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Weathered & Worn

Barn Preservation Program Seeks to Restore History

By David Tirrell-Wysocki / Fiddlehead Contributing Writer

Move over horses and dairy cows.

An ambitious effort to preserve historic agricultural buildings in New Hampshire has opened the barn door for musicians, storytellers, artisans, Irish step dancers and couples sipping coffee and wine.

Nothing says New Hampshire like a huge red barn looming over a snowy field or weathered barn board gracing a colorful fall foliage scene. But there is trouble for many historic barns – trouble brought on by a couple of centuries of wind, rain, snow and, well, time.

The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance works to save those family heirlooms and historic landmarks, maintaining old uses, helping find new ones and protecting the state’s landscape.

“Barns are physical links to the heritage and history of our state, and we are losing them at an alarming rate,” said Beverly Thomas, Alliance program director.

Three years ago, the Alliance estimated New Hampshire had 15,000 to 20,000 barns, losing one every day-and-a-half to old age, water problems, deterioration, development, fire and other causes, including simply not being used.

“If you do not have a use for them, you are not going to put a lot of money into maintaining them,” Thomas said.

Last year, the Alliance sponsored the “52 Barns in 52 Weeks” program to help at least 52 owners save their barns. The program included grants to assess the barns’ condition, workshops and help securing tax relief under a law that authorizes property tax reductions on renovated barns. It boosted interest in barn preservation statewide and gave 52 barn owners a start on preservation projects.

The first step is an assessment, where an expert inspects the barn, explains the construction, points out needed work, then helps develop a preservation plan. Typically, the Alliance awards eight to 15 assessment grants a year. Last year, the number more than tripled under the 52 Barns program.

Many owners now are acting on their renovation plans.

In Stratham, the Bartel family is restoring their 40-by-60-foot circa 1830 red barn, feeling a heavy responsibility to the previous owners.

“Those people have kept this alive for 278 years (their house) and 188 years (their barn), and God forbid I’m the guy who does something to screw it up and they say, ‘it was good all the way until then, then he went and did that,’” said Matt Bartel.

The barn initially housed a dairy herd, but changes in use over time meant many alterations that must be undone to return to the original design. After renovations, the Bartels plan for a machine shop and a dance floor for three teen daughters, all accomplished Irish step dancers. Their goal is to have the barn ready for their oldest daughter to throw a high school graduation party next spring.

In Raymond, Therren and Alissa Welch became stewards of their 35-by-50-foot family barn, circa 1880, in 2016. Originally, it was a livery stable, then home to an oil company. The building has sat empty for more than two decades.

Therren cherishes the barn as a precious family heirloom in need of some love and care.

“What I see is a glorious and prominent structure with its bright brass patina of the weathervane shinning in the sun that will stand for another five generations,” he said for a Preservation Alliance profile of his project. “Now is my turn to embark on a new segment for this great structure and continue my family’s pride.”

The Welches are turning the first floor into a coffee and wine shop, named Vino Amore, with a lounge area and bar, retail store and a function area for wine tastings and paint night/wine pairing outings.

In Lee, Anne and Charlie Jennison and the community felt a heartbreaking loss in 2015 when heavy snowfall collapsed their 212-year-old dairy barn. It had been in Charlie’s family for 130 years.

“It was like losing a member of the family,” Anne said.

Preservation Alliance encouragement and expertise helped the Jennisons with insurance that enabled them to replace the structure that Charlie called “part of the character of the countryside.”

“We didn’t want to put up just a garage,” Anne said. “We wanted to replace the barn as authentically as possible.”

Preservation Timber Framing of Berwick, Maine, built a new “old” barn with material from the original and from another, older barn. Many townspeople were there in 2016 for a barn raising during Lee’s 250th anniversary celebration.

The Jennisons plan to offer music and storytelling lessons, workshops and rehearsal space.

Though the 52 Barns in 52 Weeks program ended last year, the excitement and interest it created has carried into this year. The Alliance hears almost daily from owners concerned about their barns.

“I’ve had so many people say, ‘I don’t want this barn to fall down on my watch,’” Thomas said.

For more information on barn preservation in New Hampshire, visit nhpreservation.org.