How to maintain, preserve or repair older barns

By The Old House Web

Preservation of HistoricBarns

The Kandt-Domann Farmstead, Barn
(1860s small stone and wood cow barn)

Understanding Barns and Their History

Historic barns are preserved for a number of reasons. Some are so wellbuilt that they remain useful even after a hundred years or more.

Manyothers are intimately connected with the families who built them and thesurrounding communities. Others reflect developments in agricultural scienceor regional building types.

Before restoring a historic barn or rehabilitating it for a new use,an owner should study the building thoroughly. This process involves findingout when the barn was built, who built it, and why. It means understandinghow the building was changed through the years. It means assessing thecondition of the barn, and understanding its components. This process hasas its end an appreciation of the building's historic character, that is,the sense of time and place associated with it. It is this physical presenceof the past that gives historic buildings their significance.

To assess the historic character of a barn, an owner should study oldphotographs, family records, deeds, insurance papers, and other documentsthat might reveal the building's appearance and history.

Neighbors andformer owners are often important sources of information. Local libraries,historical societies and preservation organizations are additional sourcesof help.

As part of this overall evaluation, the following elements should beassessed for their contributions to the property. They are the principaltangible aspects of a barn's historic character, and should be respectedin any work done on it.

Setting. Setting is one of the primary factors contributing to the historiccharacter of a barn.

Farmers built barns in order to helpthem work the land; barns belong on farms, where they can be seen in relationto the surrounding fields and other structures in the farm complex. A barncrowded by suburbs is not a barn in the same sense as is a barn clusteredwith other farm buildings, or standing alone against a backdrop of cornfields.

Hence, the preservation of barns should not be divorced from the preservationof the setting: farms and farmland, ranches and range, orchards, ponds,fields, streams and country roads.

Other important elements of setting include fences, stone walls, roads,paths, barnyards, corrals, and ancillary structures such as windmills andsilos. (Silos, indeed, have become so closely associated with barns asnearly to have lost their "separate" identities.)

These featureshelp place the building in the larger agricultural context, relating itto its purpose in the overall rural setting.

Form. The shape of barns, as with other buildings, is great importancein conveying their character. (For round barns, the shape is the definingfeature of the type.) Often the form of a barn is visible from a distance.Often, too, more than one side can be seen at the same time, and from severaldifferent approaches.

As a general rule, the rear and sides of a barn arenot as differentiated from the front, or as subordinated to it, as in otherbuildings.

The roof is among the most important elements of building form. Barnsare no exception. The gable roof on Dutch and Prairie barns, the cone-shaped,dome-shaped, eight or twelve-sided roof of round barns, and the gambrelroof of the "typical" barn are among the most prominent featureson these buildings. A barn roof can often be seen from a distance, andfor this reason must be considered a major feature.

Materials. Among the major impressions given by well-maintained historicbarns are those of strength, solidity and permanence.

Theseimpressions largely result from the durability and ruggedness of the materialsused in them. Weathered wood siding, irregularly shaped stones, or roughhewnlogs on the exterior; dressed beams, posts scarred by years of use, andplank flooring on the interior all contribute to the special characterof barns.

Openings. Unlike historic residential, industrial and commercial buildings,barns generally have few openings for windows and doors. Yet the openingsfound in barns are important both to their functioning and to their appearance.

Typically, large wagon doorways and openings to the hayloft are among themost striking features on barns. Not as prominent as these large openings,but important from a functional perspective, are the ventilator slits foundon many barns. With important exceptions (dairy barns, for example), windowsare few, and are normally small. The relative absence of openings for windowsand doors adds to the overall impression of massiveness and solidity conveyedby many historic barns, and is one of the reasons why they often appearto be larger than they are.

Interior Spaces. The impression received upon stepping into many historicbarns is that of space. Not infrequently, the entire buildingappears as a single large space.

To enter these buildings is sometimesto experience the entire expanse of the building at once. Even when hayloftsand animal stalls "consume" part of the building, they oftendo not keep the full expanse of the interior from being seen. In largebarns, this can be an imposing sight. More commonly, the barn is a combinationof confined spaces on the lower floor and a large open space above; inthis case, the contrast between the confined and open spaces is also striking.The openness of the interior, furthermore, often contrasts with the "blankness"typical of many barn exteriors, with their relatively few openings.

Structural Framework. The exposed structural framework is a major componentof the character of most historic barns. Typically, barnswere built for strictly utilitarian purposes. Accordingly, barn buildersmade no effort to conceal the structural system. Yet for that very reason,barns achieve an authenticity that accounts for much of their appeal.

In some barns, the load-bearing members are of enormous dimensions, andthe complex system of beams, braces, posts, rafters and other elementsof the revealed framework create an imposing sight. Yet even in small barns,the structural system can be an important feature, helping to determinethe historic character of the building.

Decorative Features. Historic barns, like modern ones, are structuresbuilt for use. Nevertheless, decorative elements are not lacking on barns.Foremost among these is color (red being most common). Dutch barns traditionallysported distinctively shaped martin holes in the upper reaches of the building.

Traditional hex signs on Pennsylvania barns are so well known as to haveentered the mainstream of popular culture and taken on a life of theirown. Decorative paint schemes, including contrasting colorsto "pick out" cross members of the external framework, are common(these most frequently take the form of diamonds or "X's" onthe main doors). Sign painters often took advantage of the size and visibilityof barns in an age before billboards.

"Mail Pouch Tobacco" signswere nearly as numerous in the first quarter of the 20th century as patentmedicine ads were in the last quarter of the 19th. Another decorative motifon historic barns is the arrangement of spacings between bricks to formdecorative patterns (as well as to ventilate the barn).

In addition to these elements, arched window hoods, patterned slateroofs, fanciful cupolas, weathervanes, lightning rods and ornamented metalventilator hoods can be found on historic barns. Finally, individual farmersand barn builders sometimes added personal touches, as when they carvedor painted their names on anchor beams, or painted their names and thedate over the entrance.

The elements discussed here are major components of historic barns.Yet no list can convey the full historic character of an individual building.It is very important, therefore, to study each structure carefully beforeundertaking any project to restore it or to adapt it to new uses.


If a building is to be kept in good repair, periodic maintenance isessential.

Barns should be routinely inspected for signs of damage anddecay, and problems corrected as soon as possible. Water is the singlegreatest cause of building materials deterioration. The repair of roofleaks is therefore of foremost importance. Broken or missing panes of glassin windows or cupolas are also sources of moisture penetration, and shouldbe replaced, as should broken ventilation louvers. Gutters and downspoutsshould be cleaned once or twice a year. Proper drainage and grading shouldbe ensured, particularly in low spots around the foundation where watercan collect.

Moisture is one major threat to historic buildings. Insects, especiallytermites, carpenter ants and powder post beetles, are another. Regularexaminations for infestations are essential.

Additional periodic maintenance measures include repair or replacementof loose or missing clapboards, and inspections of foundations for cracksand settlements. Vegetation growing on the barn should be removed, andshrubs or trees near it should be cleared if they obstruct access, or,more serious, if roots and other growths threaten the foundation.

Soiland manure buildups against the foundation should be removed. Such buildupshold water and snow against wooden elements, and promote rot. They alsopromote insect infestations. Door hardware should be checked for properfitting and lubricated yearly. Lightning rods should be kept in properworking order, or added, if missing.


Many historic barns require more serious repairs than those normallyclassed as "routine maintenance". Damaged or deterioratedfeatures should be repaired rather than replaced wherever possible. Ifreplacement is necessary, the new material should match the historic materialin design, color, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible,material. The design of replacements for missing features (for example,cupolas and dormers) should be based on historic, physical, or pictorialevidence.

Many barn owners have substantial experience in the care of farm structures.Where expertise is lacking, it will be necessary to consult structuralengineers, masons, carpenters, and architects, as appropriate. In addition,for many repairs, a knowledge of historic building techniques may be necessary.

Structural Repairs. Ensuring the structural soundness of a historicbarn is vital both to its continued usefulness and to the safety of itsoccupants.

The following signs of structural settlements may require theservices of a structural engineer to evaluate: major cracks in masonrywalls, visible bowing, leaning and misalignment of walls, sagging windowsand doors, separation of cladding from structural frames, trusses pullingaway from seating points at support walls, sagging joists and rafters,and noticeable dips in the roof between rafters.

To correct these problems,masonry foundations may have to be reset or partially rebuilt. Sills andplates may need to be repaired or replaced. Walls may have to be straightenedand tied into the structural system more securely. Individual structuralmembers may need bracing or splicing.

Roofing. Moisture can damage historic materials severely, and, in extremecases, jeopardize the structural integrity of a building. Every effortmust be made to secure a weathertight roof.

This may require merely patchinga few missing shingles on a roof that is otherwise sound. In more severecases, it may require repairing or replacing failing rafters and damagedsheathing. Such extreme intervention, however, is not usual.

More typicalis the need to furnish "a new roof," that is, to replace thewooden shingles, asphalt shingles, slate shingles or metal covering theroof. Replacing one type of roofing with another can produce a drasticchange in the appearance of historic buildings. Great care should be taken,therefore, to assess the contribution of the roof to the appearance andcharacter of the barn before replacing one type of roofing material withanother. While some substitute materials (such as synthetic slate shingles)can be considered, the highest priority should be to replace in-kind, andto match the visual qualities of the historic roof.

Gutters and downspoutsshould be replaced if damaged or missing.

Finally, dormers, cupolas, metalventilators and other rooftop "ornaments"provide needed ventilation, and should be repaired if necessary.

Exterior. In addition to the roof and the foundation, other exteriorelements may need repair, including siding, brick and stonework, dormersand cupolas, windows and doors. Shutters may be falling off, doors mayneed to be rehung, and missing louvers replaced. The exterior may needrepainting. (Unpainted brick or stone barns, however, should never be painted.)In the case of masonry barns, repointing may be necessary. If so, mortarthat is compatible in appearance and composition with the historic mortarmust be used. Using mortar high in portland cement can damage historicbrick or stone. Masonry cleaning should be undertaken only when necessaryto halt deterioration or to remove heavy dirt, and using the gentlest meanspossible. Sandblasting and other physical or chemical treatments that damagehistoric materials should not be used. Likewise, power washing under highpressure can also damage building material.

Interior. Typical interior repairs may include removing and replacingrotten floorboards, and repair or replacement of partitions, storage bins,gutters and stalls. Concrete floors may be cracked and in need of repair.Wiring and plumbing may need major overhaul.


Some barns have served the same uses for generations, and need onlyperiodic repairs and routine maintenance. Others have become obsolete andneed extensive updating for modern farming methods.

(To house livestock,for example, a barn may need new feeding, watering, waste removal, electrical,plumbing and ventilation systems.) Similarly, barns that can no longerbe used for agriculture at all normally require changes to adapt them forcommercial, office, or residential use.

In such cases barns need more extensivework than the maintenance and repair treatments outlined above. However,when rehabilitating a historic barn for a new farming operation or a newuse entirely, care must be taken to preserve its historic character whilemaking needed changes.

A successful rehabilitation project is best guaranteed when a work planis drawn up by someone familiar with the evaluation of historic structures,and when it is carried out by contractors and workmen experienced withthe building type and committed to the goal of retaining the historic characterof the property. Help in formulating rehabilitation plans and in locatingexperienced professionals is normally available from the State HistoricPreservation Office and local preservation groups.

The following approaches should be observed when carrying out rehabilitationprojects on historic barns:

1. Preserve the historic setting of the barn as much as possible. Modernfarming practices do not require the great number of outbuildings, lots,fences, hedges, walls and other elements typical of historic farms. Yet such features, together with fields, woods, ponds, and other aspectsof the farm setting can be important to the character of historic barns.

The functional relationship between the barn and silo is particularly significantand should also be maintained.

2. Repair and repaint historic siding rather than cover barns with artificialsiding. Siding applied over the entire surface of a building can give itan entirely different appearance, obscure craft details, and mask ongoingdeterioration of historic materials underneath. The resurfacing of historicfarm buildings with any new material that does not duplicate the historicmaterial is never a recommended treatment.

3. Repair rather than replace historic windows whenever possible, andavoid "blocking them down" or covering them up. Avoid the insertionof numerous new window openings. They can give a building a domestic appearance,radically altering a barn's character. However, if additional light isneeded, add new windows carefully, respecting the size and scale of existingwindow openings.

4. Avoid changing the size of door openings whenever possible. Increasingthe height of door openings to accommodate new farm machinery can dramaticallyalter the historic character of a barn. If larger doors are needed, minimizethe visual change.

Use new track-hung doors rather than oversized rolledsteel doors, which give an industrial appearance incompatible with mosthistoric barns. If the barn has wood siding, the new doors should matchit. If historic doors are no longer needed, fix them shut instead of removingthem and filling in the openings.

5. Consider a new exterior addition only if it is essential to the continueduse of a historic barn. A new addition can damage or destroy historic featuresand materials and alter the overall form of the historic building. If anaddition is required, it should be built in a way that minimizes damageto external walls and internal plan. It should also be compatible withthe historic barn, but sufficiently differentiated from it so that thenew work is not confused with what is genuinely part of the past.

6. Retain interior spaces and features as much as possible. The internalvolume of a barn is often a major character-defining feature, and the insertionof new floors, partitions, and structures within the barn can drasticallyimpair the overall character of the space. Similarly, interior featuresshould also be retained to the extent possible.

7. Retain as much of the historic internal structural system as possible.Even in cases where it is impractical to keep all of the exposed structuralsystem, it may be possible to keep sufficiently extensive portions of itto convey a strong sense of the interior character. Wholesale replacementof the historic structural system with a different system should be avoided.

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