Adam, left, and Jeremiah Babcock talk about the removal of the component pieces of the 18th-century barn they are disassembling.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — For David Babcock, deconstruction and reconstruction are two sides of the same coin and a part of who he is.
Babcock is in Williamstown this month removing a 19th-century barn from a property on Green River Road (Route 43). In the not-too-distant future, he will be back in town putting the same barn back together on the property of the Williamstown Historical Museum.
It is a very familiar process for the proprietor of Lee's Babcock Brothers Restorations.
"My father, he was farming back in the '50s," Babock said this week. "He needed a barn, and my grandfather was a carpenter in Williamstown. ... It was his grandfather who raised him, and he asked my great-grandfather if he could build a farm. And he said, 'There's an old barn up on the family property in Berlin, N.Y. We could go up there and take that down and bring it here to Hancock.' My father was, I think, in his early 20s at the time, and he said, 'You can do that?'
"They went up and they worked a number of days and weeks, took it down and moved it to Hancock and put it back up."
Their work drew the attention of a homebuilder who asked them to do some similar projects in Hancock, and eventually Richard Babcock, David's father, turned his attention from dairy farming to historic preservation of barns. He earned a national reputation in the field and was profiled by Time magazine in 2005.
David started working for his father right out of high school and started his own business in 1983.
Last year, he started working with the WHM in its efforts to preserve the Dolan-Jenks Barn, which is believed to be more than 170 years old.
Next month, annual town meeting will be asked to approve a $50,000 expenditure of Community Preservation Act funds to help install a 30-by-50 foot slab at the museum's South Williamstown location to hold the barn.
Phase one is the disassembly and removal of the barn from the property of Carole and Peter Dolan, who are donating the structure to the museum.
That work began last month, and on Tuesday morning, David and sons Adam, Chris and Jeremiah were figuring out logistics to remove the timber and stone foundation for storage until the reconstruction can begin.
"They're fourth-generation barn builders," David Babcock said of sons.
"For the most part, our work primarily is we've done a lot of barn conversions into homes. … And we do a lot of old home restoration work. Over the years, we've done a number of barns, and this is nice to preserve a barn and move it so it becomes just a barn rather than somebody's high-end home."
David Babcock took a few minutes to talk to iBerkshires.com about the project:
Question: How long have you been on the site doing deconstruction?
Babcock: [Wednesday] it will be three weeks since we started. The site's a mess with the rain we've been having. I've got to figure out … We may have to bring gravel in and create a platform so I can load the truck.
Once we figure out what we're doing, we're maybe two or three days, four days, a week at most getting everything out of here.
Q: Has the weather hurt you?
Babcock: Oh yeah. The biggest problem was getting our equipment around. We were lucky. The rain really didn't get bad until last week, and we had a great deal of the building down by then. We were lucky with that one.
Q: Is it a challenging job?
Babcock: It's a tight site between the road and the tree line. But it wasn't too bad.
Q: Is this type of construction or this period something you know well?
Babcock: I've taken down a lot of barns in my time, between when I worked for my father, Richard Babcock, in the 1970s and 1980s. … We had to stabilize this barn last fall to get it through the winter. Prior to COVID, the plan was to get it down last fall in September and then I was going to bring it to my shop, do the repairs in the winter and I thought we'd put it up this spring. But all of that got kind of delayed.
Last year, I designed and built a truss reinforcement on three sections because the back wall was listing so bad and one corner beam was shot. If we got a big snowfall, we didn't want it to take the barn down, so we reinforced it. That reinforcement also aided us in disassembly. Because when you take it apart and you've got bad timbers like that, you have to reinforce it to disassemble it safely and take it down and take it apart.
That process went pretty much as planned.
Q: What kind of repairs will you be doing in the shop?
Babcock: The fourth section, what I call the northwest corner, the post needs to be completely replaced. We have old timbers I can utilize as a replacement beam. We'll remortice and reconfigure to match the original.
And then ... the long, lower purlin plate that connected that had some damage, so we need to splice that timber, and we'll do that with a similar old beam and use a traditional scarf joint to make the connection so that it'll look like an original part of the construction.
That's our desire, to try to utilize as much old material to do the frame.
Q: It sounds like you're not going to have to replace a whole lot. Mostly you'll be reconstructing with the original materials?
Babcock: Most of it is going to be repairs. These two end posts were modified on this end, on the first section, both outside corner posts. They were modified to do this ramp so they could get up into the second floor. They had a higher sill, and they were cut off. So we're going to splice them and add them so they can be as they were originally.
Then there's some minor repairs to some of the tie beams and stuff like that. Either we'll do a splice or we'll replace the entire timber.
This end beam that went on this beam because of the end door really suffered a lot of water damage and rot. We were able to take it down but it's so compromised that I'm going to replace it. That will be a pretty significant timber. That's 31 feet long. I have some old beams that will work as a replacement.
The rafters were in good shape, and they want to use as many of the old boards so it has as close to the original appearance as it was.
Q: Even if you don't use [an exterior] board like this, even if it doesn't go back where it was, you can find a use for it?
Babcock: I don't know what their ultimate plans are. But things like that could be used for an interior partition wall or displays.
One of the things I let them know — I've seen this a lot — this barn had that wonderful patina, it's a brown and yellow and black patina. That happens often when they're close to a road. They literally, the dirt and grime from the road gets picked up all the time and causes that look. When you remove that and put it further out, it will turn all gray.
Five years from now, if you put that on there, it wouldn't look like that. With that new site, the sunny side will get the brown, but the color will gray down a lot. It's going to change depending on its location.
If you notice when you travel around, when you see these old buildings close to the road, they'll have this kind of patina. And if you notice, barns set back in the field will be gray.
Q: Is there anything you can do to preserve that look or no?
Babcock: No. You know how a lot of people love decks and the color of natural wood. That's an almost yearly maintenance of power washing, cleaning, putting a preservative down. And even at that, time — little by little — it's hard to preserve any kind of natural color.
Nature wants to bring it to whatever its natural patina is of untreated wood. If you put some treatments on it, the best is paint. Paint protects it from the UV and preserves the wood. Stains are less protective, and clear finishes are even less protective. It's a losing battle when you try to preserve the original color, it's just going to continue to start to gray. And the more you clean it, power wash it, you're taking off some of the surface, so you're diminishing its life.
Q: How much could you tell was not original and added over the years?
Babcock: It was parts of two barns that were combined and moved to this site. There was a combination of hand-hewn timber and sawed. Sometimes you saw that, where the longer timbers were still being hand-hewn and in the early periods they had a local sawmill that maybe sawed some of the pieces. ... Like the plates are 45 feet long. That's long timber. Sawmills probably handled 30 feet, and they might have sawed all the timber except for the plates. That might have been one original newly constructed building back in the 1860s. But a lot of times we'll see where they had an older building and it's all hand-hewed and it may have been reconfigured on a new site and they had a sawmill available and they sawed some timbers. I think that's the case here.
It doesn't look like they combined two buildings. I think they utilized an older building, moved to this site and replaced posts and rafters. It was done quite a long time ago. It's hard to tell. I didn't find any dates, sometimes someone signs something on there. But my best assessment is maybe in the mid 1800s, this building was put here.
Q: When you got into the project, did you find things as you were disassembling it that you didn't expect to find? Are there things that you find in the process that you can't know until you get in there?
Babcock: One thing I was happy to see because you never know when you look at a barn and look at the timbers ... I find once we start to take it apart, then we can really test their integrity. A lot of times, they get compromised by powder post beetles and insects and there will be areas that are weaker than you realized. And it's a dark place. Once you take that roof off, now you can see things that are going on.
I was pleased to find out it was minimal. It's only in the areas where we knew the roof was damaged and we knew there were some bad timbers. The rest of the building is sound and resilient. The beams were in good shape. There were no surprises in that regard.
Besides the difficulty with the site with the mud because of the season, it went along pretty smoothly.
We didn't find any artifacts. People will say, 'Did you find anything cool in there?' And I often say to people, 'They're like the pyramids. They've been raided long ago.'
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