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Recreating The Past – Giving New Life to Old Barns

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100 – November/December,2015

Heritage Restorations Gives New Life to Old Barns

By Elizabeth Arnold

pink skyThe smell of fresh cut hay, stacked and ready for winter. The warmth of steam rising from a horse’s back. Children playing on a rope hung high from the rafters. Each of these images hearkens back to childhood memories of a once treasured barn.

These sturdy structures have stood as symbols of America’s farm and ranching heritage for centuries. Sadly, many of these once stately buildings have fallen into disrepair. Just travel down any two-lane road in the Northeast and you’re sure to pass numerous relics of the country’s agrarian past.

Given the nature of modern agriculture and the constant push for progress, many barns have become obsolete as functional farming structures. Though some might believe the American barn is doomed to fade into history, the Heritage Restorations Company of Waco, TX, believes life still looms bright from the beams of ancient barns.


Heritage Restoration History


Heritage Restorations founder Kevin Durkin has long held that value and beauty still exist in our nation’s forgotten barns. Like so many successful ventures, the company began as a big idea. Nineteen years ago, as a teenager working at a ski-shop in upstate New York, Durkin’s employer mentioned he needed a new building. The enterprising young man offered to dismantle and restore one of the area’s unused barns. Though it might have seemed a tremendous undertaking, Durkin completed the rebuild within six months.

The project sparked a love for traditional methods of restoration and for reclaiming unwanted buildings. For Durkin, the individual nature of each project keeps the work fresh. He says, “There are no two barns the same. Each of these buildings is a unique testimony to a forgotten age of the enduring values of hard work, care, and hand craftsmanship.”

According to Caleb Tittley, who manages operations in the company’s Texas office, Durkin later began a career in fine woodworking and furniture building using the traditional methods of hand tool joinery. After becoming involved with a group of craftsman in need of a show space, Durkin again suggested repurposing one of the area’s barns. As fate would have it, a year later, a woman from Austin toured the craft gallery and thought the repurposed barn would be a great idea for a home.

“The company has grown very organically since that first home restoration,” Tittley says. “About eighty percent of our business comes from word of mouth.” He goes on to say that people develop an almost innate connection with the restored buildings. “There is something in a lot of people that connects them to our barns. Construction and architecture has gone a direction where people no longer feel a history or life. So much of what you see in architecture today is made up of steel, concrete, and glass. It’s a utilitarian design with it’s own aesthetic.”

In Tittley’s view, people fall in love with the warmth and craftsmanship found in recreating the character of a centuries-old building. He says, “People are looking for a connection with their past as a pioneering people. Our barns are able to give them that.”


The American Barn


America’s pioneering spirit and agricultural roots connects each of us, no matter how far removed we’ve become from the family farm. If one were to trace his or her lineage back through generations, it probably wouldn’t take long to land on a farm somewhere in the Northeast region of the country. Though Heritage Restorations is an international company, the majority of the barns they restore originate in the Northeast. Tittley says there is a specific reason for this that points to America’s history as a melting pot of trades and traditions.

“Most of our barns come out of the Northeast states. That’s where America was settled. Our earliest buildings are found in that area, along with the best and most spectacular timbers,” he says. The settling of America brought a convergence of craftsman and cultural influences to the region’s virgin forests. He goes on to add that, “There were Dutch, Scottish, English, and German peoples settling the area. They each brought their own architectural styles. Slowly, they began to borrow from each other and fuse the best of their international architectural styles. What resulted was a homogenized, truly American barn.”

On their website, Durkin details the circumstances that led to the creation of the American barn. “Here, in America, converged a unique combination: skilled European wood craftsmen and an untouched, virgin forest. When the two were combined, they produced for a period of time, the finest and largest barns ever built in the world, during what we might call the ‘Golden Age of Barns,’ before the Eastern forest was clear cut to make way for agriculture and industry, and the Industrial Revolution brought an end to the art of timber framing in America.”

The majority of barns acquired by the company date back to this era of history. This is due in part to the quality of the craftsmanship found in barns of that period. According to Tittley, “We only get barns that are able to be restored really well. That means we only acquire about ten percent of the barns we look at it in any given year. All are constructed from virgin growth, hand-hewn timbers. Most predate the Civil War and some even predate the Revolutionary War.”


1Old Made New


The Heritage Restorations Company feels that individuals who value history carry a special appreciation for preserving these giant monuments of our past. What better way to preserve them than to dwell inside? Tittley says approximately seventy percent of the barns they dismantle and restore are transformed into residences. The other thirty percent fulfill a variety of purposes from studio spaces, to business, community centers, equestrian barns, party barns, and even the occasional man cave.

Heritage Restorations is a one-stop shop for turning an old barn into a new, purpose-filled structure. “On top of locating and acquiring barns that would be a good match for our projects, we are a full architectural design firm.” He adds, “When people come to us and ask, ‘how do I do this?’ I tell them not to worry, because we’ve designed and completed literally hundreds of restorations. We are here to help through the whole process,” he says.

That process sticks true to the methods used by the original craftsman whose hands once built the original barn. “Early on, before sawmills, what the original timber craftsman did was fell the tree, strip the bark, and then use a number of hand tools and axes to square the beams by hand, right where the tree lay,” Tittley shares. All of Heritage Restoration’s projects utilize those original hand tools with the methods of joinery that include fitting a beam’s mortise and tennon joint together with a trunnel.

Such attention to detail is worth it for Heritage Restoration’s customers who appreciate that everything in their old-made-new home is original. According to Tittley, “When we take barns apart, there is almost always deterioration from centuries of use, snow loads, and the like. We go in and recondition the wood using the same tools and craftsmanship. It’s not the easy way—that would be to use metal plates and screws. But we feel that such methods detract from the building’s original aesthetic. So, we’ve not done that. We take a great deal of time and energy to make sure every building is true to its original form.”

Because a Heritage Barn is first dismantled, reconditioned, and then rebuilt—most often in a new location—it’s sometimes necessary to replace portions of the building that are beyond repair. This is not a haphazard process. Tittley says, “Most of the time, a barn goes back up exactly the way it was. Occasionally, there is a fantastic barn, but a beam is in disrepair, and so we will take a beam from another barn built of the same species in the same time period. It’s all very thoughtful and intentional.”


Barn Raising


In the vast majority of cases, a Heritage Restorations project is a contiguous structure. Meaning, it is taken down in one area of the country and reassembled as it once was, but in an entirely different region of the country. This is likely due to both the customer and company’s focus on preserving the original integrity of the building. Heritage Restorations customers have the opportunity to live amidst strong and weathered wood that holds centuries of stories.

When a customer approaches Heritage Restorations with a project, he or she has a variety of options for realizing their barn-dwelling dreams. Tittley says the process usually begins with the customer’s vision. He says, “A customer will approach us with a project in mind. Together, my team and I get to know what they want to accomplish.” In some cases, customers will have a barn in mind they want to have restored, but in most instances they select from one of the forty to fifty barns that the company has in inventory at any given time.”

He continues, “We will select a barn together that will be a good fit for the project. Then, we bring an architect in and begin the design process.” Tittley says it’s important to work closely with the customer in order to achieve the look and feel they want. “It’s essential to realize a customer’s hopes and desires for the project, on paper first. Once that’s complete, we start construction,” he says. According to Tittley, the construction process is no different than building any other barn or custom home. The project utilizes all of the same subcontractors and a construction schedule. The only difference is that the building’s materials are several hundred years old.

In some cases, the customers themselves are craftsmen and want to take on the challenge of rebuilding a barn. “I also have clients that say they want to do it all themselves. They will buy a barn from us and take the time to re-stand it on their own site at their own pace,” Tittley says.

Once the barn has been raised, customers are able to make selections about the interior of their new home. This is where the opportunity to meld ancient and modern comes along. The Heritage Restorations website features a dazzling array of worn and chiseled woodwork paired with shiny, modern finishes that create a warm and rich environment for all who enter.

Walk into any finished Heritage Restorations home and you’re bound to find individuals from a variety of backgrounds. “A Heritage Restorations customer is someone who is family-oriented and has an appreciation for history. In many cases, they are looking for a second home or vacation home. Many times, they are people who have a ranch as a second property. They might be schoolteachers, construction workers, doctors, or lawyers. We have former United States Presidents and Senators enjoying our homes,” Tittley says.


New Territory


In recent years, the Heritage Restorations Company has seen their barns travel the globe to be rebuilt in places as diverse as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and China. Tittley shares that a particularly interesting project is now taking place on the border of China and Burma. “We currently have an overseas project in the mountains of China near the Burmese border on a tea plantation. They want to use one of our timber frame structures for a retail space for their tea.” Tittley believes the rich history found in each building lends itself to any number of projects. He says, “Each barn has a different story and is as unique and varied as the people who originally built them.”

As the company moves into the future, they’re determined to continue bringing the past with them. Today, they’re focused on putting their unique stamp on the tiny house movement. Tittley shares, “We’re beginning to launch a line of micro-housing for people who want a ready-made house with character and quality that they can bring in and set down in a location they choose. It might take the form of a cabin, mother-in-law suite, office, or artist studio.”

The next time you drive along an old country road and notice a weathered, old barn—it’s eaves glimmering in the fading light—take heart in knowing that there are still people who care about our nation’s storied past. So long as Heritage Restorations exists there will be people to preserve the relics of our farming heritage and to create beauty from history, one barn at a time.

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