The barn out back was a wreck. But we ignored that fact because the house in front of it was a fully renovated, early 1900s Victorian a short walk from Old Town Fort Collins. My wife, Claire, and I were fleeing suburban Philly in search of a walkable urban lifestyle near drive-able natural beauty, and we love historical homes. This was the perfect old house for our new lives. Sold.
The barn was an afterthought in the deal. Or maybe an impending disaster we refused to face. The first time we wrenched open the creaking door and walked in, we could see a threatening winter sky through holes in the rotting roof. The whole wreck rested on a pile-of-rocks foundation, so the walls leaned precariously. What if it fell over on one of us when the west wind blew?
Plus, the building kind of creeped us out. There were mysterious muddy holes in the dirt floor, and the scent of mouse droppings added a tang to the hayloft. The weirdest thing: A baby’s saddle shoe had been abandoned in a boarded-up window, which suggested a Stephen-King-novel outcome for our adventure in moving. But never mind, we told ourselves. We’d live in the house. We’d deal with the barn.
So we did. And, within nine months of moving day, our hulking, haunted afterthought on the alley would become our favorite part of the property, the space we truly owned, because we made ourselves part of its story—by saving it.
The 1907 Sanborn fire insurance map, which we tracked down from Tatanka Historical Associates in Fort Collins, shows an X on the structure; turns out, the building was originally one of eight horse barns on our alley. Fort Collins had fewer than 50 motorcars and 3,000 residents back then, so there were probably quite a few horses, too. But the horses had left the building, and initially, we were prepared to move on from it as well. We even sought recommendations for barn-demolition outfits, the ones that can fetch $10 a square foot for sable-colored boards—once they’re no longer attached to a barn.
And yet there was something about the glint of the western sunlight on the holey roof, the rustic hues of worm-eaten barn boards—plus the credible threats from our new neighbors, one of whom told us, “We’re happy you moved here and all, but if you tear down that barn, none of us will ever speak to you again.”
So before swinging the wrecking ball, we called in a structural engineer and held our breath as he hefted his 250-pound body up the loft ladder. Half of his large frame squeezed through a hole in the ceiling, and he swept his flashlight like a cop at a crime scene. Then, exultation: “This barn is better built than 90 percent of the old houses in Fort Collins!”
Point one for renovation.
We checked in with Karen McWilliams, manager of Fort Collins’ Historic Preservation Division. “[The barn] is one of fewer than 20 left in Fort Collins,” she said. “It’s probably more valuable historically than the house.” With that, our attention swung from our new home—nice, renovated, comfortable—to our old barn: vulnerable, needy, irreplaceable.
Our next call was to Mel Paulson, of Building Ventures Inc. in Loveland. He told us that while his business card says “general contracting,” he really thinks of himself as a carpenter. And boy, did our wood need working. Mel’s eyes widened when he met us in front of the teetering pile, both because the place was such a wreck, but also because it reminded him of his boyhood in Iowa, where barns are a way of life. Rebuilding projects he’d done there, and here, confirmed his love of wood and carpentry and renewal. He also shared a sad story of a relative who had plowed an old barn into a hole in the ground without asking him. His sense of regret for that lost barn helped Claire and me see ours as an opportunity rather than a burden.
Renovating an old barn is like geriatric care: diagnosing interlocking pathologies, dodging fatal threats, and ensuring quality of life. Mel and his son Joe were just the barn doctors we needed, combining the skills of orthopedic bonesetters with those of plastic surgeons, and even cosmeticians. They were jazz musicians as well, improvising on a classic theme while retaining all of the baseline notes. They kept on saying, “We’re not exactly sure how we’ll [replace the foundation…square up those wall joists…build that staircase], but we’ll see when we get there.”
These uncertainties launched a game of preservation ping-pong between Claire and me. Her: “We need to preserve the historical look of this barn; I love old barns!” Me: “I want the barn to work for a living—as a potting shed, my awesome office, and painting studio!” (Providing renovation plus marriage counseling to clients must be a difficult part of being a general contractor: “How does that stairway proposal make you feel, Claire?” “Peter, is there something—architectural—from your childhood that you’re not sharing?”)
From late summer 2017 to early spring 2018, we moved through roof teardown and replacement, securing of the concrete foundation, creation of the coolest staircase ever, and installing the tongue-and-grooviest ceiling we’d ever seen. There were sensual pleasures as well, from the smell of beetle-kill pine boards and sawdust, to the sudden gleam of sunlight bouncing off our new metal roof. We’d visit our carpenters twice a day to make decisions, but also to exclaim over the beauty of the old and new woodwork. Wood comes from living things, and it brings our barn to life as well.
And Mel and Joe spared us by not calling us out to hear the barn shudder and pop as they used chiropractic-like techniques—and hydraulic jacks—to straighten out the structure. Every day, they proved our engineer right: This old barn rewarded us all the way from derelict to delightful.
Once we had saved the barn, we became even more curious about what locals might think about its restoration. So we invited Ron Sladek, president of Tatanka Historical Associates in Fort Collins, over for a look. Sladek had introduced us to those helpful Sanborn Fire Insurance maps we looked at early on to get a sense of our barn’s history.
Would he disparage our Wi-Fi router? Frown upon the blown-in insulation? Be hot about the mini-split heating and cooling system in my office? None of the above.
“This barn is a fine example of adaptive reuse,” Sladek told us, admiring the barn-wood mosaic of the loft door upstairs. “It’s not a museum piece; it’s a building that is being adapted for current needs. That’s the only way to make sure barns like this remain standing.”
And so ours shall, for another 100-plus years, we hope. We often sit on our back deck, gazing out as the sun sets over the shoulder of our barn, and think: We saved it, and it saved us—from regret, from guilt, and from hailstorms battering our car. We’ve nodded to history and made some as well. And that roots us in our new—that is, very old—Colorado home in a way nothing else could.
Now, we’re a part of this place, too.