Save-the-barns movement draws developers' attention

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LANSING — Historic barns, some more than a century old, aren't only an important part of history but can be reused in creative ways in Michigan's present and future, preservation advocates say.

The Michigan Barn Preservation Network, a Mount Pleasant group dedicated to helping save and rehabilitate some of the state's oldest farm buildings, says barns have been adapted as community centers, offices and even a dentist's office.

Part of the appeal of reusing an old barn is the connection to Michigan's agricultural history, said the nonprofit organization's newsletter editor.

"Barns tell us an incredible amount about our own history," said Jan Corey Arnett of Battle Creek, nicknamed "the barn lady" by some fellow preservationists. "They represent a time when we were close to the land and our very lives were dependent on our ties to the land."

Another member of the network agreed on their historical importance.

"Without a good agricultural program, this country would never have grown to what it is. The skills that used to be natural things, like broom-making or rope-making, show that the farmer had to be creative," said past president Jack Worthington of Grand Ledge.

Corey Arnett said barns are special places —"cathedrals to the earth spirit."

Certain characteristics of barns also help make them easier to reuse, she said.

"When you choose to preserve a heritage barn, you're preserving some of the most valuable wood resources," she said. Many were built with wood from the old-growth forests that once covered the state, while modern lumber is harvested before it ages as much, she said.

Worthington agreed on the special nature of the materials used in barn construction.

"If you just let the old barn rot, you're destroying timbers that are irreplaceable. People who work on these barns are looking for timbers like that because they can reuse them," Worthington said.

Corey Arnett also cites the unique appearance of individual barns.

"People are reaching the saturation point or burnout point with every community looking exactly like another," she said. "Where a community thinks that new development is always the solution, they're making a mistake."

There may be a financial benefit as well because new construction is taxed differently than repairing existing buildings, she said.

Many individuals and groups have found creative ways to reuse the old structures.

"A fair number of artists use barns as their studios. There's a large number of musicians also who have them as rehearsal studios," she said.

"There are some developers that are stopping before they plow everything down and saying, 'Can this possibly be incorporated into what we're doing,'" she said.

In one major project, the 80-year-old Benedict barn in Ionia was relocated when a Wal-Mart store was built on its farmland. The company provided $150,000 towards the cost of relocating it to the Sherman Lake YMCA in Augusta.

The executive director of the YMCA said he's pleased with the results.

"We were putting together what call 'the farm.' We already had a horse barn," said Luke Austenfeld. He called the final appearance of the complex "absolutely gorgeous."

The barn at the YMCA is not identical to what once stood in Ionia, however. "We salvaged all of the major timbers and probably half of the siding and half of the flooring," Austenfeld said.

Even so, Corey Arnett said that the new structure "has meaning. While we were not able to have that beautiful barn rebuilt as it was in its grandeur, at least we saved what we could of it and future generations will still benefit."

The new barn is used for a variety of activities.

"It's a wide range of things, from simulating a stop on the Underground Railroad, to arts and crafts, to traditional dances," he said. "We're going to hook a community garden to it and do some sustainable activities."

Just finished in the fall, the barn's first full slate of activities will be held this summer.

Another example of a barn's new lease on life is the Sullivan Dairy barn in Battle Creek.

Larry Rizor, president of Battle Creek architectural firm Architects Inc., completed the $1 million project.

He said that he had worked on farms growing up and had been long interested in developing the Sullivan Dairy facility.

After the death of a previous owner who had refused to sell, Rizor moved in with big plans for the old barn.

"The city had acquired the property and put out a request for proposals. I, my accountant and a contractor friend prepared a proposal that was accepted," Rizor said.

Rizor said that the barn is now a "technology farm," with two fiber optic lines carrying Internet access into the building so that if one is damaged the building remains connected. Current tenants include computer technology firms and Rizor's offices.

Rizor said that the prestige associated with historic nature of the building and Sullivan Dairy, which helped develop the early machines used to cool McDonald's malts, was a draw to tenants. He hired a team of researchers from Ann Arbor who developed a history of the dairy, which helped lead to the building being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But he also credited a special tax incentive. The Sullivan Dairy barn is part of a state "renaissance zone," meaning businesses there are exempt from many taxes for 15 years.

The Barn Preservation Network's work is far from done, and many barns remain in danger, Worthington said. In the past 20 years, he has seen the number of rare round barns in Michigan drop from more than 30 to around 20.

"In the lifetime of our organization, we've made some inroads on people's awareness," he said.

The group's annual conference was held March 13 and 14 at Michigan State University's Kellogg Center. More information is available at the group's Web site,

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