Old barns finding shelter out West
A 20-mile ride in almost any direction outside the limits of this sophisticated city will bring you face to face with a remnant of its agricultural past -- big, aging barns.
Seattle’s King County is better known these days as a high-tech capital and the home of pioneering businesses such as Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Starbucks Corp. But before Bill Gates, there were hop and berry farms and dairies across the county’s 200 square miles.
Now King County and Washington state are stepping up efforts to save the barns that once anchored them.
The county is offering grants to owners of the historic barns under its new Heritage Barn Preservation program. In May, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation creating a State Heritage Barn Register, which will eventually offer preservation grants.
Thirteen states on the East Coast and in the Midwest have some type of historic barn program. In the West, Colorado and now Washington have programs to protect their barns.
“We don’t really know how many historic barns we have in the county,” says Julie Koler, King County’s preservation officer. “We are hoping to start an inventory process soon, but we know that there are more than a hundred out there.”
King County encompasses Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond and rural areas including Vashon and Camano islands, the Snoqualmie and Green River valleys, Enumclaw and Black Diamond.
“Development pressure is changing the area,” Koler says. “We have to act if we are going to be able to preserve any piece of the agricultural heritage these barns embody.”
To be considered historic under the program guidelines, a barn must be more than 40 years old, have been built for agricultural purposes and be “characterized by historic appearance and historic materials.”
Lisa Allen and her husband, Kermit, own one of these barns -- a red, two-story building with a hay loft near Duvall.
“We know the history: It was built in 1916 by the Platt family,” she says. “The house was tiny, but the barn was huge. That’s how people lived then.”
The Allens bought the 5-acre property in 1978. From 1980 to 1990, they ran a dairy. Today, the barn is used for storage and horses.
Lisa Allen says the barn needs new paint and siding, but nothing too drastic at the moment. “My husband completely restored it when we bought the property. He put on a new metal roof, cleaned it up, painted it,” she says. “What we want is to maintain it.” They have applied for a county grant.
Even though she works in Seattle and the property isn’t an active farm, she’s passionate about the importance of her barn and those of her neighbors. “They are wonderful old buildings. It’s a big part of Americana -- the other side of the Wild West. All the family farms that built the West.”
Bob Seana has owned his farm near Fall City for 15 years. A 60-year-old barn initially drew him to the property.
“I saw that barn, and I had to have it,” he says. “The barn is white, four stories high. The lower floor, and then a three-story hay loft above. .... Just this amazing space.”
Seana holds dances in the barn -- which plays host to 60 to 100 guests -- and envisions turning it into a community center, a place for Sunday potlucks and charity events.
Though his is a working farm and he describes himself as a farmer, Seana works as an engineer to support what he calls his farming dream.
“Everyone out here, we have to do something else, but at heart, I’m a farmer,” he says.
Seana says that’s why the support from the county is so important. “I’ve got a lot of rust on the roof. I am hoping to change the roof this year, and the grant would really help with that.”
Koler says the barn owners who apply for grants need not have structures on any historic register. “It isn’t about finding the best example of a barn,” she says. “It’s about keeping as many as we can that have some historic value.”
The county grants will range from $5,000 to $15,000.
Preserving old barns has been a mission on the East Coast and in the Midwest for decades. Barn Again, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine, formed in 1987. At that time, old barns were considered doomed, says program spokeswoman Amy Cole.
“It turned into a very successful program for us,” Cole says. “We get calls from people looking for information every day on our hotline, and we do a lot of outreach work, through states and local groups.”
Cole says that interest in barn preservation is increasing in the West.
“Our last workshop, one of the outreach efforts we do for the program, was in Utah, and it was pretty wellattended,” she says.
Robert Crittendon, a retired public relations executive, traveled the West for four years documenting the stories of historic barns. His book “Barn in the U.S.A.,” published last year, is a tribute to the culture of barns, he says.
“I wanted to focus on the West, because so much has already been done in the East, and it is the barns here that are really under pressure from development now. They are disappearing at a truly rapid rate.”
A San Clemente resident, Crittendon has never been a farmer and is quick to say he isn’t a preservation expert.
“Barns evoke simpler times,” he says. “They hold a unique place in the heart of America. I’ve never been quite sure why, but it’s something that a lot of us seem to feel.”