History

Preserve Mass Barns began in 2004 when PM President Jim Igoe and Sumner Perlman, author of Barns of Dennis, Massachusetts collaborated to address the lack of organized advocacy for the preservation of historic barns. The void of such advocacy work was becoming ever more visible as long-familiar barns began to disappear from the landscape, often without community comment.

From this beginning, a Barn Task Force jumped into action, hosting several barn conferences, workshops across the state, publishing newsletters and a website dedicated to getting more information and support for historic barns into the public eye. Now an all volunteer committee is focused on the continued education about historic barns through online resources, publications and the advocacy strength of Preservation Massachusetts and its membership.

By working with everyone from barn owners to community leaders, we can make the case for the preservation and reuse of our historic barns and agricultural buildings, encourage more barn assessments and preservation plans and work cohesively with partner organizations to ensure the historic agrarian architecture of Massachusetts remains for future generations.

FAQ

  1. Why save barns?
  2. Is there any money available to help pay for repairing our barn?
  3. Why is knowing the history of my barn important?
  4. How do I find out the age of my barn?
  5. I have been told my barn might be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. What does that mean?
  6. What are Barn Condition Assessments and Preservation Plans?
  7. We have an old barn on our property and would like to put it to use. Do you have any good reuse ideas that would bring in some income?
  8. Our modern farming machinery will no longer fit into our 100 year old barn, so we are considering tearing it down. Do you have any advice on how to save this barn?
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1. Why save barns?

Why are barns important? Barns and agricultural buildings help tell the Massachusetts story over the last several hundred years. From carriage barns in city or town centers, tobacco barns in the Connecticut River valley, cranberry screen houses on the Cape, to dairy barns across the state, they help us read the landscape and connect us to the life and work of our communities through the generations. Most barns, especially those of timber frame construction, are well-built and have open floor plans that make them useful today for farming or for a wide variety of new uses. Yet, barns are disappearing at a rapid rate from the landscape. With some planning, patience, and creativity, older and historic barns can continue to serve their original function or be put back to use.

2. Is there any money available to help pay for repairing our barn?

Very little grant funding is currently available for privately-owned barns in Massachusetts. However, changing conditions in the US economy may bring about new opportunities. Two agencies that we recommend checking for new programs are the USDA Rural Development Office and the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture. If your town has adopted the Community Preservation Act, there may be an opportunity to fund privately-owned barn preservation; check with your local Community Preservation Committee about eligibility and application procedures.

There is generally more funding available for buildings owned by a non-profit or public agency. Some options include:

  • Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund (MPPF)
    • The MPPF is a grant through the Massachusetts Historical Commission that provides funding for the acquisition, preservation, and rehabilitation of historic properties, landscapes, and sites. Its requirements are as follows:
      • Eligible properties must be listed in or eligible for listing in the State Register of Historic Places;
      • Eligible projects must be under municipal or private non-profit ownership;
      • Predevelopment projects such as feasibility studies, plans and specification, and historic structures reports are also eligible activities;
      • A 50% cash match is required for this grant program.
  • Essex National Heritage Commission Partnership Grant Program (Barns located in Essex County, MA, only)
    • The Essex National Heritage Commission Partnership Grant Program provides seed money to organizations for heritage education, preservation, interpretation, archives and trails projects. It is managed by the Essex National Heritage Area.
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation
    • The National Trust has a variety of grant and loan programs which are primarily for planning and education purposes only.

In addition to the options listed, some foundations are occasionally willing to consider funding preservation projects.

3. Why is knowing the history of my barn important?

Knowledge about when a barn was built and how it evolved will help guide and inform any work that is done to it. The character of any building depends partly on its age and partly on its distinctive features, which will be important to keep. Features that represent later alterations may be less important, or in some cases, may have taken on a significance of their own. But either way, they provide the physical history of when changes were made to the barn, and suggest what should be retained when work is done.

4. How do I find out the age of my barn?

Most of the information may be contained in the building itself. Since building techniques and materials changed over time, and many outbuildings were enlarged at least once, barns can often be “read” by looking carefully at their construction. For instance, while timber-frame (post-and-beam) construction continued longer in barns than in houses, “scribe-rule” framing (with individually fitted joints) was replaced by “square-rule” framing with interchangeable joints after 1830 in most areas of New England. At around the same time the New England barn, with lengthwise aisles and the wagon entry in the gable end, began to replace the English barn plan, which had the large wagon doors in the long sides. Some of the resources listed below give good explanations and illustrations of the evolution of barn design and construction.

Local knowledge and documents such as town histories, tax records, and Mass. Historical Commission historic properties survey forms that have been prepared under the guidance of the local historical commission may also contain information about when a barn was built or enlarged. Additional clues are often provided by historic maps, old newspaper articles, and oral histories.

5. I have been told my barn might be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. What does that mean?

For a privately-owned barn that is not used for commercial purposes, listing in the National Register is an official recognition of the building’s importance in architecture and/or history. As a rule, however, National Register listing for a privately owned building does not make it eligible for any public funding, and would not place any restrictions on what can be done with or to the building. National Register-listed barns that are owned by municipalities or non-profit organizations, however, may qualify for grants, when available, from some funding programs such as the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund administered by MHC and Community Preservation Funding in communities which have adopted the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act. Owners of barns used for rental or other income producing purposes that undergo substantial rehabilitation may be eligible for a 20% federal tax credit on the cost of a certified rehabilitation. Contact the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) for details.

6. What are Barn Condition Assessments and Preservation Plans?

Barn condition assessments are reports made by professionals who evaluate the condition of your barn by looking at it structural members, siding, roof, foundations and interior spaces and determining first their history of use, their materials, and present physical condition. When all the conditions are known the professional who is often a timber framer, architect or preservation contractor will then identify the work to be done to preserve the barn and arrange it by priority. With work listed by priority, the owner can then schedule work in a logical order that will avoid re-doing tasks, and will take care of the biggest threats first. The condition assessment also contains an estimate of the cost of the work items – often provides alternatives to their accomplishment – so that owners can budget for work and also have a basis from which to evaluate competing prices from contractors.

A preservation plan for a barn takes into consideration its long term viability. It builds on the condition assessment, current use, funding needs and sets out a plan for its future by recommending preservation, rehabilitation, restoration or reconstruction activities. It will study alternative uses, funding sources, and will project the financial viability of the barn associated with alternative uses. Based on this information the plan will make recommendations for the long term life of the building in its larger context.

7. We have an old barn on our property and would like to put it to use. Do you have any good reuse ideas that would bring in some income?

If your property is no longer in agricultural use, there are a number of reuses that people have found for their barns which maintain their integrity. Some barns are being rented out to neighboring farms for additional equipment, crop or livestock storage. But barns have also been fitted up to serve as meeting spaces, and as bed and breakfast facilities. Barns are currently being used for wedding locations; they are being rented out for personal storage space. People are using their barns to serve as workshops, as teaching facilities, and office space for businesses. There are barns that rent out boarding space for horses, and for summer riding stables.

The most frequent reuses of barns — and the most radical — are as stores, restaurants, and homes. In all three cases, it takes special care to rehabilitate the barn so as not to lose its interior volume or its character-defining features.

To find out more about barns being reused we recommend The Barn Journal and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s and Successful Farming magazine’s Barn Again! Program.

8. Our modern farming machinery will no longer fit into our 100 year old barn, so we are considering tearing it down. Do you have any advice on how to save this barn?

This is a common problem that farmers face. We would recommend that you get a copy of a National Trust for Historic Preservation publication called, Using Old Farm Buildings: adaptations for new agricultural uses, available at Barn Again! Moreover, Barn Again and the Barn Journal feature articles on altering trusses, changing opening dimensions and floor levels that farmers have used successfully to adapt older barns to modern agriculture. The economics of adaptation vs. construction weigh heavily in favor of adaptation, so it is worth the time to research techniques.

For views of other barns in PM’s Flickr Photostream, click here.

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Resources

For more help and information towards preserving your barn, check out our:

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