Barns of Western Pennsylvania, Revisited


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Isenberg Barn, Alexandria, Pennsylvania, 2005

As a professional photographer, my experience with architecture is not so much the history or study of as it is one of practical knowledge. You need to learn the hallmarks of the different genres to speak with some intelligence to various clients. Before working as an architectural photographer for Carnegie Museum of Art in 2004, I really only knew of Frank Lloyd Wright and a handful of other names, but of course still could pick out visually interesting buildings and enjoy the differences between eras.

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In spring 2005 I was asked to take photographs for an exhibition titled Barns of Western Pennsylvania: Vernacular to Spectacular. It would be the first time the museum would contract a photographer to do an entire exhibition for them in this manner. I was excited, as most photographers would be—barns are cool subjects to photograph. I admit that I knew almost nothing of the various genres of barn architecture! I was soon immersed in the various types of structures that dotted the landscape in the area. I grew up in the area, so I was surprised to find out that there were unique building styles that defined western Pennsylvania. No longer was a barn just a barn. I had been in a few of course, but I did not grow up on a farm, so there was a steep learning curve.

Boscy Barn

Boscy Barn

The approach was to be about the style and construction, not so much about use or who and what inhabited them. The list that curator Lu Donnelly had put together was pretty extensive, covering from the western edge of PA to near State College, and from Erie to just north of the Maryland border. I started with the two closest to me, both very much Pennsylvania type barns. I tried to contact the owners via phone but did not get an answer nor did they have answering machines. So I just took a chance and drove over.

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Brunch at Alter Barn

At first, the Alter Barn did not look like much. I did realize its structure now as a forebay barn, a multilevel designed to accommodate the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. I went to the farm house and rang the bell. I was ushered into the kitchen to meet with the owner. He was not working the farm himself anymore due to age and ailment. He began to tell me the history of the farm and who was using the barn for a few horses and cows. I knew I needed to go and photograph but was getting a living history lesson of the farm and its use. He said go ahead and do what I needed to, just watch your step—for the obvious reason as well as some of the floorboards in the barn may not be as secure as possible. I assured him I’d be careful and went about my business.

I was first greeted by the smith who was shoeing one of the horses being kept there. I had never seen it done, so my education was beginning in earnest. I walked around the barn and did a lot of exterior photos. Again, it did not look like it was in stellar condition. I then pushed one of the large doors open. Light and sound changed instantly. Everything became softer. Sound was muffled yet you could hear a creak from the other side of the barn as if the offended plank was right beside you. The smell was of earth, the wood, the hay, all had a quieting effect. The light was warm and diffuse, streaming in between the siding, breaking up then reconfiguring itself to illuminate everything in a unique way. I started climbing around the hay, looking at all the aged farm implements at rest but still looking like they had a job to do. One of the first photos that I did inside that day continues to be one of my all time favorites (below).

Alter Barn Hayloft

Alter Barn Hayloft

As I worked through the afternoon and kept finding wonderful shot after wonderful shot I realized that this was a different kind of architecture. It was alive, it was active. I began to realize that it had a life and a story all of its own. It was intertwined with its owner like no other building I had ever been in. It was open to the elements yet was shelter.

I also realized that showing all of this was actually my job! I went down to the lower levels that house the animals but none were to be found. They were outside grazing and doing what cows and horses do. As I started shooting all of this, the inhabitants did begin to come up to the building. They did not seem to mind me too much, but I did get a few looks from the cows that made me wonder a bit.

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Take a picture, why don’t ya?

I became intrigued with their lives within this structure. I realized how much a barn is designed to facilitate man and beast together in their daily activities.  Not many other places are designed with that in mind.

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Neumeyer Barn

The second farm that I approached (Neumeyer) has what is called a stone end Sweitzer barn. It too housed a few interesting characters. I walked to the the farm house again. This time I was greeted by three dogs on respective chain runs that made plenty of noise, but I could walk past them to the house. The farmer came to the door and I introduced myself and what my purpose was. He was aware that I was coming but not when. He was very guarded and was not at all trusting of me. He said that I could do all I wanted outside but to not go into the barn. He mentioned injury and insurance as the reason and was not going to sign any release forms. Didn’t like people that needed a piece of paper to have an agreement. I agreed not to trespass and added that I believed his dogs would keep an eye out for me. His response was priceless.

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Neumeyer Milk Stall

“Don’t worry about the dogs. Watch out for the Goat! He’s a sneaky one.” He walked with me and began to explain how his goat liked to come up to people all innocent like, then begin to chew their clothes, and when you tried to get away it would head butt them. As I approached the barn the goat showed his face out of the side door and began to walk up to us. He seemed rather comical as we approached. Only one eye seemed to focus on you. The other pointed in another direction entirely. The farmer reiterated “Don’t let him fool you.” I told him that he was the first person I ever met with a “Watch Goat.” He seemed to like that comment and began to tell me about the farm. The more we talked and the more questions I asked the more he began to show me around. To this day I feel that because I was wearing a hat and not a suit, something he commented on, he felt he could at least trust me a little bit. I wore a hat to every farm after that.

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“Don’t worry about the dogs. Watch out for the goat! He’s a sneaky one.”

He eventually gave me a tour of the entire barn, both inside and out. I was shown how an old fashioned dairy farm works. Told how he was the third generation to use the barn but would be the last. He didn’t want his daughters working as hard as he had. I heard stories from him growing up here and how he had swung from ropes and beams off of the rafters as a teenager. The barn had been added to over the years to facilitate growth, new types of animals, and whatever farming techniques are being used at the time.

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Neumeyer Hayloft

On the outside, the barns have an “overworked” look I like to call it. They have stood for a long time with minimal repair. Inside, they take on a whole world unto themselves. sparse light, yet still a bright atmosphere. Hard work is done here no doubt about it, yet almost serene in feeling. All manner of creatures are in there, but just living, not competing.

To me, the architecture and design was more about the heart of the farm than about the actual structure. This is architecture with a life and a life story. Some soaring and grand. Some with a “How did this stay up so long?” look to it. All with a character not found in any high rise. Every corner used—nothing wasted.