Northeast's battle over barns

Lots of people, it seems, want a piece of New England - maybe an L.L. Bean coat or a jug of Vermont syrup or a peep at the autumn leaf show. And the locals are usually happy to oblige.

But now it seems a few folks from "away" - as some Yankees call their fellow Americans - have gone too far. Rich people in California, Sun Valley, the Hamptons, and elsewhere are paying as much as $500,000 to dismantle, export, and reassemble entire New England barns, complete with hay lofts and hand-hewn timbers. They convert them into homes, studios, even swimming-pool pavilions. But suddenly a growing number of Yankees are mobilizing to halt this "barn drain" from their hillsides. Some are even using extreme measures.

In this era of McMansions and strip-mall sprawl, outsiders may covet these authentic symbols of Yankee charm and simplicity. But they're up against locals who see their cause as nothing less than a struggle for New England's soul.

Case in point: A brawl here in the Merrimack river valley over a lemon-yellow behemoth called the Rolfe barn, which dates to the 1880s. The local city council has voted to use the legal hammer of eminent domain to prevent it from being dismantled and shipped to an anonymous buyer out west.

The case seems destined for court.

The truth is that most barns that New England loses these days are felled by fire or decay - not outsiders. Yet folks here get most riled over what they see as an invasion of out-of-state barn snatchers. To some, a New England barn sitting in the Hamptons is as culturally callous as having the Elgin marbles in London.

"These are some of our most important cultural pieces," says Thomas Durant Visser, author of "Field Guide to New England Barns." "They're symbols of a way of life that is deeply rooted in the American spirit - in the ideals of individuality and that one can sustain oneself by hard work."

And it's not surprising there's high demand for these barns from other parts of the nation. "There's a sense that people look back to New England as America's hearth," says Dr. Visser, "and to its barns as touchstones of authenticity."

New England's rustic heirlooms

Walk into a Yankee barn, and you're likely to see 150-year-old axe marks running up and down 12- or 14-inch-thick wooden beams. Smells still linger from so many harvests of hay or corn - and generations of horses or cows or pigs.

The Rolfe barn, built by one of the town's early prominent residents, soars nearly 30 feet high. Locals say it's been a centerpiece of town life for more than a century. They recall that in the summers, neighborhood kids played pick-up baseball in its great shadow. In the winters, when horses with sleighs came charging out of the barn, kids would hitch up their sleds - and get towed to the top of a nearby hill.

Yearning for past glories

Today, though, like most New England barns, it's hardly used. But its defenders have grand visions for its revival. They see arts and crafts fairs "and even some old-fashioned barn dances," says Carol Rolfe Foss, a descendant of the barn's builder and a member of the Penacook Historical Society, which has led the charge to save the building.

Furthermore, to take this structure out of its community context, defenders say, would be to strip it of its soul. "Once you convert it to a residence, you've replaced an authentic New England resource with a conversation piece," says Elizabeth Durfee Hengen, a preservation consultant working on the case.

Yet the realities of modern New England surrounds the elegant structure. Modest working-class houses crowd in close. A sewage-treatment plant stands about 100 yards away. And it's too far off the beaten path to attract many tourists.

It's a fate faced by many of the region's farm buildings. Vermont has an estimated 30,000 barns - and is losing up to 1,000 a year to decay, fire, and, in some cases, export. No one knows how many barns New Hampshire has - or is losing.

Indeed, lack of attention is the most-serious threat to barns, says Ken Epworth, the Rolfe barn's new owner. "When a barn falls down it's gone for good, and when I take one down it's gone for good" - but at least those he takes are preserved and recycled, he says.

At his company - The Barn People in Windsor, Vt. - workers painstakingly recondition barn beams. He adds that if the Rolfe barn was so important, the historical society should have been more aggressive in trying to buy it. He purchased it for $30,000 - then the outcry began. Scores of people showed up at town meetings. The Concord City Council - which has jurisdiction - voted to invoke eminent domain.

A clash of values

Epworth says he'll challenge the council's decision on principle. Indeed, in a state famous for its "live free or die" disdain for government interference, eminent domain is a controversial tool. "At the core of American freedom are two principles - the right to own private property and the right to conduct commerce," says council member Kipp Cooper, who voted against eminent domain.

Already some are seeking other ways to protect barns. The state recently passed a tax-abatement plan that encourages owners to fix up their barns. A bill in the state legislature would require owners to give their town the right of first refusal before selling or burning a barn. And some towns have begun taking inventory of their barn stock.

In the end, the Rolfe controversy may help save other barns, says James McConaha, the state's historic preservation officer. "Interest in barns has been on an exponential curve in the last year," he says. "It's been very intense."

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