American Barns

by Jan Corey Arnett, Shire Publications

The barn is an icon of rural America but how many of us who have driven by these structures and remarked at their bold colour, diversity of style and often ramshackle appearance have any understanding of their origins?

Jan Corey Arnett was raised on a Michigan dairy farm and clearly has a deep affinity with her subject. She identifies the importance of the barn in the birth of the nation. “If a homesteading family used scant resources to build a house while not providing shelter for the animals, all were unlikely to survive. This inspired the expression, ‘A barn can build a house, but a house cannot build a barn.’”

The book’s five chapters cover much ground. Arnett begins by examining the eclectic nature of the structures that are described as barns. The word ‘barn’ comes from the Old English bere (barley) and aern (place), meaning a place to store barley. When colonization began on America’s east coat in the early 1600s, two of the earliest distinct barn styles came from the English and the Dutch. Considerable development and adaptation of form followed – round, hexagonal, octagonal and even rare oval barns can be found throughout the US.

Arnett states that few barns remain from the first half of the 1700s but does identify two candidates as possibly the oldest standing barns in the United States. One appears to be the dendro-dated Bull Barn in Orange County, New York (1726) another is the Jones Log barn in Pennsylvania (c1730).

Underpinning the second chapter is the link between American history and that of the farm and barn. The first two chapters should perhaps have been reversed or merged: they are closely related and at times it is somewhat difficult to unravel the various strands of building, social and national history at first reading. This is, though, a small criticism and dealing with a building type of such infinite variety across such a vast country must have been no easy matter.

Form, fit, and function is the theme of the third chapter and here we are treated to (all too briefly) a description of the building methods used. Controversially, in terms of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings‘ (SPAB) philosophy, Arnett also describes the moving of barns – an illustration shows a large barn perched atop a flat-bed truck.

The decline of the barn is rightly given a chapter. For those of us who have followed the loss of traditional barns in Britain, it is an all too familiar story of changing farming methods and the abandonment of old ways. Frequently though it is lack of maintenance that is the final death knell and as Arnett observes “Each and every one of these death blows is preventable”. Not all is bleak, the final chapter looks to the future of the American barn and the efforts being made to save and document those that survive. There are echoes here of the SPAB’s barns campaign in the 1980s when SPAB members undertook a massive survey of the UK’s remaining barns.

Anyone planning a trip across American should read this slim and well illustrated volume – barn related sites worth visiting, from Alaska to Wyoming, are listed. But this is not just a book for visitors, anyone interested in rural buildings on either side of the Atlantic will find both the similarities and differences in barn culture and architecture fascinating.

this review first appeared in The SPAB Magazine