Feature: Barn Dance 

Old barns get new life from a couple moving to Sabot Hill.

The reason for the barn-raising party is the construction launch of the Formans’ new 3,500-square-foot house, which is being constructed by two vintage barn frames, one 16-by-30 feet and the other 30-by-40 feet.

To pull off the project, four years ago the couple hired Ken Epworth of the Barn People, a Vermont-based company that specializes in finding, purchasing and disassembling 17th- and 18th-century barns, and reassembling them as part of new homes.

The Formans had followed Epworth’s work since the early ’80s. Before signing him to the project, they traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho, to see a five-barn complex for which Epworth had supplied barns.

The couple had considered building a colonial reproduction, but thought the barns were unique. “I really felt that I didn’t want to do another Virginia-Williamsburg type of house — there are a lot of them,” Carol Lynn says. “I also wanted to do a house that wouldn’t be as formal as that, but with comfortable furniture and antique accents.”

Their next trip was to see what Epworth had found for them, a hay barn and granary. Both barns had been in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, which is bordered by the state’s Green Mountains and the Adirondack Mountains in New York.

“It’s just this giant fertile plain of farms,” Epworth says. “Both came from early farms that consisted of numerous barns and outbuildings, many of which still existed on the site when I purchased the barns,” he says.

(Epworth’s business has caught the ire of some of the barns’ hometowns, because they say he is selling their history. Epworth says he is finding a use for what others have neglected.)

“This was a big farm, 500 to 600 acres,” Epworth says. “The larger barn was from a dairy barn that had stopped dairying in the ’50s, so it was in disrepair, and actually they both had been neglected.”

The Formans liked what they saw. “We went up to Vermont on a snowy, snowy day and sat up on a manure spreader, and said, ‘Yeah, that will work,’” Armstrong recalls.

Then Epworth started the complicated process of preparing the frames for their future home. It took about a week to disassemble the smaller granary, about two weeks for the hay barn. He took pictures, drew plans and labeled all the parts of the frame. Then he brought the wood back to his shop where it underwent a six-week restoration. All the parts were washed and treated for insects. The first weekend in May, the timbers were driven to Virginia on flatbed trucks and reassembled in eight days, the same way it was originally put together, simply using oak pegs — and no nails.

Epworth recommended the Michigan architect Charles Bultman II, who began work on the project three years ago. “It’s kind of goofy,” Armstrong says. “Here we are in Richmond, the architect is in Michigan, and the barns came from Vermont.”

The resulting plans make use of the large hay barn to serve as the kitchen, dining room and great room. A vaulted roof will rise 29 feet, exposing the 300-year-old wooden beams. The centerpiece of the room will be a 5-by-5-foot limestone fireplace with a mantel about 7 feet off the ground. A loft will sit 12 feet over the kitchen, to be used as office space for Carol Lynn’s interior-design business. The foyer will connect the large barn to the smaller, granary barn, which will house the Forman’s master suite.

Why go to all this trouble to ship authentic barn frames? For one, character. The 9-by-9-inch beams were hand-hewn, and their rough chop marks date back to the 1700s, which means these beams were growing when Columbus landed. All this history comes at a cost. The Formans declined to cite a price tag, but Epworth’s restoration services alone run from $300,000 to $500,000 per project.

The resulting complex, which is being constructed by McGuire, Hearn & Toms of Manakin, will balance old and new. Aside from the frame and exposed beams, the house will be new. The floors will be made of new, wide pine planks. The walls will be white plaster, the vaulted ceiling will be boarded, and the roof will be cedar-shake.

The Formans have always lived in historic homes, in south Boston and most recently in Gades Mill, Ohio. And while they love the character of old homes, they wanted the reliability of a new structure.

“We were kind of ready to have new plumbing and not go into a restoration at this point,” Carol Lynn says. And the barn is helping them achieve that blend, she says, lending an older feel, a unique design and a country-living perspective. “I wanted the open space that you get with barns, but still have the warmth of an old home, but one with new bones.”

Both the Formans are Baltimore natives, and now that their children are grown and out of the house, they wanted to move somewhere with a better climate. Carol Lynn grew up vacationing in the Tidewater area of Virginia, and Armstrong’s friend from prep school lives right next door to their new home in Manakin. He was the one who introduced them to the area.

There is a year of construction to go, but the Formans are visualizing the interior already.

“We have a lot of formal English and American antiques that we’ll furnish the barns with,” Armstrong says, like “1790s secretaries which really are the same time period as the barn. It will be an informal structure with very formal furniture, like a redone Cotswolds farm in England.”

Carol Lynn — whose design work on a former home was featured on HGTV’s “Homes Across America” — says she’s decorating their new home with a “country-formal” style. “I believe — even when decorating with antiques — in making rooms comfortable,” she says.

That will include such touches as overstuffed couches in the living room, she says, but the design will be far from homespun. She plans an old English, Rumford-style fireplace, ancient French stone on the entrance floor, and three sets of French doors leading to a porch. She’s also planning to use an old barn door at one end of the living room that will slide open on antique rollers to reveal the television.

For the past year, the Formans have been living in a brick house on the property. Carol Lynn still travels back and forth to Ohio to work with clients. Armstrong, who is a manufacturer’s representative for capital equipment for power plants and gas transmission plants, says he’s already loving the country life. “I don’t need city things,” he says. “There are miles and miles of walking trails and lakes, and a nice quiet lifestyle. And we have neighbors and we get together regularly for dinners and events.”

Both look forward to the February 2005 completion of their home, which they’ve decided to call Whimsey Meadow. But the wait won’t be difficult, Armstrong says. “The hard part is when you’re standing up on the manure spreader and saying, ‘My God! That’s going to be my house.’”

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