Barns Ennobled | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper



Sure, most architects like barns. They wax poetic about their honest structural expression -- but then renovate them, not necessarily sympathetically, into some kind of modernist residence. Maybe they make nostalgic watercolors of barns in the landscape, but still they often scavenge the increasingly valuable old wood for a new project somewhere else.



If you really want a true appreciation of the rural vernacular building type, you need a good architectural historian -- one who will bring rigorous research and precise interpretive skills to the enterprise. This explains the successes that the Heinz Architectural Center has achieved in its exhibit, Barns of Western Pennsylvania: Vernacular to Spectacular, assembled by curator Lu Donnelly and on display through May 28.


Some might wonder why, if  "spectacle" is a word, "vernacle" is not. That discrepancy only proves that popular culture, at least, has a better language for talking about egocentric attempts at showmanship than about historic examples of the commonplace. Donnelly's work helps rectify that imbalance. She has worked for 10 years now on two soon-to-be-published Pennsylvania volumes in the authoritative Buildings of the United States series, by the Society of Architectural Historians and Oxford University Press. Her efforts, sometimes with a collaborative team of researchers, have combed Western Pennsylvania for the second volume in search of structures that are exemplary -- in all senses of the word.


In an interview, Donnelly points out that all but four of this region's 33 counties are classified as rural, and that they contain some 22,000 farms, with 26,000 barns. When Heinz Architectural Center founder Drue Heinz suggested a barns show, Donnelly immediately recognized the idea's potential. "After all, what's the most important building in a rural area?" she asks.


The exhibit focuses on about three-dozen structures, organizing them in different categories and toward different conclusions. Some of the most dramatic examples are the decorated barns, such as the example in Jenner Township, Somerset County, one of only two counties to have this type. Stunning photography by Tom Little shows this and similar structures to especially good effect. Though built in 1902, its bracketed gables and nominally Italianate windows could have been designed a half-century earlier.


But comparisons to architectural trends are perhaps misplaced. Donnelly emphasizes that barn construction is most often about the persistence of tradition, the continuity of timber-frame structure even after newer technologies existed. "There were still a lot of guys who knew how to do timber framing, so they continued to do it," she says. "They were master carpenters and barn builders. It's nothing simple."


Importantly, this show identifies varieties that are specific to Western Pennsylvania.  What scholars have designated as the Pennsylvania Barn is a two-story structure that nestles into the side of a hill, giving access to livestock and grain on different levels. Though some debate persists, the form probably originates in Switzerland with German variants, thus the name "Sweitzer barn." A cantilevered end, sometimes enclosed by later generations, was intended to provide shelter for farm animals outside. Donnelly explains that the numerous Western Pennsylvania iterations of the type grew out of the sometimes-intermingling traditions of German and English farmers, with more experimentation than was typical of the eastern part of the state.


This exhibit is especially timely, because small farms are disappearing, and barns along with them. So a few atypical examples of sensitive barn renovation are a welcome part of this show. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's award-winning renovation of a barn near Fallingwater for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, for example, is an artful and practical lesson for anyone who thinks a barn must be either salvaged or destroyed.


In addition to new works, a multiplicity of artifacts energizes this show. Along with photos, farm journals, pattern books and original correspondence, there are barn fragments and scale models. While the latter are particularly outstanding, perhaps the best elements in the show are the tools. Seemingly brutish and unwieldy, they contrast with both the beauty of the barns and particularly with the dainty colored plaster of the Heinz Architectural Center. They remind viewers that these built artifacts are not simply objects of visual delectation, but instruments of deeper cultural inquiry. "They tell us so much about the people and the era in which they were built," Donnelly muses. "They're like windows into another time."


Not just windows. Barn doors.

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