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"At home in the barn: Couple preserve a piece of history" - Frederick News Post, June 07, 2009

Woodsboro, Maryland

Originally published June 07, 2009

By Susan Guynn
News-Post Staff

John and Toni Clarke made the move from rural Ilinois to Maryland a few years ago to be closer to family.

They searched the county for a home and considered building one on the farm their daughter and son-in-law own on Oak Hill Road. "We could have built anywhere on the land," said Toni. "But John said he couldn't do that and watch the old barn just collapse." The stone-end barn was built in 1788 and was rebuilt in 1907 after a fire.

Thus began a multi-year project that transformed most of the bank barn into a home.

The Clarkes' son, Joseph, who is an architect in Wisconsin, drew up the plans and the couple hired barn expert and builder Dean Fitzgerald to make it happen.

"We wanted to keep the integrity of the barn. It had a feel we wanted to keep," said Toni. "You have to let the barn speak to you."

After about a year of planning, John and Toni, 71 and 67 respectively, moved into an RV they had parked by the barn during the renovation. Friends thought they were crazy for undertaking such an enormous project. "We know what it's going to be like when it's finished," Toni would tell them.

After all, it wasn't the first time they had been through it. "We started our married life in a 250-year-old blacksmith cottage, with the forge attached," said Toni. "Then we moved to a 350-year-old Cotswold stone farmhouse, and we renovated that one ourselves."

Thirty-some years ago, when John took a job with Caterpillar in the states, they moved to a fairly new split-level home in Peoria, Ill. "John wanted a break," laughed Toni. "Then we moved to a hunting lodge on a lake and restored that."

Living on-site at the barn during the renovation was "such fun, being here everyday and seeing the progress," said Toni.

From drafty barn to cozy house

"When we got started, we literally moved out the dry cows and calves, and round bales of hay," said Fitzgerald. The milking parlor had been "modernized" in the 1940s, he said. The barn design, with two end granaries, has strong German influences and is "very typical of that late 18th-century style or design."

The barn was stripped to its bones as repairs were made to the stone walls, foundation, supporting timbers and roof to "stiffen" the structure for home use. "The old building, as a barn, it moves. They move a lot. I think the design of most of them was to allow it to move," said Fitzgerald, president and CEO of Fitzgerald's Heavy Timber Construction in Thurmont .

That movement is fine for a drafty barn. "You can't have that in a house," Fitzgerald said. "We want to stiffen the structure. There's a lot of ways to do that," among them are partitions, floors, adding a few heavy timbers or, in this case, the use of structural insulated panels on exterior walls and the roof.

The Clarkes were hands-on throughout the project -- from mucking out the barnyard to removing parging from an interior stone wall with a crowbar to staining the new exterior siding and applying a tung-oil finish to the chestnut flooring, milled from the 2-inch-thick floorboards.

John, with the help of an engineer, designed the open-circuit geothermal system that heats and cools the 4,000-square-foot house. Since moving in two years ago, he says they haven't had to use the cooling system because they can control interior temperatures by closing and opening the barn-door size exterior window shutters. "The doors are an essential part of the HVAC system," he said. A dried corn-fueled boiler is the backup heating system.

The drive ends in the barnyard. What was the milking parlor is now two garages, utility rooms and the main entry. The Clarkes intend to age in place, so they installed an elevator to the third level. For now, said Toni, it's a convenient way to get groceries to the kitchen.

Visitors tap a door gong, a metal drum from Asia, instead of ringing a bell. Relics of old farm life -- a winnowing fork, milk can and leather harness -- are displayed in the entry.

The staircase leads to the second level -- the main living area. Instead of balusters on railings, Toni decided to use fence wire. "We're in a barn. This is the kind of fence we have around the farm," said Toni. "It keeps it all light and airy. I didn't want to detract from the lovely shapes of the beams."

A guest room is one of two bedrooms on the main level. This room has two stone walls and exposed rafters. The new mahogany doors were found at a bargain price online by Toni, who also gave them a rich tung-oil finish.

Down the hall is the sitting room with French doors and floor-to-ceiling windows that wash the room with morning sunlight. Two small single-sash windows in the stone wall cover the tapered openings that once provided ventilation to the barn. Toni said it's not unusual for pigeons to nest on the exterior stone sill, just outside the windows.

Next door is the kitchen, with the dining room to the west and a cozy breakfast nook to the east. "We sit in the breakfast nook and watch the sunrise and eat dinner at the dining room table and watch the sun set," said Toni. "The fun thing about being on the second level is watching the barn swallows flit about."

The paneling in the dining room is actually the old barn siding. A bank of glass doors open onto a grassy courtyard on the ramp side of the bank barn.

The kitchen is a layout they've used successfully in three other homes, said Toni. "It's so easy to work with." There are two microwaves because she does most of her from-scratch cooking that way -- something she learned from her late mother when she lived with them. The cabinets are rich forest green. The copper range hood was crafted by a Canadian artisan "who made them in our price range."

John's bright office is next to the dining room. Several plaques recognizing his engine-related patents for Caterpillar hang on one wall. The engine design that brought them to the U.S. is displayed in the first-level entry.

Across the hall is the master suite, with east-facing windows. On Toni's side of the bed are photographs of the blacksmith cottage and the farmhouse where they lived in their native England, as well as a painting of the view from the cottage by their daughter, Hannah Gaffigan, when she was 12. On John's side of the bed is a large chart of the input/output structure of the U.S. economy. "Can you tell which side of the bed is his and which is mine?" Toni asked. A cozy dog bed on each side is where their yellow Labs, Holly and Ivy, sleep.

Five generations of family photos fill the stairwell wall up to the third level, which is the family room of the house; where adults can visit and grandchildren can play games or read in the "secret library." A carefully engineered catwalk connects the two lofts, which overlook the kitchen and dining room.

Perhaps John's favorite place to hang out is the silo. Its height was reduced to about 40 feet and is now an observatory. A spiral staircase leads to the top where John recently installed a telescope to observe the night sky.

"John has always had an interest in astronomy," said Toni.

"When I was a kid, I used to think flying saucers were the greatest thing on earth ... or not," John said. The roof turns giving him a 360-degree view of the heavens, as well as breathtaking views of the countryside.

Click on images below to view at larger size.


The Clarkes' home was once a barn. The stone-end structure was originally built in 1788 and rebuilt in 1908 after a fire.   (Photo by Skip Lawrence)

The Clarkes' home was once a barn. The stone-end structure was originally built in 1788 and rebuilt in 1908 after a fire. (Photo by Skip Lawrence)