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Barn Raisers doc explores history of classic American buildings

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New film looks at rural American landmarks, and why they’re disappearing

As social feeds fill with seasonal photos of carved pumpkins, children frolicking on hay bales, and rural road trips, it’s clear the country’s agrarian past still exerts a strong pull. In our popular imagination, fall and farms are inexorably intertwined, with the iconic red barn as backdrop.

But those picturesque rural settings are becoming fewer and farther between. According to filmmaker Kelly Rundle, few things symbolize the country’s nostalgia for its rural roots more than historic barns. That’s why the new documentary he’s making with his wife, Tammy, Barn Raisers, explores the importance of these humble structures, and raises concern about their rapid disappearance from the landscape.

“I would call it a crisis in preservation,” he says. “By the time people realize there’s a problem, it’s going to be almost too late.”

Functional, simple, and outdated, decades-old barns hardly command the media attention or preservation resources of architectural masterpieces or urban landmarks. But these iconic buildings, everyman architecture that tell the story of the country’s growth and expansion, are being lost. According to Rundle, Iowa alone loses more than 1,000 barns annually, and a 2000 study by the USDA found that just 600,000 or so barns a half-century or older still stand in a nation that, in 1900, boasted roughly six million operating farms.

“The buildings that are replacing these barns don’t hold a candle to them in terms of aesthetics, or the feeling that comes from being inside a vintage building,” he says. “They really do tell us something about who we are and where we come from as a nation.”

The Rundles’s doc gives these vintage structures, including towering round barns and intricate examples of timber construction, the same cinematic reverence that other filmmakers offer the works of Wright or Saarinen. Like their previous film, Country School, the filmmakers delve into the social and cultural histories of these everyday buildings, speaking with local owners, architects, and preservationists in Kansas, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio to trace how different construction techniques mirrored patterns of immigration. Funded in part through Indiegogo and still in the final editing phase, the film has been shown a handful of times to across the Midwest to gain feedback and additional support before final release.

Considering vintage wooden barns represent a way of life that’s rapidly disappearing, it’s no surprise they’re being demolished. The prevalence of factory farms, and the super-sizing of modern farm equipment, makes it an easy decision to scrap aging wooden structures in favor of larger and cheaper pole sheds or Morton buildings. Sprawl has long intruded into rural areas, giving farmers a financial incentive to sell their land to developers. And the awkward size and shape of barns make upkeep and renovation projects difficult and costly at best, and financially unfeasible in many cases.

Easily caricatured as simple, vernacular architecture, vintage barns showcase timeless construction, regional styles and materials, and a rare connection to millennia-old building techniques in our relatively young country. Charles Bultman, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based architect who specializes in barn restorations, says that craftsmanship, along with the grandiose nature of these large structures, make them unique and eye-catching restoration projects, charming examples of event spaces, homes, and restaurants. He’s been part of numerous renovation and restoration projects, including rescuing and rebuilding a barn in Dexter, Michigan, for Zingerman’s, a famous local restaurant and business.

“I’d rather take the tainted victory of restoration and repurposing than the noble defeat of letting it be torn down,” he says.

The scope and simplicity of barns caught the eye of many famous architects; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Barn at Taliesin makes a cameo in the documentary, and Le Corbusier was struck by grain silos and other rural buildings when he visited the U.S. and wrote about them expressively. It’s part of American cultural history, like going back in time. Dozens of statewide groups, as well as the National Barn Alliance, work to preserve and protect these structures, but it can be difficult to protect these antiquated buildings or give them a second life.

Bultman sympathizes with the challenges owners considering proper preservation and repurposing face, and finds it a bit sad that despite the current trends towards distressed wood and farmhouse décor, more respect is being paid to the disassembled parts of these great barns than the buildings themselves. There are ample barns that are falling apart; the ones still in great shape deserve a better fate than becoming part of a table at a fashionable restaurant.

“They’re beautiful structures that connect us to our agrarian past, and I’d like to see as may exist in our environment as possible,” he says.

While the film is rooted in history, Rundle tries to frame the narrative around connections to the contemporary. He remembers exploring his grandparents’ dairy farm in New Auburn, Wisconsin, as a kid, and wants to communicate that feeling in the film, and show how these structures have a place in today’s landscape, as well as a charm and story not easily replicated.

“With high ceilings and the way light streams inside, barns can have this cathedral-like quality,” he says. “It’s important to save the best examples. They can read a book and watch this film about a barn, but they can’t experience it unless they step inside.”