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Barn Life: Farm Buildings Find New Roles

Posted on 15 June 2011

By Annette Hinkle

Merrall Hildreth's Barn for web
Merrall Hildreth’s Barn

While Southampton and East Hampton’s architectural style is largely defined by the old shingle-style cottage surrounded by formal gardens or privet hedge, in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack, it’s the barns that define the historic landscape of the past.

There are still probably more barns in the area than any other on the South Fork. Today they are used as pool houses, summer cottages, art studios, garages — and yes, in rare cases, even barns. But no matter their design or style, they were all originally built for the same purpose — to house animals, farming equipment, feed or produce that earlier generations of farming families relied on for their livelihood.

Bridgehampton and Sagaponack’s quintessential barns will be the focus of a tour this Saturday, June 18 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. sponsored by the Bridgehampton Historical Society. The self-guided “Bridgehampton Barn Tour” is the brainchild of Sally Spanburgh, the historical society’s program coordinator. Her original idea was to offer a house tour, but when she began to consider the focus of this year’s summer exhibits at the historical society, she had a change of mind.

“When we determined our exhibits this year, it turned out to be all about farms and farming families,” explains Spanburgh. “I thought why not a barn tour?”

So Spanburgh drove around the area, made note of where the barns were and sent letters asking owners if they might consider opening their barns to the public.

As a result, 10 barns will be on view on Saturday. They sit on property that has been farmed as far back as the 1600s, and most of the barns date to the 1800s. Included on the tour are three that are still working structures — Art Ludlow’s Mecox Dairy Farm barn, the Milk Pail’s Sprayer Barns and the Comfort Farm barn on Lumber Lane (where you can pick up strawberries from the self-service stand in front of the property).

Architecturally speaking, Spanburgh explains that barns don’t typically have well documented lineage like famous houses in the area do. But that’s because these functional structures were erected with little fanfare and a specific purpose in mind.

“Barns were built by hired people,” she notes. “It was a rare thing that a famed architect would build a barn.”

One of the barns on the tour that did get an architectural make-over is the circa 1790 structure built by Nathan Pierson on Sagg Main Street. In the 1960s it was turned into a rustic two story living space with soaring ceilings, fireplace and loft style sleeping quarters.

“The salt box barn attached is the garage and the living quarters are in the former carriage house,” explains Spanburgh. “Often there were sleeping quarters for the person who worked the carriage house. And even if the owners did something other than farming as their living, the land made them wealthy. You needed a place for horses and carriages.”

Today, the structure is used primarily for storage. In the 1990s, Spanburgh notes it was converted back into a non-residence.

“The interior walls are in there, but there’s no plumbing in the kitchen and bath,” she says.

The repurposing of barns as living spaces is one of the things that makes Bridgehampton and Sagaponack unique. While in general, the building philosophy in recent decades has been to tear down what was there and build new, Spanburgh finds that for many years, the structures on the farmlands of the South Fork were largely overlooked, which may have ultimately saved them.

“There are many barns in the Hamptons that have been turned into houses,” says Spanburgh. “I notice it more in Sagaponack where you see more barns still standing. Before the war, through the Depression and until the 1970s, Sagaponack didn’t experience much change. Now there’s an appreciation of them and I think that’s the reason more vernacular structures have been maintained.”

The barn closest to Sag Harbor that guests can visit during the tour is the magnificent post and beam style Wesnofske barn on Brick Kiln Road near the Scuttle Hole Road. The design is considered unusual for the area and more closely resembles something that might be found in New England or upstate New York. Built into a hillside, the barn is also accessible on two levels.

“The farm goes back to the Halsey family and the barn was built 1895,” explains Spanburgh. “It’s the only two story barn out here – with a hayloft above and a cattle barn below. You can drive in on both levels.”

Though it is still a working barn, in recent years it has also served as a venue for Peconic Land Trust farm dinner fundraisers and for family social events.

For artists, especially, barns can be ideal structures to convert into studio space. This is true of the quaint red barn on Narrow Lane in Bridgehampton that will be on the tour. Built in the 1920s and formerly owned by the Rogers family, today it is a working artist’s studio. Also on the tour is Merrall Hildreth’s famous “art barn” next door to the Sagg General store, which his family owned for years. While the first floor is used mainly as a garage, upstairs is the legendary “museum” where Hildreth keeps his collection of vintage memorabilia — from old post office boxes to model sailboats, antique farm implements and his own elaborately carved wooden figures.

Another artist’s barn can be found on Hedges Lane in Sagaponack. Build by the Hedges prior to 1858, it was once part of a 60 acre farm and belonged to the Musnicki family before it was sold to the current owner, Beverley Galban. Galban’s paintings are currently on view as part “Farm Scenes” an exhibit running throughout the summer at the historical society’s Corwith House.

“The land went from Hedges to Parsonage Road and it still does go through and still is farmed, though it’s owned by someone else,” explains Spanburgh. “This parcel was subdivided, but includes the barn and sits on maybe three acres.”

There are actually multiple farm buildings on the property — one large barn and a couple smaller ones. Because it is still surrounded by working farmland, the property retains a rural feel, and, despite the view of new mansions on the horizon, it’s easy to get a sense of what the area might have looked like in the old days. The original barn, itself, is a massive and impressive structure with grassy sloped entrances and giant sliding doors that would have accommodated carts, plows and later, tractors. It’s obvious some serious farming has been done here.

“The Hedges built it – so it would’ve been used to house animals and equipment,” explains Spanburgh of the large barn. “Horses were used for pulling plows in this area until around the 1920s.”

Horses were, indeed, the original engines for South Fork farmers, and a barn on Ocean Road reflects that past as it was once used as a livery stable.

“This barn was built in 1894 by Edwin P. Rogers a prominent Bridgehampton citizen,” explains Spanburgh. “The house is one of the original Hayground churches from 1750 – and before 1850 it was relocated here.”

Local farmer, historian and nonagenarian Richard Hendrickson is a descendent of Rogers and a few years back he visited the barn and noticed a sign with Edwin Rogers name on it. He asked if he could have it, but when the owner pointed out it was being used as a shelf in the barn, Hendrickson agreed to make a new one himself in exchange for the old sign. The deal was done, and the sign is now part of Hendrickson’s historic collection. This Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon, Hendrickson will be at the property in the role of docent and share its history with visitors.

Tickets for the “Bridgehampton Barn Tour” are $35 in advance ($40 on the day of the tour). The tour is rain or shine. For information and tickets, call the Bridgehampton Historical Society at 537-1088 or email bhhs@optonline.net.

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