Thousands of old farm buildings have been abandoned all over New England, and Ken Epworth wants to save them. More often than not, the rescue effort involves moving the entire structure to another property and reconstructing it on the new owner’s land. Epworth and his company, The Barn People, specialize in dismantling, restoring, and reassembling old barns for clients drawn to the challenge of making a home out of a cultural treasure whose soul they want to preserve.
Two such clients, seduced by the beauty of barns and intrigued by their simplicity and integrity, are local residents Martine and Dan Drackett. The Dracketts’ ambitious project at the mouth of Greenhorn Gulch—the first Wood River Valley home to be created in this way—is, by all accounts, the largest assembly of restored barns in the country.
Having decided upon the use of old barns in the construction of their new residence, the Dracketts wasted no time. Dan telephoned Ken Epworth at The Barn People and, a few days later, the two met to drive around the Vermont countryside. After six hours spent rambling along farm roads in Ken’s pickup, they came upon a large, abandoned barn in the middle of a field.
They pushed the door open, walked in, and stood silently, stunned by the barn’s substantial, sturdy structure. Ken closed his eyes and said, “I don’t ever buy a barn unless I can close my eyes and feel the history of the place.” On that first day Dan bought the Waltham Hay Barn, constructed in 1816 by a father and son after their farm was destroyed by a fierce snowstorm. It was a barn built to last.
Conceived for a specific landscape and for specific needs, barns may represent the earliest examples of indigenous American architectural design. The farmers who built the first barns in this country were concerned primarily with the practical realities of their particular climate, environment, and form of husbandry. The resulting structures were true originals. And as representatives of a piece of the American past, barns have a special appeal. People want to preserve them.
The reassembly of abandoned buildings, the ultimate in recycling, is not a new concept. In the early part of the twentieth century a few wealthy Americans had European castles dismantled, stone by stone, for reconstruction in the New World. The grand, imposing structures could no longer serve their original purpose when royalty went out of business in Europe; but instead of being left to the elements, the castles became treasures worthy of preservation. Old American barns are realizing a similar fate.
Barns, however, are far more available than European castles. There is an ample supply of them all over the country. But it takes time and patience to find the right barn. Or, in the case of the Dracketts, it takes time and patience to find the right five barns.
The first of the Dracketts’ purchases, the Waltham Hay Barn, is a towering saltbox structure measuring approximately 30 feet by 40 feet; it now serves as the owners’ living room and bedroom. Three other barns, all built near the end of the eighteenth century or the beginning of the nineteenth, adjoin the Waltham Hay Barn to comprise the main house:
• The Grafton Hay and Dairy Barn, from Grafton, New Hampshire, which now contains the children’s
quarters and a dramatic “Great Hall,” probably held seventy cows in its heyday.
• The West Addison Livery Stable, from West Addison, Vermont, is now a four-car garage, with Dan’s office located on the upper level.
• The Orwell Wagon Barn, a much smaller and more intimate structure, is now the home of Martine’s mother.
• The Curtis Hollow Carriage Barn, built around 1810 and measuring about 20 feet by 20 feet, is the only barn detached from the others.
Flooded with northern light, the precious little building has been transformed into a studio for Martine, a working artist.As The Barn People dismantled the Dracketts’ barns at their original sites, they performed necessary repairs and carefully measured each piece. The measurements were sent ahead to architect Damian Farrell so that he could design the foundations. By the time the barn frames arrived in Idaho on flatbed trucks, about a year after the start of the dismantling of the first barn, the foundations were in place. It was only a matter of days before the barns were put back together.
There are rotted, unusable boards in every old barn. For the Drackett home, fifty percent of the interior siding was salvaged from their original buildings and the rest came from material The Barn People had collected from other old barns. The exterior siding was crafted from local dead fir because it is cost-effective. The crew then constructed a second roof over the original roofs, skillfully hiding twelve inches of dead space and substantial amounts of reinforcement steel to handle Idaho’s snow loads.
During the design phase, Dan had strong ideas about the role each barn would play in the overall structure. The livery barn, for example, where horses and vehicles were once cared for, was naturally destined to be the garage. It is the largest barn, at approximately 75 feet by 25 feet, with plenty of room for cars, workshop, and equipment; the top half functions as Dan’s office. The Orwell barn, a 1,200-square-foot wagon barn, made an ideal guesthouse because of the intimate scale; it eventually became the living quarters for Martine’s mother. The Grafton barn, gracefully divided into four suites, made a perfect space for the Drackett’s four children. Measuring 50 feet by 36 feet, this is the tallest of the barns at approximately 33 feet, two feet short of the maximum height allowable for buildings in Blaine County. The Waltham barn, the Dracketts’ first love, was a fitting choice for the main bedroom and the living room.
This collection of barns wouldn’t become a home, however, until space was found for the kitchen and dining room area. The Dracketts considered building a silo, a round room with a staircase on the interior and a lookout room at the top; but silos are typically over 60 feet tall, and exceed County height limitations, so that approach was abandoned. The idea of using a sixth barn was rejected as unnecessary because most of the posts and beams would be covered by cabinets and kitchen appliances. Finally, the decision was made to build a new structure utilizing various parts of different barns The Barn People had salvaged over the years. That section of the house is now referred to as the Refectory.
Joining all five original barns and the Refectory provided an interesting challenge, and Damian Farrell looked back to the layout of early American farms for a solution. Farmers were induced by harsh New England winters to locate outbuildings close to the farmhouse and to each other. If separate barns were necessary for different functions, or if additional barns had to be built, they were usually connected to allow the farmer to avoid inclement weather. That time-proven strategy was an important element in the planning phase for the Greenhorn Gulch home.
Not only were the Dracketts charmed by the courtyards and outdoor spaces created by connecting the separate buildings, but county zoning laws and local homeowner’s regulations allowed only two freestanding structures on the property. There was perfect synergy between what they wanted and what they were obligated to do. “The precedent of continuous architecture in New England gave us great confidence,” says Drackett, “because it allows for many possibilities and unlimited creativity. We knew that whatever we came up with, it would look great. There is no wrong way to do it.”
Two self-imposed imperatives became the principal design guides: Recognize and appreciate the individual qualities of each barn. Encourage harmony in the connections between them.
The owners, the architect, and the contractor all agreed that if something is moved from where it has existed for hundreds of years, it must be accorded the respect it deserves. A mantra echoed through and informed each aspect of the project, a repetitive whisper that floated in everyone’s consciousness: “Honor thy barns.” This meant respect for the interior structure of each barn and the integration of as many original details as possible—pulleys, ladders, hay hooks, tools, etc. It also meant that the layout of the barns in the new landscape would have to be unified in the harmonious way that traditional New England farmyards are appropriately and naturally situated in their surroundings. Early conceptual sketches reflect a strong emphasis on the importance of orientation.
Before purchasing their sixteen-acre parcel of land, Dan and Martine had hired Jack McNamara of The MacNamara Company as their general contractor. The Dracketts spent time exploring the Valley with McNamara in search of the right land, and one day stumbled upon the perfect site for their collection of barns: a vast meadow surrounded by pine-covered mountains, with a stream running across it.
The stream turned out to be an important part of the exterior design. By facing the wings of the house toward the water and the hillside behind, a distinct outdoor living area was created. This gave rise to a comforting feeling of boundaries and enclosure.
Weather patterns and sun exposure were taken into account in deciding how to orient the barns. Factors such as the harsh sun from the west, the direction of prevailing winds, and the dramatic views led to the house looking north, south, and east. Very few windows face the west. The main bedroom’s western wall is shielded by the bathroom, a north-facing shed addition to the original barn that pays tribute to the old New England tradition of adding on according to need.
Typically, barns do not have many windows. The positioning of many small windows, so as not to interfere with the structure’s spirit, was a creative challenge that Farrell met with great success. In addition to the customary, eye-level windows, many windows are placed higher to capture the beautiful Idaho sky, revealing a mountain-blue intensity or ever-changing cloud formations while projecting light onto beams, posts, and ceilings. “They are like paintings on the wall,” says Farrell.
To join the barns together, Farrell decided to build a gallery. The 97-foot-long, 9-foot-wide hallway is the main entrance to the house and the backbone of the Drackett home. With 12-foot ceilings, the gallery is less imposing than the cathedral-size larger barns and greets visitors with a more human-scale impression. Each barn was partitioned away from the central nave in such a way as to maximize the livable space and 360º views, yet retain the towering feeling of openness.
In their house in Cincinnati, the Dracketts already had oversized furniture that they intended to use in their new home. Before the barns were reassembled, they worked with Farrell to determine where each piece of furniture and every piece of art would be placed, arranging rooms and dividing up space accordingly. There is an easy flow of traffic between the rooms and between the different barns, which fit together in a natural, pleasing manner.
“I got spoiled doing this project,” says Ken Epworth. “First, I don’t have any other clients who want to use so many barns. Second, I’ve never worked with people who knew as much as Dan and Martine did. They knew exactly what they wanted, and had a flair for what they would need—what kind of hardware, what kind of doors, etc. Dan would ask me for my opinion, but often he’d already made up his mind, and most of the time he was right. It made the job really easy.”
Five barns—all different in character, age, and original location, each with its own characteristics, its own voice—have found a common home in Sun Valley, Idaho. While they now form one unit, the unique personality of each has been preserved. The result is spectacular, and extraordinarily elegant on a grand scale.
Marie-Christine Loiseau is a translator and writer from Paris, France. She has lived in the Wood River Valley for the past six years.