Seven Days goes inside three of Vermont’s converted quarters
You see them scattered all over Vermont: private homes that used to be barns, schoolhouses, warehouses, grist mills or churches. What’s it like to live in a place that once held dairy cows, rum runners or congregations?
We spoke to the residents of three such places in Vermont, each of whom had a different reason for living in a converted home. Linda Bove, who dreamed up and designed her house inside a barn, loves the surprise factor. Her home is tucked so neatly into the rural icon that people passing might not even know it’s there.
For Kent Weisert, who transformed a silo into a library, it’s all about whimsy. More than a decade after the renovation, he still gets a kick out of the lighthouse-like structure towering over a Brandon farm.
And a young couple in Vergennes were spellbound by the history of their transformed shipping warehouse, which, with its working hoist and wide cargo doors flung open on Otter Creek, seems ready to return to its former glory at any moment — if only the ships would make a reappearance.
Where the Ships Came In
Some may call it unfinished, but Julia and Tim call their Vergennes apartment “clubhouse chic.” The couple lock the front door of the 1799 former shipping warehouse by wedging a plank between its heavy handle and the floor. Earlier this spring they piled bricks against a hole in the top floor to keep the birds out. These inconveniences could be deal breakers for less creative residents. But for this young couple — who have lived there since November and did not want their last names used — it’s all part of the allure.
Photos by Caleb Kenna.
The five-story warehouse was built as a distribution point for goods imported to Vermont, such as sugar, spices and coffee, says current owner and University of Vermont men’s varsity crew coach Alex Graham. It’s had a handful of owners since then, including one “pack rat,” who Graham says used the place to store his collections of airplane parts, among other things. About a decade ago, the owners who preceded Graham started to transform the building into a residential space, insulating it, plumbing a bathroom and building a small bridge over the steep hill from the driveway to another door, which does lock. Graham added some polishes, such as new windows and a full upstairs bedroom.
Graham bought the place six years ago with plans to live there. Since then, he’s decided to go to medical school, so he’s selling it. “It’s my dream house,” Graham says, but he doesn’t have the time to support it as a rental during the years he’ll be in school.
The highlight for Julia, 30, who works at a law firm, and Tim, 28, a pewter smith at Danforth Pewter, is the giant hoist rigged up on the ceiling. Directly below it, in each of the four floors, are trap doors that once allowed goods to reach any level. When the couple moved in last winter, they used it to haul a heavy desk up to the third floor. “It’s big and old and very efficient,” says Tim. “And it’s a toy for every age.”
During a recent visit, the Otter Creek is swollen and the entire dirt-floor basement of the warehouse is flooded. No matter; the residential level begins on the third story. The couple use that street-level floor as a laundry room, storage space for their kayaks, art studio and workshop. There’s more storage in the perfectly dry second-floor basement, where a beam is inscribed with the words “Shippers’ Office” in extravagant calligraphy. Rumor has it that the place hosted a rum-running operation during Prohibition, Julia says.
Upstairs on the fourth floor, the primary living space is almost entirely open. If it weren’t for the woodstove crackling in the center, the room would resemble a New York City loft. The couple set up a projector so they can watch movies on a huge screen against the wall. In one corner is a computer workstation. A hammock hangs between two beams. The kitchen is spacious, with enough room for a restaurant-quality metal prep table. In a back corner is their bed, separated from the rest of the space by bookshelves. A wooden door slides back opposite their “bedroom” to reveal a sizable bathroom.
A staircase leads to the top floor, which is really more of a catwalk. In one direction it leads to a spacious walk-in closet; in the other, to a guest bedroom.
“You have to be OK with having all [of your belongings] out there,” says Julia. “And we always warn people with kids, it’s not really child friendly.” She pulls open the heavy door on the back wall, which looks out on the flooded river. Only a couple of plywood planks nailed across the opening would keep an adult from falling out.
Still, for the right kind of person, this place is almost magical. A building with so much visible history “inspires the imagination,” says Julia. “I think more creative thoughts since we’ve been here.”
A Dream Silo
The barn and silo of an old Brandon farm were a bit run down when Kent Weisert and his wife, Deborah, drove by them more than 20 years ago, but all the couple saw was potential — and a spectacular view. “It was love at first sight,” says Weisert, a 62-year-old attorney.
Photos courtesy of the McKiernan Group.
The Weiserts, who split their time between New Jersey and Vermont, are collectors: he of books, china, militaria and steins; she of dolls and glassware. They dreamed of having a space where they could display their collections and store the overflow.
Enter the 1810 farm on Arnold District Road, which, before the Weiserts bought it, was owned by an older couple who rented out the land to area farmers. The barn was used for hay storage; the silo had long sat empty.
The Weiserts bought the place and worked with architects from the Brandon-based McKernon Group on their dream design. With the silo, Weisert says, “We wanted to create the effect of a lighthouse.” The adjacent barn was also renovated and now provides storage space for yet more of the couple’s collections. “We’re pack rats,” Weisert admits.
These days, the silo is a crisp, white, four-story refuge. The ground floor is all storage, but climb the bridge-like staircase from the front lawn to the second-story entrance, and you enter an elegant sanctuary: a wood-paneled, rounded room with a cozy fireplace, built-in cabinets and seating. A spiral wooden staircase leads up to the next round room, full of cabinets and cases displaying more collections. One more climb, and you reach the pièce de résistance: the library, bright with sunshine from the nearly 360 degrees of windows.
A history buff, Weisert was delighted to discover that the farm may have been a temporary home to Stephen Arnold Douglas, the Illinois Democrat — born in Brandon, Vt. — who famously debated, and lost to, Abraham Lincoln on the issue of slavery. “When [Douglas] was born, his father died immediately thereafter,” says Weisert. “He and his mom went to live with his uncle, [whose] place was described as the last farm on the Arnold District Road.” Weisert’s property fits that description.
The Weiserts come up from New Jersey to the Brandon house about once a month, but even when they’re not there, the place is alive with activity: Two farmers still work the land, one grazing cattle, the other growing feed grain. Its silo may be modern, but history lives on at the Arnold District Road farm.
A House in a Barn
Converted barns are common in Vermont, but Linda Bove’s place is different. From the approach on Sheldon Road in St. Albans, it looks like a typical, slightly weathered, red dairy barn. But come around to the west side, and you’ll see a pair of stacked decks on the second and third floors built into the wall, offering views of Lake Champlain. Go around back, and you’ll find the face of a traditional house jutting from the barn’s rounded roof.
Photos by Matthew Thorsen.
“I designed it all,” Bove says proudly. She was living in Fletcher when she bought the place in 2001; it had stopped operating as a dairy farm just a few years before that. When Bove, 59, told her family about it, her adult daughter responded, “Are you crazy?” Maybe a little, Bove admits now. But the retired postal worker and real estate appraiser had enough vision — and a knack for scavenging affordable salvage items — to pull it off. In two years, she transformed a dairy barn into a beautiful 2744-square-foot home, with 7192 square feet to spare for her business, Route 105 Storage.
Bove sold off the old stanchions, grain bins and other farm equipment at an auction. Then her son and another carpenter transformed the barn’s lower level, where the cows once lived, into a long hall of commercial storage units with wooden doors. The milking parlor became Bove’s office — and an apple-cider-pressing room.
On a recent afternoon, Bove leads a visitor up the stairs from the storage units to her cozy home, which is in such contrast to the barn that it feels like walking onto the set of a TV show. It’s modern, with just a few simple details betraying its host building’s former life: white barn doors sliding over the entertainment center; arched ceilings on the top floor. But open the door off the living room, and you’re in the barn again.
Bove stores autos in the upper part of the barn, which has wood floors, soaring ceilings and a huge roll-up door that opens to a ramp from the driveway. The place is packed with elaborate cars their owners rarely drive, and even a few hay wagons from a nearby working farm. In the summer, Bove moves the cars to one side and opens up the space for weekend barn sales where she and her neighbors sell miscellany.
An expert scavenger, Bove furnished much of her barn house with found items. A jet tub in the downstairs bathroom was salvaged from another construction site. The kitchen sink and an ironing board that pulls down from the wall are from ReSource (the former ReCycle North). Tabletops came from free piles. Railings are made from simple, black — and surprisingly stylish — industrial pipe. The wrought-iron hinges and door handles came from a Salvation Army in Florida. What did Bove spend money on? “The wood flooring, honey,” she says.
But, as much as she loves the place, Bove is selling it — and her business — and moving to a single-level home in Maine; her arthritis has made it too difficult to get up and down the stairs. Her family is sad to see it go, she says. But Bove has a new place to outfit, and she’s excited to start scouring flea markets again.