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Painted aluminum siding that mimics wood planks and enormous crank-operated sliding doors preserve the barnlike feel. The house next door was built for the homeowner’s daughter. See more photos below.
Gallery owner Judith Racht has a deeply held belief: If you love something, you can make it work. Even if that something is a dilapidated old barn. As the longtime owner of a working 60-acre farm outside Niles, Michigan, and an art and antiques gallery in nearby Harbert, Racht was determined to transform her 200-year-old barn from a lovely shambles to a cutting-edge living space without losing its “feel of antiquity.”
She and her partner in life and renovation, Irving Stenn, couldn’t have found a more sympathetic collaborator for their project than Austin DePree of Chicago-based Northworks Architects and Planners. DePree immediately got it—these two passionate collectors of modern art weren’t asking him to create a living history museum in which they could milk goats. What they wanted was a home that suited their contemporary tastes while respecting the local design vernacular.
When Racht bought the place 29 years ago, the barn—which she was told had been moved to the property before the Civil War—was in danger of collapse. She enlisted a team of local Amish craftsmen to restore its structural soundness while preserving the original beams and framing, which DePree would masterfully integrate into his plans.
“We were always mindful that this was taking place in the 21st century,” DePree says. “We didn’t want the new features to blend in and give a false sense of history. The beauty of the original structure stands out in relief against the modern elements. That’s what authentic means to us.”
DePree added residential niceties (like insulation) and finished the interior with reclaimed barn wood that melds with the beams and rafters. He chose practical painted aluminum for the exterior siding and roof, being sure to keep the building’s geometry intact, and in a nod to the original tractor-size openings, he installed 15-foot-tall black steel windows on two sides of the barn and flanked them with crank-operated panels that slide open and shut like traditional barn doors.
The silo and the two interior “corncribs” atop the loft (concealing an elevator and the master bathroom) complete the illusion of a working barn. “An old corncrib would have had gaps in the siding to allow air in, so we designed spaces between the boards in those structures,” DePree says. “At night they glow like lanterns.”
And then there are the beautiful, purposeful disconnects. Racht, who once produced a gallery show called Good Is Good, to illustrate her philosophy that “good design always works with good design,” knew instinctively that the lovely form of an old farm table would look striking surrounded by elegantly pared-down Jens Risom chairs. And that two Le Corbusier loungers and an Ellsworth Kelly lithograph could gracefully coexist in the upstairs loft, with its weathered walls and ancient timbers.
On the main floor, Racht and Stenn’s constantly rotating collection of modern art and the long, sleek wall lined with a steely array of high-tech appliances in the new open kitchen are unmistakably contemporary. As DePree notes, neither he nor his clients wanted any part of “quaint.” Not even in a barn.
Photography: James Yochum
Styling: Gisela Rose