The Magic of Renovating a 100-Year-Old Barn

What is it about an old barn that is so enticing? Is it the beauty of its unrefined, naturally battered old walls and rusting roof? Is it the way it takes our mind back in time to a more primitive, simple era when life was more provincial?

There is something magical about an old barn, whether it is a working barn (storing hay, farm equipment or housing animals), an abandoned barn or one like my own, a barn reincarnated as a home.

While walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain a few years ago, I had an epiphany. If I renovated one of the two barns on my property, I could rent out the larger farmhouse and live in the renovated barn! This would be far more practical and would much better suit my character and current lifestyle. With the magic touch of my local contractor, Steve Dandeneau, he and I designed and renovated my barn while doing our best to preserve its integrity and history.

Jen’s favorite room, the bathroom, with everything
made from a huge variety of barn

I now live in this lovely, small reincarnated barn and I truly believe what the little sign hanging on my wall says – “If these walls could talk, what tales they could tell.” How true that is! Steve and I designed this special place to not only keep the outside structure looking true to its heritage, but the inside as well. As I sit here in my living room (where a tractor formerly lived), I look at the same 100-year-old wood that created the original barn… the same knot holes, nails protruding from wood, hand hewn beams, notches, wooden pegs holding the frame together, etc. While adding modern touches where necessary, making living here as comfortable as living in any modern home, we found excitement in re-using, re-purposing as much of the old barn (its structure, its contents and even its old buried treasures) as we could.

During the barn renovation, it was obvious to me that the passion for this project wasn’t limited to just Steve and myself. Every dedicated member of the building crew put their heart and soul into the project. They delighted in showing me their latest ‘find’ during the partial-demolition process and how they thought it might be incorporated into the project. They would even hide some of the ‘treasures’ and surprise me with them during the reconstruction. For example, old farmers used to ‘brand’ each of their barns or projects with a certain symbol by burning or carving it into a wood wall. They would use the same symbol to mark/brand anything they had built. The crew found a few of these and would construct them into the perfect high-profile inside wall of the barn where that symbol’s history could be appreciated regularly.

What’s a historic barn without an adorable goat!

In every corner of the house, I find some reminder of the barn’s history, something special that is made from an item found in the barn or buried in its depths. For example, a plate rack made out of pieces of red barn walls, a hanging pot rack made out of an old oxen/horse ‘yoke,’ a wagon wheel that morphed into a window that now looks into the attached ‘unfinished’ part of the barn, and two ‘sister’ boards on the living room ceiling that obviously came from the same tree chopped down over 100 years ago in order to build the barn. Almost every feature in the house tells a story. To say that this place is special is an understatement.

The barn before being ‘reincarnated’

My barn house and its sister barn on my driveway are quintessential Vermont. They can be seen easily from the road; this visibility causes them to attract even more attention than most barns do. I like to welcome all photographers (and all barn lovers) because all old barns, working or abandoned, renovated or original, have a beauty and history that need to be shared. It also warms my heart to walk into a gift store or photography gallery and see a beautiful photo or painting of my barns.

Recently, when I find myself driving past battered, ‘sagging,’ abandoned barns… I can almost feel their pain. Barns with fragile creaking boards, or rattling, broken windows are begging for help, summoning anyone who has the means and desire to keep history alive, to keep them alive. I am very proud to have at least stopped the aging process of one old barn, so that it will cheat death ‘by a Nor’easter’ one day.

Thoughts from my barn contractor/co-collaborator, Steve Dandeneau: “What a pleasure it was to work alongside Jen on her iconic barn. Many times construction projects for us get started, are seen through the steps, completed and we move on to the next. We are fortunate to have the ability to show our creative side on most. But not all projects require digging in deep. Along came the opportunity to work with Jen on her barn vision and the ability to express our creativity and skills grew ten fold.

With what started as a loose conversation of the option to create living space in one of her existing barns, some simple line drawings from Jen defining use of space, evolved into a real special collaboration for our team and her. What really helped was Jen’s ability to visualize the whole package, express how the barn was going to be lived in, and an understanding that what we will create needs to look as if it has always been like this or evolved over the passage of time. Her ability to convey her persona (which is very accepting and open) allowed us to reach inside with open minds and find ways to finish this project in a way that became very personal to all who were able to contribute to it. Everyone, including Jen, seemed moved to always ask “how about this?” The openness of the environment she created facilitated this. I must say it was a very happy place for us to go every day. 

There is something that is so comforting that radiates from recreated old space and the use of old materials. Particularly an old barn. It is not for everyone. I feel you have to have a huge respect for the past and an understanding of history to really appreciate it.  The space we all worked together on is warm and inviting. It is not perfect, it is not over done. It retains so much charm that could only be fashioned out of the passage of time, elements and the touch of man, animal or insect. There are many wormholes in what used to be a working barn on a farm. 

Jen sent me some notes towards the end of the project. “If you can visualize it, if you can dream it, there’s some way to do it.” (Walt Disney) Thanks for visualizing it! And “What feels like the End… is often the Beginning.” How true on both! 

We have moved on to other projects taking a tremendous amount of pride with us. Jen’s barn led to another old historic local barn in Quechee we converted into living space. Fortunately, the owners were cut from the same cloth as Jen and another collaboration began. We enjoy the work we do because we love to help make people’s visions come true. I hope the work we do stands the test of time and someone in the future uses the materials we installed to make it their own.”

There’s nothing like working with a dedicated, fun group of guys!