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Colonial Barn

I Restore Old Barns, Therefore I Am... Philosophy major has thriving business

Sunday Telegram Worcester, MA, February 2004

How does a man who majored in philosophy end up restoring old barns for the newly rich?

Answer: after a few sidetracks - as a ski bum, a steeplejack and during a college stint at the Skinner auction house, where an appreciation for antiques was cultivated.

Tim Murphy, a Bolton native and graduate of Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, admits it took him a long time to decide on a career.

But it wasn't until he noticed that he was spending a lot more time restoring his parents' barn than he was on his newly chosen environmental science studies that he realized his bailiwick was antique barn restoration.

And it turns out to be a skill that is in big demand. After a short but intense course in Vermont on the design and structure of timber buildings, Mr. Murphy started his business, Colonial Barn Restoration, working out of his parents' home on Old Bay Road.

That was in 1996. Now, with 10 employees, he is booked two years in advance for most projects. Unless there is a pressing emergency, such as the possibility of a roof collapse. Then, the immediate problem is repaired to prevent further deterioration.

The company does 15-20 projects a year, and the average job lasts a month, although one large restoration project took a year to complete.

"We're really growing," Mr. Murphy said, noting that gross profits were up by 76 percent in 2003.

Roof problems are the most common projects, he said, and the average roof repair project costs about $10,000. The average costs of other projects range from $15,000 to $20,000.

Sometimes, an entire barn is dismantled and reassembled elsewhere. And other times, an intact barn is moved a few yards on the same lot, so another structure can be added.

Some clients have work done a little at a time, pecking away at the restoration project summer, for example.

Most of Murphy's customers, he said, are what he calls "gentleman farmers"- high-powered, driven CEO types who work all week, make a lot of money and need something to keep them busy on weekends.

Other customers simply have an appreciation for the history of their property and the barn that still occupies it.

And then, there are horse lovers, whose barns need some fixing up. Modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing can be added, along with new horse stalls.

"We have a few (working) farmers, but they tend to try to fix themselves or just tear them down and build new ones," Mr. Murphy said.

According to the nonprofit Iowa-based Timber Framers Guild, the mid-1800s was the belle epoque of barns, with 20,000 or so in Vermont alone - barn heaven. Today, just 2,000 are left there.

Also, 25 percent of the barns listed in the 1997 Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings are gone. Because barns are usually on privately owned property, there is no official listing of them, as there is with lighthouses, schools and government buildings.

New England barns are the oldest in the country. The average timber-framed Colonial barn is 150 to 200 years old.

"That's why it's so great to work around here," Mr. Murphy said.

The early barns were designed like those found in England, only larger, and were generally used by homesteaders who lived off the land.

Barns got even larger in the early 1800s, he said, because the arrival of railroads, the steel plow and the subsequent canning industry created a need for more space.

In the late 1800s, farmers added cupolas - those fancy-looking roof vents - to deal with manure odor and body heat generated by hungry animals.

After the Civil War, Mr. Murphy said, a lot of Northeast farmers went west, building a different style of barn, with gambrel roofs to hold huge haylofts. The cows were milked below.

Gradually, the New England Colonial-style barns became no longer useful, mainly because of new-dairy farming technology. Many just fell into disrepair and collapsed. Then came the 1960s, `70s and `80s, when the thing to do was "tear it down and build something new," Mr. Murphy said.

The popularity of restoring old barns and other buildings started with the airing of shows such as, "This Old House," "Martha Stewart Living" and others, he said.

All of a sudden, people wanted to fix up the old structures or incorporate the old timber in newer homes.

Mr. Murphy generally uses new lumber on projects, but it is matched with the original - cut in the same fashion, with a circular or band saw, for example.

"It kind of tells the history of the barn, with the new repairs," he said.

The new lumber is purchased from an old mill in Littleton that specializes in such materials.

Mr. Murphy's company even finds new owners for barns scheduled for demolition.

"We act like an adoption agency for barns," he said with a grin.


Karen Nugent

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