“Be sure to bring your mud boots,” Jeannette Lindvig warned.
And, indeed, it is raining, cold and gusty when I arrive at the dirt lane that leads off Bragg Hill Road and down toward the West Fork of the Brandywine. Mud boots are definitely a good idea. The circa-1825 Quaker house that is being turned into a modern barn by the Lindvigs sits near the bottom of the hill, a beautiful work in progress of original and restored stone and wood additions.
Construction is still underway, and a small fleet of yellow earth-moving equipment is parked out back. Rivulets of rain cut through the barnyard muck, and gusts of fall wind shake the heavy plastic flaps covering the gigantic wood cutout where the twin barn doors will soon be installed. “This used to be a well-traveled road,” Kirk Lindvig says, looking out at the narrow, rutted driveway. “On Sept. 11, 1777, the British marched 11,000 soldiers down this road to Trimble’s Ford to
attack General Washington.”
A few hours later, they hit his right flank, and the Battle of the Brandywine was underway.
This afternoon, two craftsmen are applying dark stain to the indoor windowsills as the Lindvigs tour the new barn, which is awaiting its finishing touches. A large central room at ground level, its fireplace and two large doors providing a grand entrance, serves as the barn’s primary raison d’être. It’s a place to hold a large party. The Lindvigs—Kirk is an anesthesiologist in Ambler and Jeannette volunteers at Winterthur—plan to inaugurate their party barn in a fitting manner. “We’ll be having a wedding here in April,” Jeannette says.
Party barns like this one are all the rage in the Brandywine Valley—in particular, dotting the Chester County countryside. Dozens of them have been built in recent years. Sometimes, as in the case of the Lindvigs, the barn comes even before a house is constructed.
On a large computer screen at his office on a quiet West Chester side street, architect Richard Buchanan flips through dozens of photos of the barns his firm, Archer & Buchanan, has designed over the past few years. Most are party barns, though some are meant to house animals.
“We’re seeing fewer and fewer people who want to build huge homes that often have problems with resale,” he says, adding that mega-mansions are often built as personal statements—and many people don’t want to pay millions to inhabit someone else’s dream house.
Instead, many newer homes are being built on a smaller scale, even for people who could afford grander dwellings. Much less space is devoted to dining and entertaining in these houses, which are still livable options for parents once the kids move out. But many are being built with barns that have three major attractions, Buchanan says. They’re extremely multifunctional, they’re less expensive to build, and they provide a rustic environment to contrast with a more formal home. “And I’ve not had one complaint that the house that went with the barn was too small,” he says.
As Buchanan goes through his inventory of barns designed, he rattles off the actual and intended uses to which his clients have put them. Ample space for dances and dinners; a place for kids or grandkids to play with their bands; a repository for prized
collections, from furniture to cars; a traditional workshop; a retreat for cigar-smoking; a personal office; an arts-and-crafts studio … The list goes on.
But even a party barn can be used for its original purpose. “We designed one that has six stables below for horses and a loft upstairs for parties,” he says.
Clyde and Donna Beers just completed a party barn from scratch at their estate on Grubbs Mill Road in Berwyn. “Downstairs, there’s a workshop for me and a pool area, a bathroom and a mechanical room,” Clyde says. “Upstairs, we have timber-frame construction, with a wood stove and kitchen and a kids’ corner. We see the barn mainly for family gatherings,” he says. “We have a big family, with six grandkids under seven, and we just didn’t have enough space.”
The Beers family launched the new barn this past fall with a party for their 50th wedding anniversary. “We had about 70 people, and the space was quite comfortable,” says Clyde.
Hugh Lofting specializes in timber-frame construction, and he notes that there’s also been a demand for open pavilions. These “barn-like structures” may have only a large fireplace at one end as an amenity.
But, if not having enough space is a problem, why not just build a bigger house?
“For one thing, we’re typically talking about $120 per square foot for the barn, versus $500 a square foot for a modern house,” says Buchanan.
Still, Buchanan notes that an overriding attraction of having both a house and barn is the ability to totally change environments by simply walking a few feet out a side door.
Buchanan says much thought should be given to plumbing and especially electricity, including plenty of outlets. Even so, he tells clients to resist making the barn like a second house by having too many smooth edges and creature comforts. “Most people don’t want things too fancy,” Buchanan says. “But when they do, I suggest they may just want to go back to building a bigger house.”
There’s a good mix out there between party barns designed and constructed completely from the ground up—as is the case with the Beers family, who already had a house on their property—and restorations of an old home or barn already on the site.
In fact, the Lindvigs scouted out just the right property with an old building to be repurposed, as their current residence is miles away in Malvern. They now have the option of remaining in Ambler while they build a home near the barn on Bragg Hill or using the barn as a temporary home and construction office.
“We’ve always wanted to restore an old barn or, as it happened, an old house,” Jeannette Lindvig says. “We’re members of the Historic Barn & Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, so this is something we’ve been thinking about for some time.”
Restoring an old property, however, is generally more expensive than $120 per square foot. “We needed to have concrete footers poured under the existing stone walls,” Kirk points out.
Old buildings generally need added support beams, often hidden, as well as wood and stone for expansion. The Lindvigs also had to source additional stone for both the restored and new areas. Pointing to the flapping plastic where the barn doors are soon to be installed, Kirk adds, “We even had the floors here reinforced so that, if anyone wanted to put a car collection in here, they could,” he says, with perhaps a nod to either resale or inheritance.
“We went to a lot of work to get an old house to look like an old barn,” Jeannette laughs.
Now, the party can begin.