[10 on Tuesday] How to Save Your Older or Historic Barn

Posted on: July 2nd, 2013 by Julia Rocchi 5 Comments

Barns are as American as apple pie -- emblematic of our agricultural heritage and rural character. But around the United States, many older and historic barns are deteriorating and disappearing, threatened by changing farming practices, urban sprawl, and the complexities in maintaining these unique structures.

Whether you own a barn on your property, have them throughout your community, or simply enjoy seeing them appear on the landscape during road trips, consider how you can help preserve them. Here are 10 ways to save an older or historic barn in your area:

1. Learn about the structure’s significance. How important is the barn? Is it unusual? Is it an important representative of a type of barn? Perhaps an architectural or visual landmark? Check out our toolkit on researching your property’s history for more tips on how to uncover the barn’s story.

2. Understand the specific threats to the barn. Typical obstacles include safety concerns, financial issues, encroaching development, farm consolidation, and change of ownership. If the owner is unavailable, collect what information you can from neighbors, colleagues, and other likely sources.

3. Gauge community support. What is the current (or potential) support for the preservation of this structure? Identify the stakeholders, and see how can they help and what are they willing to do. Talking to the owner, assisting with repairs, finding a new owner, and providing expert consultations or financial assistance are some of the ways that community members can help save a barn.

Barn. Credit: Carl Wycoff, Flickr

4. Find your fellow “barn people.” Public educational programs are a great way to connect with other folks interested in barn preservation. Programs can include local lecture series, hands-on workshops at barns that need repair, and barn tours.

5. Connect with the National Barn Alliance. The National Barn Alliance is a nationwide, nonprofit organization coordinating efforts to save America’s historic barns. They offer a wide array of barn preservation resources on their website, plus newsletters, conferences, barn tours, and meetings. It's a direct way to connect with barn enthusiasts around the country.

6. Look into state and local barn preservation programs. Most will offer educational materials and technical help, recognition programs, and, in some cases, financial assistance. Many also help conduct survey programs and advocate for barn preservation. Your state historic preservation office should be able to point you in the direction of a program working in your area.

7. Analyze the structure’s viability. Barns are often demolished if they are vacant or under-used and if repair seems too expensive. Work with the owner to get an independent assessment of the barn's condition and to explore repair or reuse alternatives. Alternative uses can include a switch in agricultural enterprise (dairy barn to seed storage, for example), commercial uses (markets and supply centers), and public uses (clubhouses, theaters, even conference centers).

Wagon wheel fence outside barn. Credit: Joe Dsilva, Flickr

8. Use appropriate preservation tools. Research if any local regulations such as zoning or preservation regulations affect the current property or a future adaptive reuse. Also investigate what financial or technical incentives are available that could help save the barn. (A statewide or local program can help you here.)

9. Conduct barn surveys and seek out historic designation. Historic resource surveys help you document significant building types, record an area’s agricultural history, pinpoint threats, and articulate what has been lost. You can then use this information to push for historic designation and listing in local, state, or national registers. Such listings can, in turn, unlock regulatory and promotional perks as well as trigger financial incentives, such as tax credits or grant eligibility.

10. Get eyeballs on your project. Publicly identifying a barn as threatened, such as including on an endangered list, can help draw attention to the issue. You can also attract coverage by inviting reporters to barn rehabilitation events for firsthand visuals and interviews. Another method is to pitch feature articles about an area’s unique barns to the local newspaper.

Have you worked to save a barn in your community? Tell us about it in the comments!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the director of digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

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5 Responses

  1. Ellen Swanson

    July 2, 2013

    You must have forgotten about the historic barn at Woodlawn Stables! Get a day job! This makes me ill!

  2. Danae Peckler

    July 2, 2013

    Great tips, Julia! I have been a member of the NTHP for years & am thrilled to see the new ways in which the organization is empowering people to preserve places that matter :)

  3. Rebecca Bramlett

    July 3, 2013

    While this is a well-done post, it is a slap in the face to a community (your #3 and #4) of people who have been fighting for years to save an historic barn that is currently in jeopardy – the biggest threat (your #2) being the lack of support from the Trust itself.
    Woodlawn Stables in Alexandria, VA is on NTHP land and its lease will soon expire. The Trust has supported a plan for the future of the property that jeopardizes the historic structures, eliminates a family-run business that has been a community treasure for decades, and allows a highway bypass to run through the middle of the property.
    I would have thought that the Trust was keeping its PR/Marketing employees informed of current issues like this in order to avoid embarrassing situations where a post or promotion does not align with the current activities of the organization. The Trust’s “walk” isn’t aligning with its “talk” on this particular subject.
    I hope that the Trust will continue to honor its mission of preservation and commitment to “places that matter” when making decisions regarding the Woodlawn Stables property. Interested parties can learn more at http://www.savewoodlawnstables.org/

  4. Penni Cocking

    July 8, 2013

    My family owns a barn in general area of the Daaman Barn pictured. It’s in Colfax, WA and sits at the top of Canyon Road, state route 272. I am working hard to get funding to get the grant needed to restore it(recently our state passed the budget so I can apply this summer/fall!) I found the suggestions helpful. Please support my efforts by going to it’s facebook page and liking it. Thank you. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Restore-Historic-Kramlich-Barn-in-Colfax-WA99111-at-top-of-Canyon Road/251653778309423

  5. Mary Dove

    July 10, 2013

    “people who have been fighting for years to save an historic barn that is currently in jeopardy”

    What historic barn are you referring to? The only buildings that I am aware of that are being torn down are two 1970’s era structures made out of corrugated metal? Were those eyesores recently deemed historic? All of the historic structures at Woodlawn are being preserved. Perhaps you should do a little research before posting inaccurate claims. Better yet, don’t post at all.