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Sunday, November 9, 2008

my favorite architecture part 1


When I was a kid, my grandparents owned an old farm in southern New York State, and on this farm were these two old barns. They are long gone, nothing more than bumps in the ground where they once stood, but the impression that they left on me persists. In the years since they were in my life, I have found that the old gambrel roofed barns capture both my attention and my imagination. They have a romantic quality in their appearance. when you drive down any country road north of the Mason Dixon, and east of the Mississippi, it is likely that you will see one of these barns either up close to the road you are traveling, or perhaps peeking out of the woods or over the fields. They dot the landscape reminding us that our country was built on the back of the family farm. As the family farm has died out, the barns are dieing too. But there are still many of them out there.

Over the years these old building have been adapted or lost, many have come to be landmarks for people trying to find their way to a friend's house, or remember their way to get to grandma's house. Some of these barns are still in use, maybe not for their original purpose, but for someone's workshop or garage. Many still get used to park the family's toys, the RV or the family
tractor. In some cases they are rented out for hay storage, or for a big corporate farmer to keep equipment near the local fields. But then, there are the cool cases where the old building has been remodeled completely inside to a real new use, such as a showroom for a furniture store, or the offices of a car dealership. Of course the landscape around them has changed along the way too, and that is the real interesting part sometimes.

I always find some surprises as I look around for these pieces of history. Each one, while similar in design, had it's own personality. different windows, pitches, peaks, and door arrangements are just a few of the individualities readily apparent to the casual viewer. Many times the form fit the function, often these barns were built in such a way that the front side was on high ground and the back side faced a hollow. This allowed for the easy entry of wagons loaded with hay into the storage area that was always the upper levels. While the hollow at the rear was perfect for pushing hay out into the feedlot for the livestock. In later years there was often one or two silos to accompany the barns, and it was not unusual for there to be a pair of barns, one for the work animals, usually horses, and one for the rest of the stock, the cows, sheep, chickens and goats. Often the Barns were the first buildings on the property, because they were the most important back in the old days. Once there was a place to work, then the house could be built.

One of the interesting things that I often notice is how these majestic behemoths have been incorporated into modern buildings. When a farm has grown rather than died, the original building has always remained in good shape, barring some disaster such as a fire or a tornado. So when the time comes to enlarge, the builders simply add on to the existing structure. I have had the opportunity to wander through some modern farms where the original Barn stands amid the additions it's gambreled peak rising like a lone mountain above the enameled metal of the newer additions. The ladders still attached to the beams in the hay loft so that the brave may climb to the highest window or loading door, and look out over all of the expansive roof. While below one is tested to find the original structure of hand-hewn beams that are now stripped of their planking to provide open space to move the herds or equipment. The rough cut supports standing side by side with the pressure treated lumber of today.

Look around if you can, and see the differences before they become too rare to compare. They are falling down everywhere, some already decayed to no more than a stone foundation. Their roofs are falling in, and their walls are bowing out, awaiting that fatal windstorm that will finally end their life. But what have they seen, and how many of them will last another century? Many of these grand buildings have seen more than a century already, and with care they may yet see another or even two more centuries. What history will they hold in that time, how many faces will they see? How many generations will have the chance to climb their supports, and swing from their ropes? How many sunsets and sunrises will be seen from their highest windows. How many children will be conceived in their hay lofts? As Americans we have a tendency to forget the past and only look to the future, but the past is often worth looking at, because it holds the keys to the future. There was a reason that our great grandparents built those buildings to last. Perhaps we will understand before it is too late and the last timberframe falls into a vine covered heap. Perhaps...

To be continued....

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