Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

“There is no building that does nor develop some unexpected charm with age; but the early American barn, taking into consideration its reason for being, I’ve found to be an exceptional and impressive subject. The growth of moss, the dust of hay, the powdering of mortar in joints, the mellowing of cut stone, the aging of wood – all things thought to be unfortunate – are really nature’s triumph and worth regarding with some (at least artistic) respect. When eyes are open to pleasing decay, it is some­times difficult to focus on anything else. Ancient homes have a way of adapting to the changing rimes; with new curtains and a new coat of paint, the appealing quality of age vanishes all too soon, but an old barn has an aura of persistence, stubbornly shrouded in the mood of its own time.” – Eric Sloane from An Age of Barns

American barns, such as those described by Sloane, are a uniquely American phenome­non, bigger and better than their con­temporary European counterparts. Of course, farmers from Europe made con­tributions to American barn forms, but no single European prototype exists. Barn scholars familiar with the mellow­ing stones and aging timbers point out that the stylistic precedents of the Penn­sylvania barn, which can be categorized by regional and period architectural traits, can be identified in pans of Bri­tain, Switzerland, Austria, Macedonia and Scandinavia.

One remarkable feature of the Ameri­can buildings is their sheer size. Henry Glassie, an architectural historian, points out that farmers in America who shared the use of a barn, in the feudal tradition of Europe, built for them­selves barns that would have served a collective on the Continent. The inher­ent reason for the difference in size is that farmers here owned their own land and produced higher yields.

Barns of Pennsylvania can be roughly divided into three categories: a one-lev­el barn, called a “bodda” in Pennsylva­nia German; a two-level barn, called a bank barn; and a three-level barn, com­monly called a “double decker.” The majority of barns in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States are bank barns, the two-level variety. It is only in Pennsylvania and those other states set­tled by Pennsylvanians of German background, however, that the second level projects out over the first. These states include New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and certain sections of the Midwest, es­pecially Ohio and Indiana. In a Pennsyl­vania bank barn, the second level, which contains a threshing floor and storage area for grain, usually projects between four to six feet out over the first level, which is used to house horses and cattle.

Travel accounts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries call attention to the immense stone barns that impressed visitors to Pennsylvania. They over­whelmed the eye with their solidity and simplicity. Stone barns still grace the state’s hills and valleys and many feel that there are no structures more hand­some than these. However, as the 1798 Federal Direct Tax assessment reveals, these stone barns were comparatively rare at that time, with less than 2,000 then in existence statewide, most of these located in the eastern portion of the state.

Those which are left standing today most commonly house horses, cattle, hay and grain, as they have for the pas1 two centuries. Their evolution is appar­ent in the size and hew of their timbers and the arrangement of stalls, hay mows and granaries. Unfortunately, these structural details rarely reveal anything about the men who constructed the buildings. The Federal Barn in Tredy­ffrin Township, the most eastern pan of Chester County, however, tells an ex­ceptional story.

The Great Valley in which the Feder­al Barn stands was part of William Penn’s Welsh Tract. In 1707, a Welsh­man named John Havard purchased 800 acres and settled on the gently rolling land. By the time of the barn’s construc­tion in 1792, the property was occupied by Havard’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, William Davis.

Inscribed on the interior plaster of the barn’s west gable are: “THE FEDER­AL BARN 1792”; a datestone which reads “WMD 1792”; and the longhand inscriptions “Johnathan Moor his work,” “John H. Moor 1792” and “JH.” On the east gable are written “John Hamer 1792” and “JH.” The signatures of the builders and the initials of William and Mary Davis lead experts to believe that this may be the only signed barn in Pennsylvania. The build­ers, John Hamer and Johnathan Moor, were probably itinerant masons or car­penters, since their names are not listed among the Tredyffrin taxpayers, free­men or inmates for the years 1791 or 1792.

Situated on a hillside that overlooks the historic DuPortail quarters, the two­-level Federal Barn is made of wood and native random fieldstone, a mixture of several varieties of sandstones, con­glomerates and limestone. Typically, most of the fieldstone was roughly cut and dressed before being assembled into walls. Throughout the building excep­tionally fine swne work and wood de­tails are evident and unusually large quoin stones, set at the corners, give ex­tra strength to the walls where it is most needed.

As with many Pennsylvania bank barns, the upper level is a hay mow di­vided by a threshing floor. The lower level houses the stable and a stone wall, which forms a protected barnyard used by the animals during the winter. The wagon door entrances are on grade and ground level.

Embrasures in the gable ends of the Federal Barn provide light and ventila­tion for the mow (the area where the bay is stored). These narrow, vertical slits (loopholes) are rarely found in America, except in a few old Dutch houses and in early stone barns. The derivation of the name loophole is not known, but the term goes back as far as the fifteenth century when they were designed for castle windows. Folk tradition suggests that they were created for spying and shooting at Indians, but that remains questionable. The flare (or splay) on the inside of a loophole window created an aerodynamic suction that pulled in air needed to ventilate the hay, but prevent­ed rain from entering the barn. Since damp hay is spontaneously combusti­ble, these were critical to help keep the hay dry. The inside splay was sometimes whitewashed to intensify daylight in the barn interior.

The entire barn is six bays long on its east-west axis, with an attached stone shed on the west gable end. The larger three-bay addition, attached to the east gable between 1830 and 1850, features heavy stone pillars holding up the wide forebays and a sloping timber bridge ramp. The ramp, wide forebays and stone pillars, typical of Chester and Del­aware county barns, show some of the changes in barn design that had taken place since 1792.

Stylistic changes visible in older barns are generally subtle because of a lag be­tween vernacular and design architec­ture. Most often, the structures were built, altered or enlarged with a greater regard for function than for style. In the eighteenth century, for example, Penn­sylvania produced more wheat than any other colony, but by the end of the nine­teenth century, a shift toward dairy farming had occurred. Barns reflected this change, growing larger and taller.

When the Federal Barn was com­pleted in 1792, Philadelphia, only eighteen miles away, was the new capi­tal city of the United States. The capital had been moved from New York City in 1790 and remained in Philadelphia until 1800 while the “Federal City,” later named Washington, was being con­structed along the Potomac River. In the same year the barn was constructed, George Washington, the Federalist par­ty candidate, was elected to his second term of office and inaugurated at Con­gress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Not long before, the new United States Constitution ushered in what has been called the Federal era. To celebrate the signing of the historic document, a Philadelphia Federal Procession was held, complete with floats, including a “Grand Federal Edifice” which resem­bled a domed temple supported by thir­teen corinthian columns. Furniture was being fashioned in Philadelphia by “The Federal Society of Cabinetmak­ers.” And, six years later, William Davis, still occupant of the Havard Farm, signed his name as Assistant Tax Assessor to the 1798 Federal Direct Tax Assessment for Tredyffrin, the first fed­eral tax ever levied. The term “federal,” variously applied, was in the air!

With this in mind, the Federal Barn becomes a kind of souvenir or com­memorative architectural piece – an un­usual rural, national symbol. Consider too, that except for grand houses like Mt. Pleasant or Cliveden in Philadel­phia, properties at this time were not commonly named. To name a simple barn was a wholesome, if slightly audacious, sign of national pride.

John Havard and William and Mary Davis may have felt especially close to the dawn of this new Federal era since in the winter of 1777 their home quartered a member of Washington’s staff. Gen­eral Louis DuPortail, the French gener­al who prepared the plan for the de­fenses at Valley Forge, stayed in the Ha­vard’s house while the army camped a short distance away at Valley Forge. The map detailing his defense plans was, in fact, later found in the rafters of the Havard farmhouse.

The historic DuPortail quarters is one of about thirty properties, including fourteen houses which served as quar­ters for George Washington’s staff in the winter of 1777-78, watched over by Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Archi­tectural Review. The Board of Review, created by Tredyffrin Township Ordi­nance #206 which also established the Tredyffrin Historical District, played a critical role in the recent history of the Federal Barn when it denied an applica­tion for a permit to demolish the struc­ture until ways could be explored to save it. The key statement in the formal de­nial of the petition for demolition was this: “The provisions of the ordinance [Tredyffrin Township Ordinance #206] apply to those buildings and sites … and the area within 250 feet of such buildings or sites which are listed …. ” The Federal Barn happily fell within the protected 250-foot zone which encircles the DuPortail quarters and was there­fore temporarily protected.

Unfortunately, when H. Gilbert Lusk, the first superintendent of Valley Forge National Historical Park, called a meeting on June 22, 1979 to consider the barn’s future, the Federal Barn was no longer a proud edifice. The failing roof and sagging timbers were tangible proof .that the building was in need of attention. Before steps to repair the rav­ages of time could begin, the township supervisors needed to consider the stay of demolition recommended by the Board of Architectural Review and a plan had to be developed to save the barn and to fund whatever work was recommended.

A committee representing township, state and federal agencies and the Fox Company, a local development firm, worked together on a plan to stabilize and restore the barn. An important early step in the evolution of the plan was the placement of the barn on the National Register of Historic Places. The DuPortail quarters had already been so placed, and the Federal Barn, because of its association as pan of the quarter’s farm complex and because of its own architectural and historical mer­it, was admitted on February 8, 1980. With that process successfully complet­ed, the barn was now eligible for a pres­ervation grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. An application was filed by the Federal Barn Restoration Association, an asso­ciation formed by the Fox Company, and favorably reviewed by the PHMC, which awarded a $50,000 grant.

The work to stabilize and restore the Federal Barn was made possible by this Commission grant, with local matching funds coming mainly from the Fox Company and contributions from the Tredyffrin Township and Chester County governments. To date, the work has included rebuilding two walls, north and south sides; replacing structural wooden beams, columns and trusses; re­newing the existing roof framing and roofing; and installing new framing and a cedar shake roof. This work has been completed by John M. Conti, Inc., of Wagontown, working closely with a corps of building specialists, masons and carpenters skilled in preservation techniques. These men are the 1983 counterparts of John Hamer and Jona­than Moor.

Although the Federal Barn is the sec­ond barn that Conti has restored, special problems could not be avoided. For example, the rotting-beam structure first had to be dismantled from the top down, then reassembled from the bot­tom up. To do this, ropes. cables and braces were used to temporarily support the building. In addition, the entire north wall had to be rebuilt, which meant that the building had to be braced and the stones removed one by one. Each face stone was numbered and placed in a separate pile. The stones were then carefully replaced, with matching stones found in the area added when needed.

It was also necessary to match the wood, all oak and hand-hewn. By good fortune, Conti was able to locate an­other early Pennsylvania barn that was being dismantled near Lancaster. The size and wood of the barn’s large beams closely matched those in the Federal Barn; so they were moved from Lancas­ter County to fill the need in Chester County. As in the original barn, wooden pegs were used to fasten the hand-hewn oak beams together, but since large pegs were needed and not available, workers hand carved them to fit. In order to do this, a small eighteenth-century workbench was used on the site.

The work is now nearly completed, and John Conti feels that “the building is structurally sound and tight, and its life is good for years.” Even though the project is not yet finished, the value of the work is already being realized. The barn, along with the Du­Portail quarters, recently played a cen­tral role in the celebration of various historic events. For the past three years, for example, the anniversary of the all­-important alliance with France, first an­nounced.by George Washington on May 6, 1778 at Valley Forge, has been com­memorated at the site. In addition, the grounds have also been used for military demonstrations by the Second Pennsyl­vania Regiment.

When all the renovations are complet­ed, it is hoped that the complex will be­come a museum facility under the super­vision of the Valley Forge Historical So­ciety. Richard Fox, the man most re­sponsible for restoring the historic site and the developer of Chesterbrook. the adjacent area, says he feels that these activities are “exciting because history is being integrated into the lives of the people now living in Chesterbrook.” He puts the emphasis on “participa­tion – the sense of being part of what has happened here in American his­tory.”

This is part of what historic preserva­tion really means. The Federal Barn is unique, a visual asset to the landscape and a symbol of man’s tamer side, rep­resenting security and reminding us of our rural and historic heritage-of an America that may be past, but which is not forgotten.


Anne H. Cook is a member of the Tre­dyffrin Township Board of Historical and Architectural Review, and acted as a regional coordinator for the Chester County Historic Sites Survey and as di­rector of Project 1776, a Bicentennial school program. A graduate of Smith College, she does freelance photogra­phy and writing, including nominations to the National Register of Historic Places.


Ann L. Snider earned her B.S. in man­-environment relations from The Penn­sylvania State University in 1979. She served as a project volunteer for the Chester County Historic Sites Survey in East Marlborough and Tredyffrin town­ships.