Effort to save old Connecticut barns wraps up
WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) _ Powered by a passion for the state's heritage and the
desire to preserve it, volunteers armed with cameras and clipboards set out in
2004 to make a survey of Connecticut's early American barns.
They turned up more than 8,000 structures that documentary photographer Markham
Starr, in his book ``Barns of Connecticut,'' describes as the closest one can
come ``to walking into history.''
It's been a 10-year walk for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation,
which recently wrapped up its ``Historic Barns of Connecticut'' project. As the
first settlers raised barns for survival, the Trust project raised consciousness
and provided funds to see some of those barns survive. It moves on now to a
focus on early state mills, with the sense of having set up a solid foundation
to support a rich state heritage.
Using funds from the State Historic Preservation Office, the Connecticut Office
of Tourism and private donations, the project identified barns across the state,
provided funding for their preservation and restoration, and developed what may
be a national first _ a town-by-town Barns Trail map.
And, yes, there's an app for that.
The app, as well as a map available at the state's welcome centers, shows
properties initially noted by project volunteers _ initial directions cautioned
them to travel in pairs, be both tactful and wary about approaching property
owners, and please avoid climbing trees, the better to photograph the inside of
a sighted building.
Their finds were taken over by historians and architects, who painstakingly
sifted the 8,000 down to an eventual 200 designated for inclusion on the State
Register of Historic Places. If that aspect was more academic, it more than
shared the volunteers' enthusiasm for the philosophy behind the survey _ what
Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust, calls no less than
the need ``to preserve the fabric of our communities.''
Higgins wasn't and isn't interested in a ``worship of the past,'' and the Trust
did not limit the concept of ``a historic barn'' to a building in which
something of note happened. For barn lovers, the form and function of the barns
that served the first colonists was history; Higgins and other dedicated
preservationists ask why anyone would want to see what once defined
Connecticut's landscape deteriorate.
In 2004, many barns were doing exactly that; it was the hope of the Trust the
project would identify buildings that could be not only preserved _ for some,
the simple goal ``was that they not fall down,'' says Higgins _ but also put to
new uses, with funding in the form of grants to help property owners do both.
Grants were hardly huge, given the cost of repair or restoration of buildings
that bore the influence of the first farmers' English heritage, as well as their
ability to adapt their barns as agriculture changed and industry grew.
The Trust offered 75 percent of costs up to $1,500 for either conditions
assessment _ a prioritized list of repairs and recommendations _ or a
feasibility study that would determine an adaptive reuse of the structure.
Property owners had to make up the rest, in cash. Fifty percent of costs up to
$5,000, again with an owner cash match, was offered for materials and labor
needed to stabilize a property.
Owners had to provide a detailed plan for a project that could be completed in
a year, and would be required to submit a follow-up report to the Trust.
Neither cost nor detail daunted barn owners. The Trust's announcement in 2008
that 10 grants would be made available brought 100 applications. As every parent
has a beautiful baby, so every applicant had a building worthy of preservation;
Higgins acknowledges that telling barn owners their property wasn't chosen was
less than easy.
Properties that made the grade did so for a variety of reasons. How well the
barn reflected the construction techniques of its time was a factor; so was a
structure's status as a landmark in a town.
The barn's use played a part _ barns could reflect Connecticut's shift from a
few-cow farm to a dairy operation providing milk for multitudes. Tobacco barns
recall a time before the Marlboro Man fell into disrepute, when tobacco was both
acceptable to society and profitable for Connecticut farmers.
The trust distributed $58,000 that first year and $81,000 in 2009. As the
project was winding down in 2012, $40,700 went to nonprofits and municipalities
as well as private citizens across the state.
Recipients sought to stabilize a building, determine whether a barn could be
turned toward another use, or make it accessible as a teaching tool, a look into
the past. Each project fulfilled one or more of the Trust requirements, among
them that it reflect Connecticut's agricultural history since the first
Europeans settled here, that it show how changing times changed architecture and
that it benefit the community.
In 2013, the Trust stopped taking applications for barns grants. For Higgins,
the program has done what it set out to do _ raise awareness of what Connecticut
has in its barns, raise some of those barns to State Register of Historic Places
status and raise funds to restore and renovate them.
Preservationists looked to the legislature this year to keep the momentum the
barns grants had established. They were rewarded recently when towns and cities
were allowed to offer tax breaks to help preserve barns, stone walls and other
agricultural structures of historical significance in the state.
Under the new law, municipalities can grant a homeowner a preservation easement
for up to 10 years. In exchange, the homeowner must agree to preserve the
historic nature of the structure.
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