Towne Farm / iFarm Open House

iFarm Barn in Boxford, MA

Thoughtful, smart, and motivated patron clients can make quite the difference preserving history and architecture as shown last weekend in Boxford, MA. Chris Barensfeld and company (contractor Howell Custom Building Group , architect Ben Nutter, history buffs, and author Thomas Hubka) hosted a lovely open house. The goal was to showcase construction progress on the historic barn, carriage house, and original home on the property. Chris has got a photographer documenting progress (and the open house) as well – David Tucker, who’s shooting photo’s of the farm along the way – chronicling the process. Though admittedly and adamantly hands off, Chris’s husband was the one who came up with the self-admitted Mac-centric iFarm name.

Immediately obvious was the pristine barn and carriage house – complete and standing proud. The detail at which the team carefully revealed the layers and levels of history, structure, and original intent was impressive. The detail, for instance – where they spliced in new oak and hemlock structural components that were meticulously married to the still solid original structural members – was a true display of craftsmanship. Everything hand scribed, planed, prepared, and pegged together in a manner fit to easily last another 250 years. I spent the majority of an hour wandering through, around, above, and below these two buildings discovering a number of these details before heading over to the house proper. The barn was especially impressive; a substantial portion of the work was the lowering of the cellar and adding a 2nd access ramp down to this new lowered level. New concrete walls stood aprx. 4′-0″up off the (dirt/gravel) floor – shoring up the existing stone foundation work and extending the height. A number of new solid oak columns and bolsters were then added to carry key points above in the barn – but what was especially revealing was the original ‘log’ beams under what had been a trough for the cows.

These dramatically undersized logs at 6″ – 8″ in diameter were laid on top of more robust beams. We were assured that the settling / sagging has stopped, and the structure in it’s current state, at this spot – is perfectly safe. In reminded me very much of the old Viga’s in our former home, in Santa Fe, NM – which did much lighter duty simply spanning between mud-block walls and holding up the flat roof – but were equally bowed.

Moving up into the loft of the barn there were a number of retro-fitted lateral bracing components that complimented the rhythm of the existing structure quite nicely. Author Tom Hubka was to present his ideas stemming from his research on New England farms and their planning on the main floor below; published years ago in his seminal “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England” down on the main level of the barn, so there were chairs and a projector set-up. It made for a perfect environment, of course – to present ideas on New England farms.

(image from “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn” by Thomas C. Hubka)

As folks were gathering in preparation for the talk, I figured it was time to go investigate the Ipswich Brewery truck, on site doing refreshment duty. I filled up a pint glass – right off a tap installed in the side of the historic truck – and headed back to the barn. I’ll not go into the talk too much, but will note that Hubka dispelled the common idea that the connected New England farms evolved because of the cold winters we have here. He easily dispatched this notion by showing that farms in the very cold upper Midwest never connected a barn to the main house (gasp!) as that’s simply thought of as crude. Speeding through a condensed history of farming, manufacturing, and industry in a neat timeline, he showed that New England farmers had to adapt quickly when the Ohio River Valley – and beyond – came online in the 1800′s, producing crops a lot less expensively than their east coast peers (all those rocks to clear). Local farms had to adapt to produce other items – like wagons / buggies, baked goods, tools, firewood, and so on. This, combined with a shift away from English style barns, and the need to get goods to market more efficiently – as well as my favorite site consideration – solar orientation, led to a dramatic shift from the dis-connected layout to one where the buildings started morphing together. Buildings were amassed around a functional dooryard, near the drive with easy access to the road as shown in the sketch above.

Cellar access at Barn

It was a great presentation and wrapped up just in time – as my cup was empty and my legs were restless. After refueling, so to speak – I headed over to the house proper – which on this farm is still disconnected, as are the other buildings. If I were to surmise how it related – or did not relate – to the presentation given by Hubka, I’d say that the original owners of the farm likely never made much of a go at the post 1850′s adaptation in New England – and simply kept the working family farm functioning to meet their own needs. I’m not entirely sure of this, but it fits the model laid out by Hubka. Inside the house, I got lucky as Chris Barensfeld was just starting a Q&A tour, so I tagged along. The house had an early 19th century addition that housed the kitchen – but was otherwise was mainly intact. The contractor had carefully pulled away a lot of the plaster in some of the rooms, in an effort to determine original walls and layout, and to date some of the changes along the history of the homes timeline. The house was in various states of repair; one major undertaking had been the jacking up and leveling of the house – and the replacement of the sill around the entire perimeter. Another was the incredible timber framing in the basement that supported the fireplace(s) and chimney. This was new to me – as I’d never seen masonry – 3 stories of it – bearing on top of timbers. It appeared to have been done to allow access between the exterior foundation wall a masonry pier off-center of the plan; why, I don’t know. There had been some stabilization work done on the pier and the timbers as well, but the original structure was remarkably intact in durable – having all been framed out of heavy oak and hemlock.

Caution!

Emerging from the basement and heading up to the 2nd floor, we were treated to a pre-building code version of a colonial staircase – which included treads that were maybe 6 1/2″ deep at a maximum. To say they’re tricky is an understatement – but as soon as one steps off them and looks back at the staircase – it looks fine, in an optical illusion sort of trick-of-the-eye way. It was interesting to see the relatively modern adaptations and adjustment made over time, as the house had been occupied until fairly recently. The best was yet to come, however – as we headed for the attic. The chimney had been re-built masterfully; it had to offset about 16″ in one direction, and about 12″ in another. The solution was for the mason to gradually step each course of the recycled brick up and over a little bit. It was an impressive bit of work – but allowed the chimney to come into the attic in its existing location – and punch through the roof (also framed in oak) in the existing space / hole.

All told it was a fantastic overview and good exposure to a classic New England farm. Thanks to Susan Howell and the crew for organizing the event – and my wife for seeing the clip in the local paper that noted the event taking place. I have to assume Boxford, MA is pleased to have a family take over this property that intends to restore it as a working family farm – and not bulldoze it to make way for (another) new 4-6 home luxury development.