Judy Shepard Staff writer
Section: LIVING TODAY,  Page: F1

Date: Sunday, July 17, 1988

It probably has happened to you: Every day, you drove by some picturesque old barn, sagging, weathered and half-hidden by vines.

It was so familiar that you stopped seeing it, until the day you really stopped seeing it - because it had vanished from the landscape forever. It may simply have collapsed from old age and neglect; maybe it burned.

Perhaps its owner tore it down to put up a more practical structure.

Maybe it found reincarnation of sorts if its lumber was salvaged to give that rustic look to someone's kitchen.

But some old barns are picking up and moving across the street, down the road or across town to take on new life as a fledgling rural preservation movement takes hold, beginning with the most enduring - and, judging by the success of early efforts, most endearing - emblem of American agriculture.

*In Colonie, the Buhrmaster barn has been carefully dismantled at its site on Buhrmaster Road, just off Route 7, and trucked across town to the Pruyn House on Old Niskayuna Road, where it is starting life over as part of the town's cultural and historic center.

*A group of historians, preservationists and barn buffs have formed the Rensselaer-based Dutch Barn Preservation Society to encourage the survival of the region's earliest barns through education, research and documentation.

*In Schoharie, a pre-Revolutionary Dutch barn has been taken apart, moved a mile and a half up Main Street to the Schoharie County Historical Society/Stone Fort Museum, where it will be reassembled as a working barn as well as being used as an exhibit and meeting space.

*A Charlton man who converted a dairy barn to a horse barn received a merit award from "Barn Again," a national barn preservation program sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine.

*In Delaware County, a rare 100-year-old round barn is being rebuilt by the Erpf

Catskill Cultural Center in Halcottsville as a museum and cultural center for the Catskill region.

*In Montgomery County, another old Dutch barn has moved across Route 5 in St. Johnsonville from a farm to the Fort Klock Historical Restoration, where it will house the 18th-century Palatine fortified farm's collection of tools.

*The Greene County Historical Society has both an 18th-century Dutch barn and a rare 13-sided barn from around 1830 at its Bronck Museum in Coxsackie.

Barns had a tough go of it almost from the very beginning. During the Revolution, they were popular targets for torching.

The barn the Schoharie County Historical Society bought from farmer Paul Schaeffer survived just such an attack; a pea barn close by was set on fire, but the flames failed to spread to the adjoining structure as planned, according to Alicia Hallock, deputy director of the historical society.

The Buhrmaster barn, which was built down on the Mohawk River on River View Road, also burned in the late 1800s and was reconstructed.

After the Barge Canal changed the contours of the riverbank in 1915, the barn was rolled uphill on logs pulled by a horse to its Buhrmaster Road location.

Although substantially rebuilt after the fire, the barn retained some of its original features: the Dutch door, hand-hewn beams and wooden pegs.

The Dutch barns in particular were built to last, according to Mark Peckham, a member of the Dutch Barn Preservation Society.

"Their major structural elements were well enclosed in the interior and thus preserved," he said.

But the years took their toll and the barns, with their extremely large roof areas and steep pitch, discouraged some farmers from maintaining them.

Then agricultural methods changed, and so did the shape of barns. Many were simply abandoned, replaced, or sold.

The turnaround came in 1976, when the nation's Bicentennial celebration popularized the early American look. In the East, barns and barnboards began to sell; the former were suitable for expensive conversion into living space.

"Barns were in demand, partly because their framing structure was exposed. It was much easier to see and get at and to say, 'Gee, this would look good in my kitchen.' " Hallock said.

But the Bicentennial also gave rise to a preservation sensibility and, while much of the energy went to urban housing rehabilitation, rural efforts turned old farms into museums.

Peckham said the Dutch Barn Preservation Society was organized in 1986 "because we were aware of the fact that Dutch barns were disappearing very rapidly and we were concerned to stem this loss."

In Schoharie, Hallock said, "Around 1976, when everyone was hyped up about the Bicentennial, our society formed a committee to start looking for a Dutch barn to move to the site."

As it happens, charming old barns are popular targets for fund-raising efforts.

Whitty Sanford, executive director of the Erpf Catskill Cultural Center, was gratified by the financial response to the organization's project to rebuild a dilapidated round barn in a field just off Route 30 in the hamlet of Halcottsville.

"We're in full swing; our fund-raising efforts have been very successful. The restoration is going full tilt, and our goal is to have the basic structure completed by winter, so it will be back on the landscape."

Support came in may forms: Alta Industries donated the barn and four acres of land to the center; the O'Connor Foundation of Hobart gave $285,000; the New York State Council on the Arts funded the historic structure report; community support came in donations ranging from $5 to $500.

More than 500 farmers participated in the national "Barn Again" rehabilitation contest in 1987.

The only winner in the rehab contest from New York state was John Desmond of Charlton, who got a merit award for his conversion of a 1950s gambrel-style dairy barn into a horse barn.

"Barn Again" was developed in response to the need for ideas and technical information for saving old barns, according to Mary Humstone, the National Trust program associate who directed the campaign.

Likewise, the regional Dutch Barn Preservation Society is working on developing a system for dating the barns, which were popular from the 1700s right through the early 1800s, as well as providing practical repair and preservation advice to barn owners. (Membership in the organization is $5; there is a newsletter and a survey form available for barn owners; write the Dutch Barn Preservation Society, P.O. Box 176, Rensselaer, N.Y. 12144.)

"Barns are easy to focus on," Peckahm said, which explains the popularity of the projects. "They are finding that in Schoharie as well. I think it's something people can rally around."

But there is more to old barns than their rustic charms.

"Historically, agriculture has played a very significant role in the history of this state," Peckham said. "We're going to need examples of farm architecture to interpret that history."