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Barns of Western Pennsylvania:
Vernacular to Spectacular

Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center explores the enduring allure and widespread use of the basic—and not-so-basic—barns that dot the region’s countryside.





Western Pennsylvania is still home to more than 25,000 barns, each with a personality and history all its own. Photos:  Tom Little

The trappings of power and influence are as diverse as the people who seek to display them. For some, they are the stuff of cool sports cars or hot trendy wardrobes. But for others, they are realized in things as simple—and complex—as barns. Yes, those structures that continue to illuminate the western Pennsylvania landscape have long stood as status symbols.

“ Historically,” says independent scholar Lu Donnelly, “many farmers would live in less-than-perfect houses while their barns were perfect.” Well-built, well-maintained barns were seen as a reflection of the owner’s pride and prosperity. “People revered them,” asserts Donnelly. And although the functionality and practicality of barns has changed over time, their power to engage the imagination and summon a sense of romance has not. It is in this spirit that Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center presents Barns of Western Pennsylvania: Vernacular to Spectacular, organized by Donnelly. On view through May 28, this is the first Heinz Architectural Center exhibition to focus exclusively on a single, everyday type of building.

Donnelly has been hosted by the Heinz Architectural Center for nearly 10 years while acting as project director for the Buildings of the United States book to be called Buildings of Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Through her extensive research for the book, Donnelly discovered there’s much more to barns than a cursory glance reveals. In an effort to look beyond the obvious, for years Donnelly has traversed the 33 counties comprising western Pennsylvania. “When you go that far afield,” she says, “you realize how many fields there are.”

Even today, this part of the state remains predominately rural, and, by Donnelly’s count, is still home to 25,630 farms supporting at least as many barns. And every one of them is made to order, built to fit the terrain, the type of crops grown, and/or the type of animals raised.

As a result, the region’s barns appear in varying shapes—ranging from the basic four-walls-and-a-roof to the truly out-of-the-ordinary octagonal, and an assortment of sizes from big to just plain huge. And they are constructed from a number of different materials, including the traditional log or timber and the more modern metal frame. Some are plain, while others showcase elaborate, sometimes whimsical barn stars, weathervanes, and lightning rods. Some date back to the late 1700s (after all, a well-constructed barn will stand for centuries), while a few have enjoyed new leases on life as offices or homes.

The irony is that despite their longevity, old wooden barns are often ill-suited to meet the demands of modern farming. Today’s machinery, for example, is too cumbersome to maneuver in and out of structures built to accommodate horse-drawn plows.

“ What do you do with these barns?” Donnelly asks. “You can’t maintain them as museums.” As the exhibition attests, there’s no single answer to that question. In many cases, selling the barn’s aged timber piece by piece is a far more lucrative alternative to attempting to maintain the barn itself.
The Laurel Highlands’ Fallingwater has taken a different tack. It recently renovated and remodeled a pair of barns to create one space for offices and a community center. The finished product is an environmentally friendly structure that received the American Institute of Architects Pittsburgh Chapter Silver Medal and Green Design Citation in 2005.

Donnelly has also seen her share of barns relegated to storage facilities and garages. “It’s a tough and expensive proposition to convert barns into homes,” she concedes. Despite that economic fact of life, the exhibition does highlight one exception to the rule: a Washington County barn that was dismantled and then reassembled as a private residence in Westmoreland County.

In total, Barns of Western Pennsylvania: Vernacular to Spectacular features 34 barns dating from 1794 to 2005. Photographs, farm journals, architectural pattern books, models detailing the barns’ complex construction, a full-scale replica of the end wall of a barn, and collections of tools and decorative items are used to tell the story.

It is a story of individual owners and builders challenging their own creativity and skills while also finding new ideas and construction techniques in catalogues and how-to manuals. It is a story of the agrarian world supporting the region’s coal, steel, and glass industries by providing the food supply for a hungry workforce (particularly before refrigeration and transportation found a way to combine their efforts).

But the story doesn’t stop there. The Amish community continues to build timber-framed barns. And, according to Donnelly, barns continue to influence a new crop of architects. “Barns are still a touchstone for many of us today,” she says.

And then there are the farmers themselves, whose barns have come to represent the Vernacular to Spectacular. “The farmers have been so gracious,” Donnelly says. “I hope they’ll make the two- to three-hour drive to see the exhibition. I’ve invited them all.”

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