The Star Barn. (Photo: Deborah Noell)
February 19, 2010 – Written for a historic preservation class.
A beautiful and intriguing barn stands not fifty feet from busy Interstate-283 in Middletown, Pennsylvania. With spired cupola reaching toward the sky, the structure takes resemblance of a church. This may explain why the barn seems to have a familiar feeling to someone who has just seen it for the first time. The 14,000 square foot white barn has distinctive star-shaped ventilators on all four sides. Popularly known as the Star Barn, “it may be one of the most artistically photographed, painted, and replicated buildings in America because of its unique architectural design, building layout, and most notably, its giant five-point stars on each end”. The National Barn Alliance says the Star Barn is the most recognizable barn in North America (The Star Barn). This is testimony to the extraordinary aesthetic beauty of this 138 year old barn.
The earliest documentation of the farm land’s ownership dates back to 1778 when the land was purchased by a Revolutionary War veteran. Over the next one hundred years the land was owned by influential men who included a member of the United States Congress, a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate, and a county judge. In 1872 John Motter, a man who supplied the United States army with thousands of horses during the Civil War, purchased the farm for just over $19,000. (The Star Barn).
Inside of the Star Barn
Soon after the purchase, Motter commissioned master carpenter Daniel Reichert to design the new farm buildings, most of which still stand to this day. The carriage house/corn crib, chicken coop, and pig barn all mimic the Gothic Revival architectural details of the main barn, but on a much smaller scale. “Each of the buildings had characteristics of that style including cross gables, pointed arch ventilators, trefoil brackets, and spired cupolas” (The Star Barn).
Built on a limestone foundation, the three-story Star Barn is not a forgettable sight. It is approximately 68 feet wide by 106 feet long and about 65 feet in height. “The Gothic Revival five-bay barn has a centered cross gable and square cupola rising above the gabled roof. A metal cap in the shape of a fleur-de-lis tops the octagonal spire. The barn has tall pointed-arch ventilators along all four elevations” (The Star Barn). The star-shaped ventilators are centered on each side of the barn, making it easily recognizable from any angle. Form follows function for this decoration. The wooden louvers that created the star pattern allowed for additional sunlight and air circulation for drying hay and other grains on the upper levels. (The Star Barn).
The initial use of the lower levels was to keep horses and was most likely used for that purpose until 1925 when the farm changed hands to the Nissley Family who converted it into a dairy farm. The Nissley’s dramatically changed the lower level of the barn to accommodate cattle. The other outbuildings were now used primarily for storing equipment and not animals; this led to a deterioration of those buildings which became no longer functioning components of the 20th century farm (The Star Barn).
The farm flourished during the late 19th century through the post-Civil War era of restoration. Prior to the war a farmer was self-sufficient and generally grew only enough food to feed his family. The railroad gave the farmer more opportunity to accumulate large fortunes by being able to ship food to the ever expanding territory out west. “By constructing new farms or rebuilding existing farms utilizing more modern agrarian practices, the farming industry became more efficient and more productive” (The Star Barn). However, the good fortunes of the farm would not last forever. By 1986 the farm was no longer functioning and was starting to deteriorate. For several years the future of the Star Barn was uncertain.
Interstate 283, just yards from the Star Barn, was completed in 1971 (Interstate-Guide). It did not take long for residential and industrial development to begin closing in around the farm. Ereno Lewis purchased the land and its buildings in 1986. This is where the bumpy road to preservation began. Lewis had considered making the Star Barn a bed and breakfast (“Preservation”). Surely, the building is beautiful enough for such an endeavor. Nothing ever came of this idea and in 1994 the farm land was subdivided for housing (Foster). The original farm of 164 acres was now scaled back to 3.6 acres. Now neglected, the great barn’s doors had sagged and “countless storms had ravaged the once-proud cupola and stripped white paint from the star-shaped louver vents” (“Preservation”).
Meanwhile, a group formed called the Friends of the Star Barn. They would become the first preservation group to put forth a real effort to save the Star Barn from further deterioration. They proposed a $3 million project to convert the barn into an agricultural museum and education center. In 1995 Preservation Pennsylvania featured the Star Barn in their Pennsylvania At Risk newsletter. They reported that the Friends of the Star Barn had to scale back their initial plan to just purchase the barn and its small parcel of land whose ticket price was $120,000 (“Pennsylvania”). Friends of the Star Barn volunteer David Morrison explained that through grass roots efforts they managed to raise $40,000 by selling Star Barn artwork by Lititz artist Al Taft, but that eventually their efforts simply burned out (“Preservation”). They had some ambitious ideas, but unfortunately were not able to gather the support to raise the amount of money needed. For such a small organization, their plans for an agricultural museum were very unrealistic. For starters, they were not even successful with raising enough money to purchase the 3.6 acres of land the barn was on.
Hope arrived again in 2000 when Preservation Pennsylvania purchased the property for $140,000 (Miller, “Star Barn Sold”). They worked with Historic York to research the barn to get it listed on the National Registry of Historic Places (The Star Barn). Not only in this an aesthetically pleasing building, but it is the last of its kind of an estimated fifteen Gothic Revival barns were once present in Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties (The Barn Journal). This barn is also the perfect example of the post Civil War era of restoration in business and agriculture (The Star Barn). Preservation Pennsylvania put money into the barn for repairs such as fixing the weather tattered doors (“Preservation”). In 2003 the organization, who had definitely done their part to help save the barn, put it on the market trying to find a buyer who would take care of the historic property. Several years went by and dozens of inquiries fell through. Finally in 2007 there was a serious buyer.
The Star Barn. (Photo: Dan Myers)
Robert Barr, founder of Agrarian Country, an organization established to preserve Pennsylvania farmland and farm buildings, bought the barn for $100,000 (Miller, “Star Barn Sold”) with incredibly large aspirations in mind. Similar to the idea that the Friends of the Star Barn proposed, Barr also wanted to create an agricultural museum, but on a much bigger scale. The four acre parcel was just too small for his idea but finally, after more than a year of searching and negotiations, Barr bought a 300 acre plot of land in Grantville, about twenty miles down the road. The old white barn that sometimes shudders when 18-wheelers drive by is planned to be moved to a new location where Barr plans to build a large agricultural education and exhibit center (Miller, “Star Barn will shine”). Through preservation and “hands-on agricultural educational activities, Agrarian Country hopes to rekindle interest in America’s agricultural heritage and a self-sufficient way of life, to promote wholesome, moral, and healthy living” (The Star Barn).
The plan is for the Star Barn to be moved piece by piece and rebuilt “using historically accurate methods, tools and a few oxen” (Miller, “Star Barn Sold”).The barn will be rehabilitated to serve a new purpose. The first two levels of the barn will serve as the expo center and the third floor will be turned into a museum and art gallery (Long). It is estimated to cost about $3 million to dismantle, move, and rebuild the barn, and another $7 million to get the entire agricultural education center up and running (Torres).
Barr has started an aggressive fundraising campaign and has raised a good deal of money by appearing at conferences, such as the Historic Barn & Farm Foundation Conference in 2008, setting up a booth with a model of the Star Barn at the 2008-10 Farm Show exhibitions, appearing in many local newspapers and having news TV crews come to tape him giving news conferences in the Star Barn itself. It is undisclosed how much money has been raised so far, but there is progress being made. However, progress is slow. It took a year for his new property in Grantville to be allotted the proper agri-tourism zoning ordinances (Miller, “East Hanover”). During that time nothing was done with the barn. The seven month process of dismantling the barn was initially set to start in January of 2009 (Miller, “Star Barn will shine”), a year later it hasn’t begun yet.
Although the project is running behind schedule, it is still in the works. Preservation is never easy. Robert Barr has found out that purchasing a large amount of land, changing that land’s zoning rights, and setting up the movement of a building is extremely time consuming and expensive. Several people have tried to rehabilitate the Star Barn and have failed. Although this preservation project has not come to an end, most are still very optimistic that Mr. Barr has what it takes to create a great learning center in our community which will teach the appreciation of Pennsylvania’s great agricultural past. Agrarian Country works to “provide a place where people of all ages can visit and participate in the operation of numerous agricultural enterprises in a real-life farm setting” (The Star Barn). The goal of this preservation project is not just to rehabilitate this beautiful building, but more importantly it is an effort that intends to involve the community in our agricultural past.
Update: As of February 18, 2012 the Star Barn still hasn’t been dismantled and there has not been a date announced for this task.
The Barn Journal. 2010. George and Matilda Neyer Leik Foundation. <http://www.thebarnjournal.org/>.
Foster, Margaret. “New Plans for Pennsylvania’s 1872 Star Barn.” PreservationNation. 19 Dec. 2007. 12
Feb. 2010. <http://blogs.<nationaltrust.org/preservationnation/?p=374>.
Interstate-Guide.2010. AARoads. <hhtp://www.interstate-guide.com>.
Miller, Barbara. “Star Barn sold, to be moved.” The Patriot-News 19 Dec. 2007. 14 Feb. 2010.
Miller, Barbara. “East Hanover amends zoning ordinance for Star Barn project.” The Patriot-News 22 Dec.
2008. 13 Feb. 2010. <http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2008/12/east_hanover_twp_
—. “Star Barn sold, to be moved.” The Patriot-News 19 Dec. 2007. 14 Feb. 2010.
—. “Star Barn will shine in Lebanon County.” The Patriot-News 01 Jul. 2008. 12 Feb. 2010.
“Pensylvania At Risk.” Preserving Pennsylvania 9.1 (1995):8. 12 Feb. 2010.
“Preservation group saves landmark barn.” Gettysburg Times. 21 Jan. 1999. 14 Feb. 2010. <http://news.
Long, Jeremy. “Bye, bye barn!” Press And Journal. 26 Dec. 2007. 14 Feb. 2010. <http://www.pressand
The Star Barn. 2007. Agrarian Country. <http://www.thestarbarn.com/>.
Torres, Chris. “Star Barn Gets an New Lease on Life.” Lancaster Farming. 3 Jul. 2008. 14 Feb. 2010.
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