Wells Barns and the effort to save them
So many barns dot the countryside in our corner of New York that they barely register as we speed by in our cars. Yet among these are dozens of architectural treasures designed by J. T. Wells, a Wheatland native, and raised by him and later, his sons, between 1886 and 1942.
From the outside, Wells Barns are unremarkable gambrel-roofed structures. But if you look closely, just above the windows at each gabled end, you see molding shaped in a “lazy” or flattened “W.” Charmingly, the builders signed their work. A glimpse inside suggests why.
Anyone who thinks it would be preposterous to compare a farm building to a medieval church has never set foot inside a Wells Barn. Their capacious interiors, framed by soaring trusses that sweep dramatically upward to the barn’s peak to form pointed arches, recall Gothic cathedrals. The resemblance is not merely coincidental. Like the designers of those churches, Wells used the arches to thrust weight downward, allowing for—compared with standard post-and-beam frames—greater height, smaller-dimensioned building materials, and cavernous space. It is a small wonder that Wells Barns have been called “country cathedrals.”
Sadly, of about 100 original Wells Barns, fewer than fifty remain standing, most of them in our community. Many of them are falling apart.
The Wells Barn Legacy Project wants to do something about it. Its members share a passion for Wells Barns and their role in local history.
Katie Andres, of Pittsford, coordinates the team and its projects. She is especially zealous about preserving Wells Barns, educating the public, and touting the native genius of J. T. Wells.
“I think it’s incredible that someone from our region could build these barns and other structures with a formal education that went through the eighth grade,” she says. “Besides, Wells Barns are a part of New York and our agricultural history.”
Wells Sr.’s design, which he patented in 1889, responded to farmers’ growing need for unobstructed storage areas for ever-larger amounts of hay and grain, as western New York farms worked to satisfy burgeoning markets.
“The truss design allowed farmers to drive their hay wagons into the barn with no supporting posts in the way,” says Barb Chapman, Wheatland town historian and Legacy Project member. “The hay hooks and ceiling tracks in the barns made it possible to put away huge amounts of hay in the upper stories of the barns.”
And the design was versatile, says Chapman. “Any size barn could be built this way by simply changing the number of trusses to make it shorter or longer—a kind of prefab building.”
New York State is no longer the breadbasket it was in J. T. Wells’s day, and farms have changed their storage requirements.
Says Chapman, “Changes in farming methods made Wells Barns obsolete. Baled hay does not need as much storage space and is too heavy to load onto barn lofts.”
Also, the number of farms in New York is a small fraction of what it was in the 1800s, and, as a result, thousands of unused barns are simply disintegrating.
“Many of the remaining Wells Barns,” notes Chapman, “are standing on small lots in residential areas.”
There, many have fallen into disuse and disrepair. Renovating and maintaining them is expensive.
So, what can be done to preserve these historically significant design gems? The Legacy Project approaches the problem by way of education and inspiration. It has given numerous presentations to local historical societies and professional organizations, led tours of Wells Barns, and brought together Wells Barn owners to share concerns and to brainstorm ways to raise awareness. The organization also gets the word out with its website, Wells Barn History (wellsbarnhistory.com), and stays in touch with like-minded folks on its Facebook page, Historic Barns of J.T. Wells & Sons.
The Legacy Project’s efforts even helped Wells Barns earn a spot on the 2018-19 Seven to Save endangered properties list of the Preservation League of New York state. The biennial list highlights, according to the Preservation League’s website, “New York’s most important and at-risk historic places.”
Still, the Legacy Project members are realistic about what they can accomplish alone.
Says Dick Thomas, the team’s photographer, “We need to be a source of education; we need to be a source of inspiration. We can bring about an awareness of these barns. But for us to lead the charge on preservation is too much. That will take groups of barn owners, financial contributors, and dedicated communities to preserve regional history.”
Preservation requires a lot of money—just putting on a new roof costs tens of thousands of dollars.
One promising solution is for the barns to become revenue-generating event sites; the open space makes them ideal for large receptions. Locally, three Wells Barns have been restored and repurposed as elegant wedding venues: the Avon Century Barn, Oak Knolls Manor in Caledonia, and Cobblestone Wedding Barn in Scottsville.
The Legacy Project’s most ambitious undertaking is a work in progress, an independent television documentary, which Andres coproduced with Jillian Kuchman, a sound engineer with Maryland Public Television and former Rochester resident. The documentary Still Standing: The Barns of J.T. Wells & Sons has secured a broadcast commitment from WXXI, and its producers are actively writing grants and fundraising to bring this program to the station’s viewers.
“Documenting these barns in whatever state they’re in is crucial,” says Andres. “A barn that you pass on your way home or to work—you have this feeling that it will always be there—until something happens to that structure and we realize its impermanence.”
If you have driven or biked over country roads in the Rochester area, chances are you’ve passed within a stone’s throw of a Wells Barn. Before long, regrettably, that may not be the case.