In his 2009 book “Barns of New England,” photographer Jeffrey Blackman preserves for posterity images of an iconic structure that seemed to be vanishing, a casualty of diminishing farms and the occasional snow-laden roof collapse. But barns, it turns out, are not disappearing. They’re just trading in their overalls for party clothes.
The “party barn” has emerged as a desired amenity for a certain well-heeled demographic, and as such, barnwrights — those who deal in barn construction — are converting old musty structures that once sheltered cattle into cavernous rec rooms scented with beer. It’s a modern expression of Yankee ingenuity, albeit one that brings to mind a variation of Joni Mitchell’s folk song “Big Yellow Taxi”: They paved paradise, and put up a party barn.
This trend, at first blush, seems a coldly nonchalant dethroning, repurposing a humble site in which animals live, sweat, and die, to one in which they tip a glass, bare implausibly white teeth, and raucously shake their booty.
Moreover, the rise of the party barn seems additional evidence that the writer Jon Katz is right: Even as frenzied efforts to protect animals intensify in the public arena, as in the case of carriage horses, we are actually bulldozing them out of our lives.
Of course, barns have been repurposed for millennia, even occasionally serving as a labor-and-delivery ward, as Christians recall every December. On the website HomeAway, vacationers can choose from a variety of Berkshires barns that have been upgraded into dwellings that rent for up to $750 a night. Barns are being transformed into greenhouses, restaurants, even churches. There is much that is right about this. Comfortingly, at the center of these restoration efforts is a cadre of people who care about more than making money, people for whom “old” means “something to treasure” and not “something to tear down.”
One such person is Shaun Garvey of in the Western Massachusetts town of Dalton, who began a barn-reconstruction business after restoring one for himself. While the term “party barn” is just now penetrating the mainstream, it’s a label that he’s been using for a decade, one he might have even coined himself.
Garvey estimates that he’s renovated about 90 barns. Some of the ones that he moves and englamours are for people who will never own a cow or a donkey. But most are, at the very least, interested in historical artifacts, and in preserving an increasingly elusive form of character, while “making as few changes as possible to the historical fabric.”
On his website, Garvey shows party barns that once were dilapidated, failing structures, but were resurrected by monied denizens of Boston and New York who wanted something different at their rural weekend homes. “My clientele are people who appreciate antiques,” Garvey said. “They think it’s a cool idea to move a barn somewhere else for a new purpose.”
Further, he points out that old barns, while possessed of a certain romance, are just not practical for modern farmers, who need different structures than their counterparts a hundred years ago, when livestock, not tractors, tilled the land. Most farmers don’t have the financial wherewithal to overhaul an old barn sufficiently to make it safe, to remove the dangers of fire and roof collapse. From this reality, the party barn emerges as a new form of 1-percenter do-gooding, a way for those with plenty of money to preserve assets that the full culture considers a societal good. Save the whales, support the arts, party like it’s 1849 in the barn by the pool. It’s a stretch, but the nimble mind can go there.
The barn in which Wilbur the pig rooted in the E.B. White classic “Charlotte’s Web” “often had a sort of peaceful smell — as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.” The party barn won’t have that scent. Nor spiders, for that matter. Its raising mimics that of the modern world, which seeks to replace things resembling work with things redolent of leisure, and to eradicate all fustiness and rats. Coming soon, to a coffee table near you, “Party Barns of New England.” Somewhere, Wilbur weeps. But the barns, at least, still stand.
Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.