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Feature Article


Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog

Cultivating the "barn again" movement

As cities sprawl, they gobble up not only valuable wetlands and agricultural land, but also the buildings that were such a vital part of farming through the 20th century. The increasing urbanization of our society and the decline in the family farm are combining to spell doom for many historic barns, once prolific across North America's breadbasket.

In the same way that vintage grain elevators are disappearing at an alarming rate, vintage barns are also on the endangered list. Once they"re gone, they"re gone, and if they go, a connection to the very history of the Canadian prairie goes with them.

Now, organizations in the United States like "Barn Again!" and the National Trust have taken up the cause of preserving these historic structures. Barn Again! provides information to help owners of historic barns rehabilitate them and put them back to productive use on farms and ranches. Over the last 20 years, heritage brans have been adapted to new uses that meet modern needs, functioning admirably as community, commercial and residential spaces.

The movement has yet to gain much traction in Canada, but that could soon change. City of Edmonton heritage planner David Holdsworth has been following the plight of barns and those rallying to save them with considerable interest.

"The University of Wisconsin has undertaken an inventory of "Barn Adaptive Re-use Projects" and they include barns that are now antique shops, restaurants, churches, performing arts centres and residences," he says. Successful adaptive re-uses of heritage barns can also be found here on the Canadian prairies, where such projects have special resonance, especially considering the region's deep agricultural roots."

In the Edmonton area, an example of successful adaptive reuses includes the A.J. Ottewell Community Hall, at 590 Broadmoor Boulevard in Sherwood Park. It has been transformed in a multi-functional community centre, run by the Art Society of Strathcona County.

The barn has been home to craft sales, corporate functions, weddings, Christmas and birthday parties, art classes, workshops, shows and meetings. The old barn is again a vital part of the community it serves.

Few old barns are so fortunate. And others may soon fall to the march of progress.

Out on the far fringes of southeast Edmonton, near the corner of what is today 9th Avenue and 66th Street, an old barn stands as testament to the proud perseverance of an immigrant family and their love of the land. The barn was built by the Treichel family in 1930, just months after the great stock market collapse and the start of the Great Depression.

The great timber-beamed and wood sided barn, now bleached gray by 76 years of prairie sun, was erected by Julius Treichel and crew of local hired men. Treichel's story, like that of many rural Alberta families of the 20th century, began in a land far away.

He was born to German parents in Volhynia, Russia on January 5, 1889 and came to Canada with his family in 1905, according to the family's history published in the book "South Edmonton Saga." The family began farming near Ellerslie and, in 1910, Julius bought a quarter section of his own, right adjacent to his parents" farm.

In 1912, he married Katherina Lutz, daughter of an Austrian family who came to Canada in 1902. The couple had six children. They built a new house on the land in 1929 and put up the barn a year later. Julius passed away in 1966 and Katherina signed the land over to her daughter Freida in 1967, the same year the area was annexed by the City of Edmonton.

The barn was built for dairy cattle and horses, and a small extension on the side served as a milk house where the cream was separated and butter was churned. Selling butter and eggs from door to door in Edmonton helped see the Treichels through the Depression.

In its early days, the barn was surrounded by several other outbuildings, including a chicken coop, but most of them have recently been relocated. The barn itself hasn"t undergone any major restorations and Holdsworth says that makes it significant as a testament to the rural lifestyle of its time.

But the structure is facing an uncertain future. It is part of a 32-hectare parcel owned by a local developer, awaiting final city approval to commence construction of a residential development on the site. The field at the doorstep of the barn is zoned for medium density housing.

The 1929 Treichel farm house is being restored by a private owner and moved to a new location. But the barn is staying behind. The developers have said they"ll give the barn to anyone who wants to save it, provided they pay the full residential market cost of the land on which it sits.

"The owners are indicating they are willing to consider options," Holdsworth says. "They are concerned there is no market for a barn to be converted, but experience elsewhere indicates that is not necessarily true. The City is willing to look at zoning the barn whatever any interested party wants, as long as it saves the building."

Not just that, but the City of Edmonton is indicating it is willing to designate the barn as a Municipal Historic Resource, which would make it eligible for restoration funding from the city. It would only take a creative mind to come up a vision and a strategy for a restaurant, commercial, retail or community space that would work.

For inspiration, consider any of a bounty of success stories, like the Berry Barn, 12 kms south of Saskatoon. It has been adapted from its original use to house a restaurant and gift shop and serve as the headquarters for a U-Pick berry farm.

David Holdsworth is holding out hope for a visionary to save the barn and give it a new future. "All we need is one good buyer," he says.

David Holdsworth, City of Edmonton heritage planner, is at (780) 496 5281.

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