The start of our second decade on the air, 1989, was memorable for two reasons. Steve Thomas joined the team as our new host that spring, and we embarked on what remains for many of us the most remarkable project we’ve ever taken on.
Steve’s new job was to help lead viewers through the dramatic conversion of a mid-19th-century timber-frame barn into a new dwelling for its owners, Lynn and Barbara Wickwire. The Wickwires had lived for 12 years in the Victorian farmhouse on the property, raising a family but always looking dreamily at the old red barn out back, thinking of the day they might, somehow, turn it into a home.
The task was daunting to contemplate, certainly, since the barn had not been particularly well-maintained over the years. The Wickwires knew they would need help and had in fact written to TOH two years prior. When the show began searching for an “adaptive reuse” project, the letter came out of a file, a site visit was arranged, and soon thereafter, we were in business. Lynn, at the time an associate dean at a local community college, recalls being a little nervous-about the barn project as well as the prospect of having it all unfold on television. But he and Barbara, a special-needs tutor at the high school, were convinced that if they were going to realize their dream, this was the way to do it.
Located in Concord, Massachusetts, cradle of the American Revolution, the barn had surveyed a bucolic scene of fields and woods since it was built around 1835. One-and-a-half stories, 36′ x 46′, it was still pure barn, with musty horse stalls, bats in the rafters, and rotting floorboards. Before the project began, the Wickwires sold their farmhouse and began work with architect Jock Gifford to reimagine the spaces within the barn’s simple lines. After their time in the somewhat cramped Victorian house, they looked forward to taking full advantage of the structure’s vastness.
The first big surprise came when timber-framing expert Tedd Benson examined the building’s posts and beams carefully. A lover of such old craftsmanship, he nonetheless delivered a shocking verdict: the whole thing would have to come down. Too much rot made repair nearly impossible; the smart thing was to rebuild the frame with new wood.
And so down it came, in a cloud of dust and fleeing bats. We reinforced the rubblestone foundation, giving it proper piers and footings and a level sill. Engineered wooden joists formed a solid deck, and load points were calculated, as were all the new frame’s specs, using computer-aided design (CAD) technology.
The Wickwires’ back yard was then transformed into a timber-framing workshop, led by Benson and staffed with members of the Timber Framers’ Guild of North America. The frame, though designed on a computer, would be built the old-fashioned way. Benson and his students hewed mortise-and-tenon joints by hand, pre-assembled the bays, and readied themselves for the Big Day: an old-fashioned barn-raising. It took place on a glorious fall day, with spectacular teamwork leading to a completed frame by sundown. The resulting episode remains one of our most treasured shows.
Structural stress-skin panels were the next step, hoisted in by crane. They enveloped the new frame to form a weather-tight, fully insulated shell, leaving the hewn beams exposed inside. The panels were a sandwich of oriented strand board and high-density isocyanurate foam insulation which provided both a durable outer wall ready for clapboarding and shingling and an inner wall ready for wallboarding. Before they arrived on site, we visited the Vermont factory where the panels were manufactured and openings for our barn’s doors and windows were precut by a king-sized computer-controlled router.
As the project proceeded, the mix of old and new continued inside. On the first floor, handmade sautillo tiles overlaid an in-floor radiant heating system of hot water tubing encased in lightweight concrete. The back of the first floor held a modern kitchen and family room that overlooked the property’s pond; next was a library with double doors made from the old barn’s sheathing boards; and, at the front of the house, the building’s signature space: the great room. Nearly 20 feet deep, it spanned the entire width and height of the barn, revealing the beautiful pattern of exposed beams, posts, and rafters. If you looked carefully, you could see two small knee braces made of chestnut, the only surviving pieces of the old barn’s frame. The rest of the building was a modern interpretation of an ancient technique, and our tribute to the farmer-builders who preceded us.