Rustic Spirit

Barns are a strong part of Michigan’s agrarian history,and their preservation is the goal of several groups.
Masonic Barn
A horse barn in Macomb County has a Masonic symbol carved at the apex. Image from Mary Keithan’s book, Michigan Heritage Barns (Michigan State University Press).
Photo: Mary Keithan

Paris is home to the majestic Notre Dame. Southwest of that landmark is the lauded Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. In Cologne, Germany, they call it the Kölner Dom, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. But stay right here in Michigan; jump on M-14, I-75, or any road traveling out of the city, and a different, much more humble kind of cathedral rises. They’re called barns.

Past the fences, under the trotting horses and grazing cows, and at the end of the vertical lines of budding crops, sit some of Michigan’s own version of rural Notre Dames.

“I call them cathedrals to the Earth’s spirit,” says Jan Corey Arnett, known as the “Barn Lady.”

To her, she says, barns are spiritual places, where she would spend as much time as she could when she was growing up on a farm in the Upper Peninsula. They also resemble cathedrals on another level. “Immigrants from Europe brought over barn design that is closely related to cathedral design, commonly their arched roofs,” she says.

Unfortunately, a lot of these agrarian cathedrals are disappearing from the landscape, taking with them pieces of Michigan’s agricultural history and heritage. Developers are razing these barns, some of which are more than a century old, while even more are collapsing from neglect. The battle to save the structures by groups like the 14-year-old Michigan Barn Preservation Network (MBPN) is being fought on many fronts, says Brad Brogren, MBPN president.

The goal of MBPN, as well as that of a number of other organizations, contractors, and barn owners across the state, is to push back the clock and bring these old edifices, which at one time served as the backbone of farm life, back from the almost dead. Their efforts go way beyond paint jobs and a few new door hinges, however. They involve not only restoration, but also educating people and barn owners about the value of these structures.

“These barns represent our agricultural heritage and the agriculture heritage of Michigan,” Brogren says. “Somewhere down the road, your family was a farmer. We have to preserve them,” he says.

Unless the barn is severely compromised, Arnett says, it can be repaired. Holes can be patched, foundations can be fixed, and a barn that looks as if a strong gust of wind might flatten it can be straightened and stabilized for another 100 years.

Most restoration projects are merely the three basics of foundation stabilization, frame straightening, and roof repair. The projects tend to deal with shoring up old barns for storage or turning them into workshops or garages. Other barns are transformed into homes, retail shops, or community-based projects for museums or events.

Joe Kahn and his wife, Brigid Mulroy, aren’t farmers, but they restored their nearly 100-year-old barn and, last summer, brought in some animals. They have a donkey named Domino, two goats called Buttermilk Cheddar and Saltwater Taffy, two ducks that go by Downy and Daisy, Sadie, the house dog, and Piper, a cat that sleeps in the barn.

Kahn is a certified public accountant with no agrarian plans, although he does have that barn on his property, filled with animals. He and his wife are planning on adding some chickens, too.

“Ten years ago, I would have had a tough time envisioning myself what I’m doing right now,” Kahn says, with a slight laugh. “My friends say, ‘We never knew you were interested in barns.’ I say, ‘Me, either.’ I give a lot of credit to my wife, though. It was always her dream to have animals and a barn.”

Their barn is on the property of the historic Stone Rowe House, where the two of them live. It’s technically in Highland Township, even though their mailing address is Milford. The house was built in 1855. The barn, however, isn’t quite as old, erected somewhere between 1890 and 1910. When they bought the house, the barn was a disaster.

“It wasn’t taken care of very well,” Kahn says. “Not only was it in a state of disrepair structurally but, more superficially, the previous owners left a lot of ‘belongings’ in the barn. It looked like they just walked right outside and threw the trash into the barn.”

After a few years spent adding a new roof, a reset foundation, stabilized walls, and a sturdy floor, the animals were able to move in. Last fall, Joe and Brigid hosted a workshop — in their barn — on barn foundations with a mini-grant from MBPN.

“Barns are part of our heritage,” Kahn says. “The past has entrusted to us these old barns. We should maintain them, take care of them, and do what we can so future generations can enjoy them.”

But barn restoration can go only as far as the budget allows, and that can be pretty steep.

Drake Ambrosino is a general contractor and owner of the Ann Arbor-based Arbor Building Co. He spent almost three years turning an old barn into Chip and Kathleen Letts’ new home.

“You have to have deep pockets and a lot of patience if you plan on turning a barn into a home,” he says. In his 11 years of business, Ambrosino has contracted only one.

Naturally, a human dwelling is a lot more elaborate than a farm animal’s humble digs. Humans like their amenities, and they don’t usually feel comfy snoozing in mud or hay. Taking a 10,000 square-foot barn and installing a bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom is quite an undertaking.

In the Letts’ case, after the foundation and roof were restored, the entire thing was encased in what contractors call SIPs (structurally insulated panels) — think of an ice-cream sandwich with the insulation being the ice cream. The restored original roof was covered by a brand-new roof, so that the Letts could enjoy the ambience of the old one from inside their structure. This was an old bank barn, so the lower level — where the animals slept — was turned into the Letts’ living quarters. The upper level, which was used for equipment and hay, is now a huge open space that Chip likens to a gigantic hangar.

“The cost is a lot more than building a new house,” Chip says. And considering their barn is rather large, that’s a lot. But, he adds: “Some people get mistresses, others buy Porsches; this is our midlife thing. We’re both in our 50s, the kids are gone, and we like to work with old structures. There is something neat about having history like this as your house. Having some rusty chain hanging in our space that was used on this farm so long ago — we appreciate things like that.”

Everything has a story. There’s a story inside those old pair of shoes from that summer in Europe. There’s a tale printed on each torn movie stub squirreled away. There’s a story laminated into that first driver’s license. That ragged T-shirt hangs in the closet for a reason. Then there is the Letts’ old chain.

There are other stories locked up in closets and boxes. But these barns contain bigger stories.

“I grew up on a farm,” says Steve Stier, a barn consultant and member of MBPN. “The barn, for a while, wasn’t a nostalgic thing at all. I hated it. The barn meant work. I didn’t like it at all,” he says. “But as I became an adult, I recognized the value of it. Now I try to preserve it — the knowledge and skill and the history. These barns are a part of us and of Michigan.”