83 – The Barn at Black Rock, circa 1790-1820, Black Rock east of Hagerstown, MD
Barns are an important part of our landscape, great, sweeping structures that evoke an earlier time. They speak to us of our forebears; individuals who could raise the great beams that would frame the barn, stalwart men and women who faced and tamed the frontier. These magnificent icons that once dominated our landscape, that are so much a part of our heritage, are the most endangered of our historic buildings. Modern farming practice no longer needs the Pennsylvania bank barn that was an integral part of farming from the 18th century until now. They are still used, but they do not fit farmers’ needs. When repairs are needed, they are often deferred until the barn is lost through neglect. This revolution in agriculture has put our barns at risk, and other uses must be found if they are to survive.
(click on any any for a larger view)
Fortunately, as old factories have become loft spaces in cities, barns are becoming homes in the country. It has become fashionable to live in a barn in some areas; the Wall Street Journal even did a long article about this trend. A few of our local barns have also been transformed. One such structure is the Barn at Black Rock.
Across from Black Rock Golf Course, a new street cuts in from Mount Aetna Road past this barn. The corral walls still stand guard; but they have been freshly stuccoed, painted white and topped with brown brick. The silo’s metal skin also has a fresh coat of white paint. Stone foundations of an old farm building lie beside the driveway; they have become a raised-bed garden filled with herbs and flowers. Red brick laid in sand over an eight inch concrete pad leads from the driveway through the corral to two single car garages on either side of the barn’s forebay. The home is entered through doors on either side of the silo and steps rise to an observatory level about 35 feet above the ground. The interior of the silo has been lined with brown brick and finished with a ceiling. This ceiling has a trap door in it; and ladders can still reach the top of the silo, fifteen feet above.
In 1744, Michael Hale patented 200 acres of land lying along what is now Mount Aetna Road and called it Mershacks Garden. Land records are murky until 1848, when George and Rebecca Hanna sold 80 acres to Samuel McCauley for the sizable sum of $4,000. The deed includes …houses, buildings, orchards, waters,…and appurtenances. Mr. McCauley then built the large, brick house south of the barn that bears a date stone in its gable inscribed with McCauley’s name and the year 1850. This great stone bank barn was certainly built before the house and must have been part of the improvements noted in McCauley’s deed.
Dating old buildings is a roundabout art that uses a variety of clues. In the barn, the entire floor structure was built of hewn black walnut logs, used because they were available, sturdy and resist rot when exposed to damp. By the 1820s, most of the black walnut stands had been cleared for use in construction. There was not enough of this beautiful wood to use so extravagantly after that date. From the deeds, we know the barn was built sometime between 1744 and 1848; and, since most stone barns in this area were built between the 1790s and the 1840s, we can narrow this range to a 30 year span from 1790 to 1820.
Kurt Cushwa is a local architect and a man of many talents. He bought the barn as both a preservation project and a vent for his creative energies. He wanted to preserve both the barn and the look–the barnness–of it. The barn had been unused for many years. There were gaping holes in the roof and far more damage to the interior structure than Cushwa had anticipated. Instead of being able to leave this original skeleton in place, it was necessary to remove and replace it all in order to make the new home sound. The original fabric that was still intact was remilled and reused. The top plates that had fitted along the tops of the stone walls to carry the joists are chestnut. When they were removed, it was clear that all these three-inch-thick boards with unfinished edges could be fitted together. They had all been cut from the same sixteen-foot-long log and were as wide as 30 inches. Walnut beams were turned into kitchen cabinetry; oak hayracks that once fed livestock now serve as rails across the lofts.
To preserve the feel of the barn, the woodwork is plain, without moldings; stairs to the lofts have no risers and no rails; purlins and posts are exposed. No windows pierce the stone walls. The ventilation slits remain intact, closed with custom-fitted Plexiglas plates. Within the building, the walls have been heavily insulated. At each vent, a large casement window reveals the slit and exposes the stone around it. Recessed fluorescent tubes on either side of these enclosures light the stone and fill the room within with radiance. In order to preserve the integrity of the barn’s form and still light the interior, Cushwa has built inward between the two granaries, filling these added walls with windows to create an enclosed atrium.
Space within the barn has been divided into three levels. On the ground floor are the two garages at either end with a bedroom and bath in the south half that can serve as a suite for an adult member of the family or as a servant’s quarters. Twelve-inch square ceramic tiles glazed in mottled grays and browns cover the floor of the entry hall and continue into the reception area between the barn and the silo. The other side of the ground level contains a summer kitchen—one that can be used for entertaining or as the main kitchen if this level becomes a separate living space. Here, countertops are made from the chestnut plates and the walls have been sponge-painted in shades of white.
The main level of the house has a living room with a wood-burning fireplace and a kitchen/family room on the left. The dumb waiter opens into this area and the ceiling exposes the rafters and the beaded plywood sheeting of the roof. An open loft, built at the upper level, is accessible from the family room by a set of stairs with open risers. The kitchen is separated from the family room by a two-level counter. Another counter wraps beneath the windows opening to the atrium. A central island is fitted with a bank of tilt-out, glass-front bins. Countertops are Formica, edged with black walnut that matches the cabinets. The living room joins the family room through a wide doorway that can be closed off with a small set of rolling barn doors painted with a Mail Pouch tobacco advertisement.
The centrally placed dining room overlooks the entrance area and is between the living room and the master bedroom suite on the north side of the house. This suite also has a vaulted ceiling with the open loft above. The master bath has both a Jacuzzi and a double shower. The closets are huge. At the rear, the house opens at ground level onto a curved deck with a large brick barbecue. The atrium can be accessed from this deck by a ladder made from one of the hayracks.
The upper level of the house contains two bedroom/bath suites joined by a balcony that overlooks the dining room and reception area. This balcony could serve either as a study or a playroom. The bedrooms have massive closets that curl into special secret spaces under the eaves. These closets were designed especially for small children who might occupy the rooms and enjoy these low-ceilinged, private places. If more bedrooms are needed, the lofts in the master bedroom and the family room could be closed off and halls built so that this level would have four bedrooms.
Mershacks Garden has been reborn. It’s about two acres now, dominated by the old barn and silo. Kurt Cushwa has not only designed this tour de force but has also been the trim carpenter who finished the nearly 100 windows and doors of the Barn at Black Rock. Through his efforts, a new home has risen within its old stone walls; and the barn can soon begin its third century.
Epilogue: “Writing an epilogue has turned out to be an interesting exercise. As an architect I routinely visit past projects and discuss how the building is aging. It is part of the learning process that every designer goes through if he expects to grow. But in this case you gave us cause to reflect upon our first hand experiences.
After putting a year and a half of our lives into the remodeling of the Barn at Black Rock, my wife and I decided to keep it for ourselves. Our initial motivation was a change in the tax laws that made it desirable for us to occupy the house for eighteen months. But that date has long since past, and it is difficult to imagine another house that would better suit our lifestyle. I have often wondered whether our lifestyle changed to fit the building, or if because there was not a specific client for the project we designed the house around ourselves in the first place.
As expected, the kitchen remains the heart of the house and the place where guests tend to gather. The warmth of the reused wood and the open views of the sunsets do combine to make an inviting space. For the most part we use the other spaces pretty much as originally designed. Since we are not formal people by nature, the family room is the most often used space. The lofts, that were almost an afterthought in the design, have actually become two of our favorite spaces. Their separation and accessibility only by steep stairs gives them the feeling of a child’s tree house, allowing us both our own play space to pursue our interests and hobbies.
The house has aged well, but as with all unconventional designs it has presented us with the unexpected. For example, it never occurred to me that by insulating the metal silo we were creating a giant electrical capacitor. The result was a storage of static electricity during lightning storms that then discharged through the electrical system of the house. Not a serious problem until the first thunderstorm when all of the automated lights began flashing on and off, the smoke alarms all sounded in unison and the skylights began opening and closing. Fortunately there was a fairly easy solution. On the other side of the coin, there have been more pleasant surprises. For example, the simple geometric form of the barn combined with the great mass of the stone walls creates a space that is less expensive to heat and cool then expected.
The Barn at Black Rock continues to be a work in progress, as well as a teacher. I use it to experiment with different building techniques and materials that then become incorporated into my other work. The neighbors have grown accustomed to seeing me on the roof, or a ladder and for the most part have stopped asking me what I am doing. It seems that every few months something new reminds us of the understanding that the original builders of the barn had of their environment. Its orientation to catch the morning sun, the way the wind over the roof creates natural ventilation, the strength of the simple geometric form all combine to create an extremely practical structure, whether as a barn or as a house.
Someday we will move, probably into a more conventional house. But for now we enjoy living in a barn, even with all of the jokes about keeping the door closed.”
This article appeared in the Herald Mail Sunday, August 18, 1996 as the 83rd in the series.