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.

| March 2015

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.

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