for 25 years, available bank barns are few and far between. So after Googling "moving a barn," and discovering Mike Hart - a local guy and history buff who would happily move a structure to the location of your choosing - Earle was hooked.

"We've lived in Devon our whole lives and wanted to stay there, so we needed to bring a barn to us."

Hart of Hartland Demolition & Restoration recommended a barn out in Red Hill that was similar to the one Earle loved as a child, and soon they began the year-long process of moving it piece by piece to the Main Line and restoring it.

"The first thing they do is take videos of the barn, and then staple a number onto every single beam because they reconstruct it like a puzzle," said Earle. "We saved all of the doors and also the stone from the original foundation, so were able to put it all back together intact."

Well, almost. Insulating the barn, now used as a guesthouse and entertaining area, meant Hart and architect Richard Buchanan had to remove the exterior boards, treat them, and use them for the interior. But that added several inches to the overall width of the structure, which required a new beam to span the gap between walls. Earle also added a forebay, or overhang typical of Pennsylvania barns like her father's. "Everything else is original, including the general layout of the three bays," she said. "Sometimes we didn't use everything exactly in the same place it was before the move, but we always ended up using it for something."

As co-owner with her sister, Judy Case, of Hollyhock Designs, Earle incorporated authentic barn details inside, such as the towel rack made from old shovels and a pitchfork, and the Restoration Hardware chandelier suspended by rusty old chains found by her builder. "I was really lucky to have a finish carpenter who totally loved the fact that I'd bring in old wood, old hinges - you name it - and he'd come up with ideas about how we could use it."

Earle's other design inspiration came from eBay, where she found light fixtures, a barn bell, chairs, old industrial sinks, an antique sleigh that sits outside, and even a cracked, antique toilet that matches an old sink she got from Belgium. Her lifelong hobby of collecting old architectural artifacts fills in the gaps, creating a look that is "Bavarian charming."

"It's not very American, despite the fact it's in a Pennsylvania barn," she said. "I love the Adirondack hunting-lodge feel, but otherwise I enjoy mixing whatever I can dream up, regardless of where it's from."

Michael and Michelle Friezo, Perkasie
From the road, Michelle and Michael Friezo's guesthouse looks like a typical 1850s Bucks County bank barn. Faded red boards frame the top half of the structure, supported by an aged riverstone foundation. An immense sliding door looks as weathered as the rest of the structure.

"We wanted people to drive by and say, 'Oh, it's a barn,' and then keep driving," said Michael Friezo, a Wall Street investment banker.

But inside, the 5,200 sf, three-bay barn - originally a depot for farmers' produce on its way to market at Doylestown - takes on the look of a grand guesthouse, with fireplace, pool table, expansive kitchen, and long trestle-leg table made from oak planks from the original threshing floor.

The unexpected luxury may contrast sharply with the well-worn patina of its exterior, but great care has been taken to maintain integrity within, too.

Yet when it came time to frame the interior, the Friezos hit a preservation snag. If they insulated the guesthouse, they would lose the architectural detail of the original frame.

So they flipped it. The original exterior was removed by Sean Tracy of Bucks County TimberCraft. At his workshop, it was cleaned, treated, and remilled, then reinstalled as the "new" interior. The exterior was fitted with boards taken from a c. 1810 barn in Nebraska.

 The interior, designed by architect Irwin Weiner and decorated by New York-based Penny Drue Baird, is similarly influenced by repurposed materials. The kitchen cabinets are the stall doors from the ground floor, and the stairs are planks from the threshing-room floor, with oil stains that Michelle Friezo notes are "never coming out." The upstairs bathroom - the only closed-off room in the house - nestles into a chicken-coop structure. Old lighting fixtures found by Baird in schoolhouses and chateaus in France illuminate the space, while antique pulleys hang across the hayloft roof.

"The history is neat," said Michael Friezo, "and made restoring something historical much more fulfilling than doing brand-new home construction."

David and Hope Rothschild, Upper Bucks County
When New York-based David and Hope Rothschild started looking for a home in the country for their family, they had one requirement: plenty of open space, both inside and out.

The 1850s barn on 82 acres in Upper Bucks County fit the bill, but the existing structure, then used as an art gallery, was "very 1960s and not at all livable," David Rothschild said. Still, the wide-open bank barn intrigued the couple, and would provide enough room for their five children and plenty of guests.

"I actually get a great kick out of seeing things that other people think are junky or unattractive and converting them into something functional," said Rothschild, who has worked on similar renovation projects. "I love working with my hands and enjoy developing the vision - even if my enthusiasm far outweighs my talent."

So Rothschild came up with design ideas but left the handiwork to Curt Iden of Iden Barn Homes in Bucks County. Over the course of three years, Iden hollowed out the entire structure, leaving only the beams, and dug down 4 1/2 feet into the foundation to create additional headroom in the stables area. This became the children's bedrooms and play area, while the upstairs was transformed into the living room, dining room, and kitchen.

What's left is a mix of old and new. Much of the original stone exterior was repointed and integrated into the interior, while a new addition holds a modern master bedroom. An attached carriage house is decorated with an English country charm (and has space to sleep up to 21 at a time), but the rest of the barn is what Rothschild calls "rustic industrial," noting that they had to embrace open ductwork and modern materials when it was impossible to use reclaimed supplies. That also gave him carte blanche to mix a modern, poured-concrete kitchen with reclaimed barn-beam flooring, and to turn to their farming neighbors for inspiration when it came time for a screened-in porch. Seeking to avoid a suburban-looking sitting area, the couple installed a Behlen-brand metal corncrib instead, which is connected to the kitchen with a matching gangplank.

The living area is massive, and makes the most of the vertical space with its dual fireplaces and exposed beams, but Rothschild admits lighting is an ongoing problem. He has designed several hanging chandeliers made of differing gauges of copper wire, but he still dreams of skylights and a wall of industrial sheet glass to replace the Colonial-style windows in the forebay.

"It's never really finished," he says, while eyeing the existing Marvin windows. "It would take some creativity, but if you could have the open sky views at night and maybe a shading system for during the summer, it would be just unbelievable..."

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