Old houses and outbuildings

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Construction, Old House Musings, Old House History, Historic Preservation

I find the many outbuildings old houses collect over the years to be fascinating. I can’t speak for other states, but Virginia’s old houses often have outbuildings of all shapes and sizes scattered around their properties.  It doesn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure out what some were built for, but others often remain a total mystery.

Restored outbuilding with chimney and creative downspout arrangement

Restored outbuilding with chimney and creative downspout arrangement

When we first moved to Virgina in the mid ’60s, the old farmhouse my parents purchased had a number of sheds and a barn on the property. One was an old outhouse that was still in pretty good condition and even had a small single pane window that remained intact. An unfortunate incident with a BB gun soon changed that.

The medium sized barn’s first floor became a storage room and inside parking for our tractor with a little renovation work.  The second floor was used to store hay for the horses to eat during the winter.  I have fond memories of stacking hay bales on hot August afternoons while avoiding wasp nests in the rafters and stepping over the occasional snake we disturbed.

A small outbuilding was renovated and still serves as a tool shed today.  The property had a large one story shed that was open all along the front for storing farm equipment at some point in time.  We closed it in and with some interior changes had a nice stable. My father had very cheap labor at his disposal in those days.

Small towns and old outbuildings

The small town I live in now has old outbuildings everywhere.  Some have been restored along with the old houses they’re next to, but others appear as if they haven’t been touched in 100 years.  There are two story buildings that may have housed livestock at one time, but others might have been used as businesses of some sort.  A few months ago I wrote about an outbuilding that was once a cobbler’s shop.

Old shed with popular front overhang

Old shed with popular front overhang

There is one small shed design that’s very common, but no one seems to know anything about its unique shape.  The shed has a roof overhang on the front that extends out about two feet and is supported on each side.  I would say that maybe 30 to 40 percent of the old houses in town have one of these sheds very close to their rear door.  There were probably a lot more built that didn’t stand the test of time. I don’t know if there was once a local shed builder with a popular design and a lot of business or the overhang served a specific purpose.

Some states are taking measures to save their old barns just as they are their old houses.  The University of Vermont has a very good article on the various types of historical barns in the state and tips for preserving them.  There are even people who specialize in saving old barns.


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  1. 4 Responses  to “Old houses and outbuildings”

  2. Aug 26, 2011
    Remodeling old houses or turning barns into a beautiful home can be cheaper with good architectural know-how.
  3. Jeremy
    Aug 26, 2011
    I remember cleaning out my great grandma's outbuilding and it had jars of food from I would have to say the 40's. Just in case the apocalypse came I presume she thought she was safe with that.
  4. Aug 26, 2011
    Hi Joe. That was my initial thought as it seems logical, but a few reasons made me think it might be for a more specific purpose. The overhang support framing seems to very heavy duty as if to support a lot of weight. Although, it could be that they just wanted to make sure that section didn't fail due to snow load. The other reason is that in a lot of cases there is another shed in the yard that appears to have been built about the same era, but there is no overhang. There are several yards that have three or four sheds standing, but only one has an overhang. I spoke to a lady in her late 80s or early 90s who moved to the town in her early teens. In those days many people did their own butchering and she can remember some people hanging meat under the overhangs. I don't know if that was the purpose for the style or it was just a convenient place. If that was the purpose, then a lot of people were hanging meat. Her shed actually has a basement in it where she still keeps vegetables. The sheds are only about 8 feet wide by 10 or 12 feet long so you wouldn't think they would have a basement.
  5. Joe
    Aug 26, 2011
    The overhang protected the door from inclement weather, and you.