Barn Razing

1790's Post-&-Beam Structure is Latest Victim of Progress

By Liz Premo

Atlantic News, Thursday, May 13, 2004

[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News]

HAMPTON — Here in the New England area, some of the most prized structures around are also those which are often the most rough-hewn in their antiquity. Constructed centuries ago by landowners using what were primitive tools by today's standards, these buildings rise high overhead revealing their own distinguishing characteristics which echo of times past.

This is particularly true when it comes to old barns, many built by farmers who simply needed a place to house their livestock, along with a storage area for the hay and grain used to feed them. Using hand-hewn lengths of wood, they utilized the coveted post-and-beam method of construction, a style which present-day historians regard as prized workmanship. Many an old New Hampshire barn has been spared demolition because of the historical significance of its construction, thanks to the efforts of hometown historical societies and similar organizations dedicated to preserving the state's past.

Such was the mission recently of the Hampton Historical Society (HHS), who learned from the town's Heritage Commission that an old barn located on the recently-sold Sanders & McDermott property (off Drakeside Road) was worthy of such preservation. Members of the HHS and the James House Association paid a visit to the barn last week to take a closer look — and they liked what they saw.

Well-versed in the preservation and restoration of early New England architecture, Chet Riley and Bob Pothier offered their expert opinions on what Riley called "a beauty" of a "Yankee barn." Pothier, a restoration carpenter who for 10 years has assisted with preservation efforts of the James House in Hampton, proclaimed the barn to be "in terrific shape."

Estimates were that the 38'x36' structure, once used as both a carriage house and boarding for livestock, was constructed around 1800. It originally had doors on opposite sides, but at some point in the barn's history the doors located on the north side had been removed and the wall boarded up. Its peaked roof rises high overhead, displaying an angularly stunning composition of both beam and board.

According to Elizabeth Aykroyd of the Heritage Commission, "The barn is in very good condition and retains its entire framework, some beams measuring 38 feet in length. Experts who have seen the barn belonging to this property believe that the present barn dates from the late 18th century, and is an outstanding example of an in-town carriage barn. Such a barn would not serve a working farm but would instead be used for housing a couple of cows, horses, and a carriage. It is known that Captain Caleb Toppan, a merchant from Newburyport, lived in the [main] house from 1796 to 1806, and he may well have been the builder of the barn."

The property's new owners have no need for the barn, and early plans indicated that the HHS would, with funding from an outside source, arrange to have the barn carefully dismantled by a May 27 deadline. The disassembled portions of the barn would be stored on the grounds of the Tuck Museum where, after some major fundraising, a community "barn raising" event would see the structure rise up and take shape as the new location of the HHS Farm Museum.

"We will save the barn," HHS President Ben Moore declared last week. "We will be working to take it down." Efforts would be made to save the post-and-beam supports and as much of the sheathing as possible. This would mean expertly numbering and cataloguing the components of the framework so that its eventual reassembly would go without a hitch. Since they had just a few weeks to get the job done, HHS members hustled to make arrangements to get their project underway.

A task force of 25-30 volunteers was enlisted to help empty out the barn, pull off the clapboard exterior, and remove the sliding double door from its rail-and-wheel mechanism during a work party scheduled for May 15-16. Eventually, a crane would be brought in for the painstaking process of dismantling the post-and-beam network once the roof and sides were removed. Ongoing work would be documented using digital photographs posted on the HHS Web site by Rich Hureau. Members of the historical society, including Catherine Fletcher and Sammi Moe, enthusiastically looked forward to adding yet another historical jewel to Hampton's Meeting House Green.

Unfortunately, plans for the barn project abruptly came to a halt late last week when, according to Aykroyd, "We lost the financing we thought we had. We can't afford to do it." Without the financial support needed to do the work, and with next to no time to raise funds on their own to make it happen, members of the Hampton Historical Society had no choice but to relinquish any claim they may have had on the barn. It was a disappointing turn of events, to say the least.

Nowhere is that disappointment more evident than in the words expressed by Chet Riley.

"We had everything in place," he said. "It's really a big project, but I have no doubt that we could have done it." At this point the most that can realistically be salvaged — before a demolition crew moves in around May 24 — are just a few bits and pieces, and that doesn't include the components of the coveted post-&-beam framework.

{Photo at left:} RAISE THE ROOF — Chet Riley of the NH Preservation Alliance is pictured here removing a hinged door from the interior of an old Drakeside Road barn slated for impending demolition. In the rafters above him is an example of a flared (or gunstock) post, a typical characteristic of barns built between 1770-1820 and a feature that gives such properties historical significance. [Atlantic News Photos by Liz Premo]

"Once they start pushing this [barn] down, we can't do much to save them," said Riley, who has been active with the NH Preservation Alliance for the past six years. "It will break every mortice in the place," he added, referring to one of the post-and-beam features. However, because the barn appears to be so solidly built, Riley predicted that "it ain't gonna come down with the first pull, I'm telling you."

Riley noted that previously, LCHIP grants would have provided funding to help avoid this type of situation from befalling a structure with such historical significance. "Sadly," he observed, "things that were in place [before] are strained right now."

"We're all sad about this," said Riley about the Hampton Historical Society's cancelled barn project. "We're not sure what can be done."

"There's always a chance for a miracle," Aykroyd offered hopefully.

She may be right. According to Pothier, who is also affiliated with the NH Preservation Alliance, at any given time there are people out there who are interested in purchasing a barn and can fairly easily afford to do so. Some, in the interest of supporting the efforts of organizations like the Hampton Historical Society, may even act as "an angel" – completely funding such a project to "help us preserve the past for our future," in the words of HHS's Sammi Moe.

"I'm going to do some calling around and see what we can come up with," Pothier said on Monday of this week. He added, "I'd come down and take it myself in a minute" if it was at all possible. "It would be a shame to demolish it."

Frequently, individuals who are offered such structures receive them free of charge. The one catch is, they often have to provide the funding to have their acquisition dismantled, relocated, and reassembled. Some can easily pay up to $15,000 or more, said Pothier, just to keep an old barn from ending up in splintered pieces, choking the local landfill.

Pothier explained that in New Hampshire and Vermont alone, 1000 antique barns each year meet the same fate that is facing the barn on Drakeside Road. "That's pretty alarming when you think of it," he said, noting that a lot of the state's tourism includes visitors who love to view old New England architecture.

The fate of the antique "Yankee barn" in Hampton — and whether it can be saved for generations to enjoy for years to come — remains to be seen. Dreams of eventually using the relocated barn as an educational tool for local schools have sadly been put aside, as have plans for fundraising to help pay for the completion of the project. But — if there is "an angel" out there with a love for preserving Hampton history, it is certain that there is a local historical society that would love to make a connection.