Deconstruction on campus: preservationists hope to tear down, rebuild historic barn

This historic hay barn on the base of campus is on the verge of collapsing.

The Cowell Lime Works Hay Barn is a forlorn place when it's raining. Water drips through holes in the sagging roof. Some beams look as if nothing is holding them up but wishful thinking.

The barn on Ranch View Terrace Road looks like it will go "plop'' at any moment. But admirers of this still-striking 19th century building have drafted an unusual plan to save it: they want to pull down the barn, salvage as much of the original frame as possible, then make it rise again in a public barn-raising workshop.

"We want to take it down before nature does,'' said Joe Michalak of The Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District, a campus-affiliated preservation group. "If nature takes it down first, we'll just have a pile of sticks. If we take it down ourselves, we can save the barn.''

The barn was originally used to store hay for the oxen teams that towed wagons loaded with lime down to the Santa Cruz wharf, and for the beef cattle and horses that supported the lime operations. Over the years, UC Santa Cruz used the barn for storage but a building inspector condemned it 20 years ago after it fell into disrepair. The campus simply did not have the money to fix it up.

Michalak called the dismantling a new beginning, not a sad ending, while senior environmental planner and archaeologist Sally Morgan emphasized that the barn would be "deconstructed and restored, not demolished.''

UCSC staff and volunteers with the preservation group hope to restore the buildings in the 30-acre district. But they have long faced a serious funding challenge because their effort is all-volunteer, and the restoration money comes from donations and grants.

To reconstruct the barn, the board will have to undertake a daunting fundraising campaign. Documentation and deconstruction of the 30-foot-high, 40-by-80-square-foot barn would cost an estimated $100,000-$150,000. The cost of reconstruction is likely to exceed $1 million, depending on the types of interior fittings, new foundation requirements and other factors.

The clock could be running out. Michalak says the barn may not survive one more stormy winter.

On a recent summer day, Michalak and Morgan gave a tour of the property. Western fence lizards scuttled through weeds. An abandoned truck rusted in the barn. Someone had left a rusty scythe sticking into an outside wall.

Michalak and Morgan pointed out timbers and planks of old-growth vermin-resistant Douglas fir and redwood that the builders used to make this barn foursquare.

But nature is gnawing the barn down, and the damage is accelerating. Termites and powder-post beetles have eaten their fill of the beams. Now, nearly half the barn's timber is infested. Much of the roof is gone and, two months ago, a barn door toppled over.

But the Lime Works board said at least some original timber frame beams and planks can be saved. Morgan said the barn would be documented with detailed drawings by an architectural historian and then taken down cautiously, piece by piece, starting with the roof and the siding.

Salvageable pieces would be treated to hold off rot and insect infestation, then used again, with new framing and planks of lumber to reconstruct the barn in all its historic detail.

The Lime Works board has been working with the Timber Framers Guild, a national organization that conducts barn-raising workshops for building traditional timber-framed structures.

The finished barn, according to the Lime Works board, may be used for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, for alumni events, for classes, offices, storage, or a venue for public gatherings.

The hay barn's completion date is murky, but barn aficionados believe it dates back as far as the late 1860s, based on hay moving equipment mounted on the frame. The builders used the exacting and time-consuming process of mortise-and-tenon construction, a frame construction craft in which a projection ("tenon") at the end of one large beam is matched with a slot ("mortise") cut in the adjacent beam. This style of construction is common in the eastern U.S., but relatively rare in California. Craftsmen with the Timber Framers Guild still practice this craft and would use it to reconstruct the barn frame.

The area that now houses UCSC once hosted California's biggest lime producing operation, which started in the early 1850s.

Lime, an important ingredient in mortar, plaster and whitewash, was a much-sought-after material in the 19th century building industry. Later, Henry Cowell acquired the lime works and set up support facilities including a ranch.

The former lime operations area, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, also includes the Granary, now a childcare center; the Cookhouse, now the Admissions office; several barns; the Cooperage, where barrels for lime shipping were made; the ruins of former workers' cabins; the Blacksmith Shop; the Carriage House, which now houses staff offices; Cardiff House, now the Women's Center but formerly the residence of lime works owner Henry Cowell; and the lime kilns themselves.

For information or to help with the project, visit the Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District web site, or send contributions to Friends of the Lime Works, c/o Sally Morgan, MS: PP&C, UC Santa Cruz, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz CA 95064.