Falling Barns in an Evolving World

Pictured above: Phoebe Lickwar, left, photographer and assistant professor of landscape architecture and Frank Jacobus, assistant professor of architecture. | Photo by Matt Reynolds

In their presentation “Falling Barns: Registers of Social and Economic Evolution in the Arkansas Ozarks,” Frank Jacobus and Phoebe Lickwar remind us that we cannot separate the history of the social life of a place from the things made by and for the people who inhabited that place. Which probably explains why so many of us feel punched in the gut when we see a barn set back from the highway, tucked away in a grove of black locusts or cowering under the wrath of the sun, crumbling or collapsed into a heap of rusted nails and weathered boards.

Why? What is it about barns that conjure complex feelings, even — and very often, especially — for people whose families never farmed, or if they did, left the occupation generations ago?

Painful Evolution

“These barns — most of which will be gone in the next 20 years or so — are emblematic of something that’s painful for many of us to consider,” says architect Jacobus. “Not only are they material evidence of a way of life that no longer exists, the loss of work and life and the spirit of new settlement, but they also represent the massive cultural change we’ve gone through over the past 150 years.”

This social evolution, brought about by rapid urbanization, technological change and economic growth, force us to ask tough questions, Jacobus says. Who are we? How have we evolved? How are we acting in the world? Are we moving in the right direction?

For the past year, Jacobus and Lickwar, a photographer and landscape architect, have collaborated on the barn project, documenting these crumbling structures in Northwest Arkansas, gleaning as much as possible about the settlers who built them and, as creative professionals, trying understand their historical contribution to the vernacular. It is an ideal collaboration, Lickwar says, because barns are nearly the perfect convergence of the two disciplines that she and Jacobus represent.

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Marc Manack, assistant professor of architecture

In fall 2013, they created “Barn Again,” an exhibit of their work featuring 20 elegiac photographs by Lickwar and four informational “totems” by Jacobus that described the history of barns and the cultural and economic factors that contributed to their disuse and eventual demise. The centerpiece of the exhibit was an installation piece — a small barn, 8 feet tall, 8 feet wide and 16 feet long — designed and built with materials salvaged from an old barn by Marc Manack and current and former architecture students.

Vernacular Vision

What barns were used for was simple. Subsistence farmers built them to store hay and protect livestock. Because the purpose of the barns was purely functional and utilitarian, their design was vernacular, meaning they were based on the needs of the owners, reflecting local traditions and made with local materials. Although many people consider the barns to be attractive, as vernacular structures, they weren’t adorned with ornaments or other stylistic or aesthetic elements.

What hasn’t been simple is uncovering the early history of the structures and the people who built them. Initially Lickwar and Jacobus wanted to compile oral histories about each structure they documented, but it has been proven impossible to identify or find information about the early settlers who built and used the barns.

Their efforts have been fruitful in other ways. Lickwar hopes their work will generate a greater awareness of the cultural significance of barns. Ideally, she would like to see the structures preserved or repurposed, as much as possible, although she knows that will be impossible for most of the barns.

Short of saving the structures, Lickwar and Jacobus will continue to use the knowledge they’ve acquired to drive their creative design of structures and landscapes. They’ve forged a professional relationship with a Johnson man whom Lickwar met one day while taking photographs of a crumbling barn on the man’s property. After several conversations about the structure, which could not be saved, the parties agreed that Manack would design a home for the property, and Lickwar would design the site. They will design features that match the spirit and historical purpose of the property, while providing a vision of its future adaption.

“We are trying to be sensitive to the site, in both its current state and regarding its historical use,” Lickwar says.

Lickwar and Jacobus presented their research at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture conference in 2013 and will present this year at the meeting of the Southeast Society of Architectural Historians. 

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