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Colonial Barn

New Life For An Old Barn

The Beacon, February 2003

When the roof of their antique barn fell through last summer, Jan Boyce and Michael Lewis decided to take the route less traveled, tearing the barn down and resurrecting it with a combination of new wood and the old, antique beams .

"We really felt it was worth preserving," said Boyce, speaking from her antique saltbox house next the barn on Davidson Road in Boxborough ."It would have been a lot less expensive to tear it down, but it wouldn't have as historically correct ."

The "Samuel Davis House" was built in 1778 according to Historical Society records, and was the home of the brother of Capt .Isaac Davis who led the Acton Minutemen and is remembered as the first to die at the battle of the North Bridge in Concord on April 19, 1775 .

Boyce shows pictures from a photo album, detailing the barn's progression over the last few months .The couple had tried to patch a large hole in the upper corner of the roof with canvas, but efforts proved futile in protecting the interior of the barn from the elements .

As she flips through the photo album, Boyce points out pictures of the old beams strewn on the lawn outside, marked with strange numerals that the original builders from around the 1820s used to match the corresponding beams together .The skeletal frame of the reconstructed Sidehill English barn now stands sentinel over Davidson Road once again, as it has for almost two centuries, and the couple hopes to have the barn back to normal by next summer .

"We saved about sixty-five percent of the original wood," said Boyce ."It was really neat to find some of those old marks while we were working on it ."

The first instinct of most owners is to tear their barn down when the structure starts to sag or when the roof collapses - a significant reason antique barns in New England are declining at a rapid pace every year, said Tim Murphy, owner of Colonial Barn Restoration in Bolton who along with local resident Uwe Tobies, helped restore the Boyce barn .

Murphy, who estimates between 2,000 and 20,000 barns are lost each year in New England, said the region has so many old barns that people may become desensitized to the rich historical tradition surrounding them .But the barns are often treasured in other parts of the country, where farming didn't arrive until much later in the country's history .He often helps to relocate antique east coast barns out West, where wealthy landowners sometimes take interest in the unique flavor of old New England craftsmanship .

"I think we have so many here in New England that people often take barns for granted," he said .

Although the price sometimes can be daunting to would-be barn restorers, restoration can actually be the least expensive route, if owners take steps early to preserve the roof or deal with other structural problems, said Murphy .

Unfortunately, most people leave their barns to the wind, rain and climate changes, and demolition becomes the most favored option, he said .

Murphy said the construction of barns exploded in the early 1800s in New England, as farming became a way of life and a lucrative means of income - the reason many large scale, 200-year-old barns are found across this region of the country, he said .

Although the couple has had trouble dating their barn exactly, Boyce and Lewis believe the Davidson Road barn dates back to the 1820s, possibly making it the oldest barn in town .

Boyce said the style of barn - with its below ground basement and doors located on the eave side of the building - was only built during a short period during the early 1800s .Barns before that time didn't have basements, and their doors were located on the gable side of the building, she said .

She said they haven't decided what they will use the barn for yet after the renovation is complete, but the couple might turn it into an art space or an overflow storage area .

Matt Gunderson

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