By Eric Teed
A potter and woodworker, Jack Van Wie, 26, possesses hands for building things. That’s why he was drawn to New Russia and fixing a barn linked to a historic family.
Erin Tobin, executive director for Adirondack Architectural Heritage, toured the restoration site. “Barns have a lot to say,” she said. “Looking at the construction techniques, looking at the materials, and thinking about the farmstead and the community in which it sits, it tells you what that place was.”
She reflected: Historic barns are rotting to the ground. Within the Blue Line, beautiful and functional buildings are being lost. With them goes old-growth timbers and sheathing that tell of the big, straight trees that grew here. And when a barn goes, another story of a settler to this place gets buried.
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New Russia is a small hamlet that many just pass through. It is sheltered from weather coming from the west by the Giant Mountain Wilderness. To the east is the Champlain foothills. In the early 1800s, New Russia was settled by the Bishop family from Monkton, Vermont. They crossed the ice on Lake Champlain to arrive. One of the early buildings was a barn that stands on the land they worked. Like many historic barns, it was on its way back to the earth.
Someone needed to restore the structure, and Van Wie wanted to be that person. “This is it,” Van Wie said. “This is what I want to do.”
A former boss, Steve Amstutz, a timber framer for 30 years, assessed the barn with Van Wie and admired the ancient artistry. They looked at the channel cut in the tie beams designed to hold the top of the siding boards. The people who built the barn needed fewer nails to put up siding boards.
“These guys were good,” said Amstutz. “A good design well executed,” Van Wie said.
Amstutz gestured to the barn. “You have a really nice feature in this that is not common in the Adirondacks,” he noted. “There are queen posts off the tie beam that go up to two long purlin plates.”
Often, he said, barns in the Adirondacks show ridge line resembling a mule’s back — swayed. Purlin plates transfer the load from the middle of the roof, down the beams.
The mantra from the barn owners was “save as much as possible” and that’s what Van Wie attempted, using traditional joinery to repair rotted timbers, meticulously copying the originals. He replicated one top plate, a chapter of the past.
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Van Wie’s journey started when he worked for a cabinet maker while also timber framing and seeing a connection to his passion for pottery. “When throwing pots or using big tools for timber, you use your whole body,” he said. “It’s amazing how similar the surface texture of a wood fired pot and a weathered timber are.” He realized he could be creative and make a living with wood.
Van Wie went to work on keeping the barn’s story alive. He cut new end pieces and positioned them to the Bishop barn, preserving the continuous 40-foot top plate that was still good. He replaced rafter tails with such precision he could use a wooden mallet to hammer them into the new top plate that replicated the original. He numbered, cleaned, reinstalled and repurposed every wide sheathing board that was still solid. He set the new structure on massive new sills, joining it to the original as if to defy time.
Near the end of the construction process, another New Russia resident stopped by to look and ask Van Wie if he would be interested in working on her barn. Deborah Virella bought her place some 35 years ago, mostly because she adored the old structures. She dreamed of workspace and a stage for her husband, who is a musician. Over the years she has had to shore the barns, but none of those efforts brought a vision for transforming and preserving them until Van Wie saw the barns.
He was disheartened but also astonished. Two newer barns on Virella’s property were attached to the original in the 1870s and early 1900s. Cement had been laid encasing some of the original. It had led to rot, leaving 12 inches out of plumb and 9 inches out of square and a dangling corner post.
But he realized this barn had been constructed around the same time as Bishop’s with similar techniques, dimensions and layout. “It was built by the same hands,” Van Wie said. “We’re going to save it.”
This barn though, required careful dismantling. Using traditional joinery, he scarfed any piece with enough structural integrity with locally sourced and milled timbers. He crafted new pieces to replace those too far gone, reassembling and raising the creation a few hundred feet from the original location on new sills and foundation.
Fixing these barns allowed Van Wie, who grew up nearby, to develop an idea for a business, Adirondack Timber Craftsmen. “You’re continuously humbled by how good the craftsmanship was back then,” he said. “If it lasted 200 years to get to here, you try to make sure your work will last to make it to the next guy. At least that’s the hope.”
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer’s magazine. Subscribe now to receive six issues a year, delivered to your mailbox and/or inbox.