Rural Architecture in the New World: The Evolution of Barns in New York

When European farmers began colonizing the New World, rural architecture from their Dutch, English and German backgrounds was adapted to the new surroundings and available resources, making for unique agricultural structures.

New World Dutch Barn

Johannes Decker barn, 1750, Shawangunk, Ulster County. New World Dutch barns typically have a footprint that is almost square, with access via main doors on the gable ends of the building. A pentice roof above the doors provides protection from the weather.

Photo by Cornell University Press

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The architecture that defines the rural American landscape has a rich history, forged by evolving technology and the contributions of diverse immigrant populations. Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State, (Cornell University Press, 2012) by Cynthia G. Falk, connects agricultural buildings—both extant examples and those long gone—with the products and processes they made and make possible. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, "Diversity, Dairying and Designing the Main Barn."

Dutch Barns

From about 1613 until 1664, settlements in what is now New York were part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Dutch barns, built by early Dutch settlers and their descendants, were most commonly found in the Hudson, Mohawk, and Schoharie valleys of eastern New York State, as well as on Long Island. Those who study these distinct buildings often refer to them as New World Dutch barns, a term that distinguishes them from their counterparts in Europe, referred to as Old World Dutch barns. Dutch immigrants brought their traditional building skills with them when they settled in New Netherland but also made some adaptations to fit their new environment. In the timber-rich New World, for example, Dutch barns were typically framed, clad, and floored with long, straight pieces of wood and roofed with wood shingles. In Europe, barn builders often utilized other materials such as stone piers, brick nogging, earthen floors, or thatch roofs. Often Dutch farmers in Europe combined agricultural and residential functions in one multipart building, the house-barn, a form much rarer in the New World (Figure 1.3). The ceding of control of New Netherland from the Dutch to the English in 1664 did not necessarily lead to a change in cultural practices such as agriculture or barn building. In the middle of the eighteenth century, almost a century after England gained political power, a Swedish botanist named Peter Kalm traveled throughout North America. In New York, Kalm observed a particular type of barn, which he associated with people of Dutch descent, as well as the German-speakers who settled near them in the colony’s river valleys. He briefly described the unique characteristics of this building form in his later writings:

The barns had a peculiar kind of construction in this locality, of which I shall give a concise description. The main building was very large almost the size of a small church; the roof was high, covered with wooden shingles, sloping on both sides, but not steep. The walls which supported it were not much higher than a full grown man; but on the other hand the breadth of the building was all the greater. In the middle was the threshing floor and above it, or in the loft or garret, they put the unthrashed [ sic ] grain, the straw, or anything else, according to the season. On one side were stables for the horses and on the other for the cows. The young stock had also their particular stables or stalls, and in both ends of the building were large doors, so that one could drive in with a cart and horses through one of them, and go out the other. Here under one roof therefore were the thrashing [ sic ] floor, the barn, the stables, the hay loft, the coach house, etc.

At one time there were as many as 50,000 to 100,000 Dutch barns like the ones Kalm described in New York and New Jersey, the principal areas of Dutch colonial settlement in the seventeenth century. Today it is estimated that a mere 650 survive.

While there are several variations on the Dutch barn, some dating as late as the 1880s, the classic, most recognizable form was commonly built between approximately the 1630s and the 1830s. It is nearly square, rather than rectangular, in footprint, with an average width between forty-two and forty-eight feet and average length between thirty-six and fifty-six feet. Walls tend to be between twelve and fifteen feet tall and sided with horizontal boards.  Doors were located on the gable ends of the barn, not along the long side walls, as was common in most other types of barns. The main door at either end was typically tall and designed as a “Dutch door,” with upper and lower sections that could be opened independently. When the top section was open and the bottom closed, animals could be kept either within or outside the barn while still allowing for ventilation. Often, a smaller door was located on either side of the main door, allowing access to the side aisles where the animals were housed. A pentice, or small projecting roof, might cover the main door, providing some protection from the weather.

Despite Kalm’s observation that the roofs were not steep, compared to those found on later agricultural buildings, the roofs on Dutch barns are indeed sharply pitched. Especially steep roof pitches, forming an acute angle at the peak, suggest an earlier date, often before the American Revolution. The steep roof allowed increased storage for grain and grass crops in the loft above the main floor. At the top of the gable-end walls, small cutouts in the cladding, often in stylized geometric shapes, provided ventilation and pest control, the latter by allowing birds access to the building.

On the inside, evidence remains of how builders constructed Dutch barns. A series of H-bents—composed of vertical posts and horizontal anchor beams, often of oak, pine, or occasionally basswood, held together with mortise and tenon joints—extended down the length of the barn, from gable end to gable end, typically creating three or four bays, although two-, five-, six-, and seven-bay examples are known. The posts stood roughly ten feet from the exterior side walls between the central threshing floor and the side aisles. This interior post configuration differentiated Dutch barns from other types of barns whose support posts were typically integral to their exterior walls. The rounded ends of the tenons of the anchor beams generally extended through the mortise hole and beyond the post, creating a unique framing characteristic.

Barn builders constructed Dutch barns to accommodate the multiple tasks that went on inside them. The floor plan of most Dutch barns was composed of three main sections: a large center driveway and two aisles that ran along either side, from gable end to gable end.  Grain could be threshed in the center aisle on the strong wooden floor. Along the outer aisles, animals and equipment could be housed. According to Kalm, the horses and cows were kept on separate sides of the barn.

Dutch barns were commonly altered to accommodate changing agricultural practices throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Extra bays were added, increasing the length of the structures. Additions were also commonly attached, drastically changing the original appearance. Doors were typically added on the sides parallel, rather than perpendicular, to the roof peak, and some original gable-end doors were covered over with siding. Cement floors and stanchions were added to barns that were converted to house cows on later dairy farms.

New barns built in the early nineteenth century could combine the H-bent configuration of Dutch barns with an entrance on one or both of the long side walls, representing a hybrid form combining elements from both Dutch and English barn building traditions. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, Dutch framing characteristics were occasionally used on barns built as multistory structures. The emblematic Dutch barn with its three-aisled square floor plan and gable-end doors fell out of favor by 1840, however.

Dutch barns are not nearly as common a sight in New York today as they were in the eighteenth century. With increasing frequency, Dutch barns that have outlived their usefulness as farm buildings are being demolished or removed from their original sites. In some cases they have been reconstructed under private ownership in places as far away as Texas to serve as houses, garages, or community centers. Some historic sites in New York have moved original barns to their museums in order to add an agricultural component to locations that were once farms but have long since lost their own farm buildings. Although these barns have been removed from their original context, they, along with examples restored or adaptively reused in situ, are being preserved for future generations to see.

English Barns

English barns, also called Yankee or Connecticut barns, can be found throughout New York State. They were most common where people of English descent settled before the mid-nineteenth century, including eastern Long Island and much of the central and western parts of the state. Many were constructed by the New Englanders who arrived in New York State following the American Revolution.

Like Dutch barns, English barns were typically one-story buildings with a loft. A steeply pitched gable roof maximized interior space. English barns usually were constructed from heavy timbers with the use of mortise and tenon joints. To clad the exterior of the barn, logs from locally available pine, hemlock, and on occasion basswood trees were sawn to create boards. The English barn structure accommodated either vertical or horizontal cladding. While English barns rarely had windows, small vent holes, which facilitated air circulation and insect control by birds, were often cut into the siding at the top of the gable-end walls.

English barns, which are typically longer than they are wide, differed from Dutch barns in shape. Near the end of the eighteenth century, these rectangular buildings averaged roughly twenty feet wide by thirty feet long; later examples were typically about thirty feet by forty feet. The interior of an English barn was usually divided into three bays, or mows, enclosed by the framing bents. Usually English barns had four framing bents, one at each end of the barn and two that were offset from the center, creating the three separate bays. If additional bays were needed, farmers would add more bents.

Central doors led to the threshing floor, also known as the driveway or runway, in the center of the barn with mows on either side. This central driveway served two purposes: it allowed for easy entrance and exit of teams of animals, and it provided farmers with a place to thresh, or separate, their grain. Threshing often occurred during the winter, when farmers had fewer other tasks. Bundles of wheat were placed on the threshing floor and beaten, usually with a tool known as a flail. Once the seed was separated from the straw, or stalk, farmers opened the opposing doors to allow for a cross-breeze. Using a winnowing basket, they tossed the grain and its husks, or chaff, into the air and back into the basket, or let the mixture fall to the floor. The cross-wind blew the chaff and dust away, and the grain settled back into the basket or onto a piece of cloth on the barn floor.

At either end of the barn, one mow typically served as the granary, while the opposite bay served as livestock stalls. With loft space above the stabling and a removable scaffolding system over the central runway, farmers increased the amount of storage in the barn. In these lofts, small hand tools or hay would have been stored, with larger implements stored in the runway when it was not being used for threshing. In providing for grain processing and storage, animal housing, and other tasks in one building, the New Englanders who developed this type of barn combined into a single structure various elements of the traditional English farm complex, which typically included many different buildings, each serving its own function. Like the Dutch, they also substituted building materials to make use of available natural resources, relying heavily on wood, rather than stone or thatch, for both walls and roofing.

The new form of English barn that New Englanders brought with them to New York remained largely unaltered until the mid-nineteenth century, when Empire State farmers, increasingly attuned to the market and the needs of dairy production, began to raise their barns onto taller foundations, creating a basement level, which provided stabling for animals separate from crop storage. Found throughout New York State, the once common English barn was adapted and expanded to facilitate new agricultural practices. As people migrated westward from New York and New England, the English barn form also traveled with them and can be found as far west as Utah.

German Barns

German barns, and the so-called Pennsylvania barns that developed from them, never became common in New York. Today only a handful survive in the state. Nevertheless, because of the familiarity of the Pennsylvania barn, it is important to understand the distinctions between English and Dutch barns, Pennsylvania German barns, and the barn forms that would later become common in New York in the nineteenth century. In 1858 Moore’s Rural New-Yorker actually recommended barn plans based “partially on the plan of the famous Pennsylvania barns.” Yet New York farmers did not readily adopt the distinctive elements of this form, most notably the second-story projection known as a forebay.

As a result of two separate waves of immigration of German-speaking people, German farmers settled in two areas of New York State. The smaller, lesser-known group immigrated after the War of 1812. These settlers arrived not from Europe but from Pennsylvania, establishing roots in New York’s Erie County, especially in the towns of Clarence and Lancaster. They were preceded in New York by German-speakers from Europe who had arrived more than a century earlier. These colonial period farmers settled in the Hudson, Schoharie, and Mohawk valleys. Many of the settlements in this area were destroyed during the Seven Years’ War and the Revolutionary War. Few buildings survive from the early eighteenth century, and even documentary sources about vernacular architecture are scarce. Extant colonial barns in the valleys are New World Dutch barns, although a suggestive nineteenth-century illustration of a barn on a German farm near the Mohawk River indicates a different form that does not conform to common Dutch, English, or Pennsylvania German barn models.

Much of what is known about German barns in the United States is based on surviving examples in Pennsylvania. The first German-speaking settlers there constructed simple, small to medium-sized log, frame, or stone structures that stood one or sometimes two stories tall.  During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as agricultural and livestock production grew, people of German descent in Pennsylvania increasingly turned to a barn form that had two levels rather than one. Barn historian Robert Ensminger has convincingly demonstrated that the two-story bank barn form, with its second level projecting beyond its lower level on one side, emerged in German-speaking Continental Europe but that its appearance was a synthesis of multiple barn-building traditions, and it continued to evolve in the New World. It was this composite barn type with Germanic roots that the Pennsylvania Germans who came to Erie County, New York, reproduced.

In these multistory buildings, the projection of the upper level beyond the lower level on the downhill side of the barn created what is known as a forebay. To facilitate access to both floors, the structure was often built into a bank, either natural or created. The main doors were placed on the uphill side, while a row of several smaller doors on the lower level was protected from the elements by the forebay.  Roofs on forebay banked barns were gabled and could be centered on either the main structure of the barn or a combination of the main structure and the forebay. Construction materials included stone, used for the lower level and sometimes gable-end walls, and wood framing for the upper level and forebay.

Inside the barn, stables occupied the lower floor, while mows for hay, straw, grain, and fodder filled the second level. The latter also often included a threshing floor. The forebay, as a continuation of the second level, afforded extra storage space; it also provided additional shelter for animals, which entered and exited the stable area through the doors on the ground level. While a multistory barn form would become common later in the nineteenth century in New York, its origins were distinct from those of the Pennsylvania barn. For most New Yorkers, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that two-story barns became desirable, and when they did, they did not have the characteristic forebay design so recognizable on Pennsylvania German examples.


Reprinted with permission from Barns of New York: Rural Agriculture of the Empire State by Cynthia G. Falk and published by Cornell University Press, 2012.