I continue to be thrilled by the construction of a new barn at Woodville, part of Neville House Associates’ ambitious project to create “the Woodville Experience” by complementing the Neville House with authentic outbuildings. The result will provide twenty-first century visitors with an opportunity to experience life on a wealthy western Pennsylvania estate in the eighteenth century.
The skeleton of the barn is constructed from hand hewn timbers that originally were part of a barn built near Latrobe early in the 1800s. When I wrote about this project a month ago, the erection crew had preassembled the four transverse bents (frames) “in the flat” on the barn floor. Fortunately I was able to be present at the site the day they lifted the bents into place.
Today’s technology provided a hydraulic crane mounted on a truck to do the heavy lifting. Once the operator positioned the truck and set his outriggers, the crew attached a spreader to the northern most bent and lifted it into the vertical. The bent consisted of the main horizontal timber, the four posts that support it, diagonal “kickers” at the top of the external posts, sloping “purlin posts” at the third points of the main timber, and a horizontal tie between them.
To locate the vertical posts correctly the crew drilled holes in the floor and matching holes in the bottom of each post. They then inserted steel pins, protruding far enough to engage the matching holes. Once the posts were properly located, the crew quickly plumbed the posts in both directions and nailed diagonal planks in place as braces.
Next came the nearest interior bent. As soon as it was secured they attached four horizontal timbers tying the two bents together. Two of the timbers were at the top of the outermost posts. The other two tied together the tops of the sloping purlin posts. Two cycles later all four bents were erected and tied together, completing the skeleton. The whole process took about three hours.
Watching this process my thoughts kept going back to the time when these timbers first were erected, without the benefit of a powerful crane. In his classic “An Age of Barns”, Eric Sloane has a sketch showing about two dozen men manhandling a bent of about this size by a combination of pushing and pulling. I think our bents weighed about two tons apiece; manhandling them would be difficult but possible.
A surprise to me was the configuration of the supports for the roof. I was expecting a conventional roof truss with rugged principal rafters at each bent, meeting at a stiff ridgepole at the top, supported by a king post at the center, vertical purlin posts at the quarter points, and diagonals tying them to the bottom of the king post. The common rafters, at two foot centers, are then supported by a timber at the external posts, a purlin at mid-roof, and the ridgepole.
In our case, instead of framing into a ridgepole, each common rafter butts up against a two by eight vertical plank, directly opposite another rafter. The fact that this concept puts compression into the rafter probably explains the use of three by six rafters rather than the normal two by sixes.
The next step was to nail planks onto the rafters, forming the roof. Another surprise was the fact that the planks were of different widths; later I learned that this was done on purpose, in the spirit of authenticity. This practice was also followed on the barn’s siding.
The roof planks were covered with a weathertight membrane before installing the shingles. The “shingles” are actually synthetic replicas of cedar shakes. The individual pieces are about twelve inches by sixteen inches, with a clever transverse interlocking system. Each row overlaps the lower one by about four inches and is secured by two nails per shingle.
This is a perfect example of the compromises necessary in historical restoration. To be truly authentic we would need an artisan to split shakes from a cedar block; the expense of doing this would probably jeopardize the whole project. What about machine cut shakes – less expensive, less authentic? I am comfortable with the decision to use synthetic shakes as long as they look like the real thing.
The team is now working on the details that will ultimately define the character of the finished product. The ancient louvers from the old barn have been modified and installed in the walls of the new barn. The large doors on the two sides of the barn are hung from above on rollers. I would have preferred “swinging doors”, but this design replicated the original barn.
Although most of the barn will be one large room, there will be a series of small rooms at its north end. Framed conventionally with studding, these rooms have been faced with weathered barn siding. In addition, their doors are handmade from the same siding.
Mounted on one of these walls is a cutout symbol, a diamond with four triangles pointing inward to each of its corners. This is obvious homage to the hex sign vents on each end of traditional Pennsylvania Dutch barns. My extensive research of hex signs suggests it is a good luck sign.
It is easy to marvel at the reuse of these timbers, two centuries old, and to try to imagine workmen using a broad axe to hew them out of tree trunks. What a history they have, and how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to relive it!
The Woodville complex is open every Sunday from 1:00 to 4:00. We encourage everyone to take advantage of our Spring weather and stop by for a visit. And while you are there, be sure to wander out to the barn and let your imagination take you back two hundred years. There won’t be any “Do not touch!” signs there – run your hands over these old warriors.