One Timber Frame at a Time
Elric Endersby, left, and Alexander Greenwood outside their studio. (Photo by Jeffrey E. Tryon)
New Jersey Barn Company uses antique tools and locally-sourced wood to re-create times past
By Ilene Dube | Photographs courtesy of the New Jersey Barn Company
If these old barn walls could talk, they might use terms such as “braces and purlins,” “rafter-to-ridge,” and “jack-to-hip.” In fact, the centuries-old structures do have a lot to say about what’s taken place under their roofs. Elric Endersby and Alexander Greenwood are listening to those stories and reinterpreting them as they reimagine the historic structures.
The firm they built 40 years ago, the New Jersey Barn Company, has 200 projects under its tool belt: everything from resurrected barns dating from Shakespeare’s time to exacting replicas of Colonial-era buildings.
Most of their projects have been in the U.S., but they also work in the Dominican Republic (DR). “We fantasized about a project on a tropical island with warm breezes, sandy beaches, and rum cocktails,” Greenwood wrote for Timber Framing magazine in 2014, about a resort development at Playa Grande on the island of Hispaniola. “Be careful what you wish for,” he added.
They flew to the job site with power tools tucked among socks in their luggage, managed to get in a swim, then surmounted innumerable obstacles in order to catch the return flight they had booked.
“Okay, we didn’t make any money on this job,” Greenwood admits. “I suppose we lost money.… But it was something we had to do, and given the opportunity we would do it again.”
And they will get to do it again — the Barn Company has another job in the DR, resurrecting an Ohio barn on a ranch where the client plans to raise Kobe-style beef.
“We were up for an adventure,” says Greenwood.
The ranch is in Jarabacoa, a mountain resort area with a tropical rainforest climate that is pleasant year-round. “There are more pine trees than palms in Jarabacoa,” notes Endersby. There are stables and ponds on the property, and the barn will be incorporated into the house. Until it is built, the client operates out of a classic Airstream trailer adjacent to a pavilion with a fireplace.
The New Jersey Barn Company picked up the barn frame in Ohio and is making structural repairs at its Ringoes headquarters before shipping it by container to the DR. Once there it will be hauled up the mountain on a tractor trailer and reassembled.
“The logistics are like something out of Fitzcarraldo,” says Greenwood, referring to the 1982 movie directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski, in which a rubber baron is obsessively determined to transport a steamship over a steep hill in the Amazon.
Although New Jersey Barn Company’s bread and butter is salvaging and rebuilding antique timber frames, they do much more. They have designed additions to historic properties, and have created new projects that convey a sense of having been around for centuries, with windows, floorboards, beams, and mantels from an earlier era.
The vintage parts might come from the old barns they have in storage, or as they like to say, “in hibernation.” Looking for a historic barn with which to festoon your property? The New Jersey Barn Company has at least 12 to choose from, including an English barn from 1558. “That’s [six years] before Shakespeare was born,” Endersby remarks.
At one time, clients in the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket were especially interested in repurposed barns for pool houses, antique cars, restaurants, and artist studios. “We used to believe our business was recession proof because many of our clients had plenty of money,” Greenwood says.
But after the financial crisis that began in 2008, the optics of conspicuous consumption was not a good look. So the Barn Company began taking on more municipal projects.
“Thistle,” at the Barn Company headquarters in Ringoes, New Jersey.
Land, Animals, and Old Barns
Gazing out the window of the former tavern that is now their offices, seven Highland cattle can be seen grazing the land. They’d be pronounced “coos” in their native country, Endersby points out. The 15 acres, assessed farmland, is undergoing review for preservation.
Greenwood and Endersby are fond of the animals and spend a good amount of time staring at the tawny-colored tresses that dangle over the animals’ eyes. The men bring them apples and worried like new grandfathers when one gave birth in a thunderstorm (after going missing for a short time, the calf was recovered and was fine).
There are vintage green Chevrolet pickup trucks with the New Jersey Barn Company logo dotting the area, and the farm buildings also suggest a trip back in time.
Endersby, a Ewing resident who winters in the Dominican Republic, and Greenwood, a Harbourton resident, started the business in 1980 out of a fascination with architectural history, and a determination to preserve venerable structures fashioned from virgin timbers, but relegated to sites slated for development. They foresaw that the forests that supply the wood would no longer exist.
In 2000 they bought the tavern, built between 1737 and 1740, and most recently the home of a chicken farmer. To restore it they peeled away the knotty pine paneling, dropped ceilings and new flooring to reveal original floorboards, lath and plaster, four fireplaces, and a beehive oven. “Ghosting established molding profiles. Five-panel doors were salvaged from another mid-eighteenth century house destined for demolition. “We love detective work,” says Endersby.
To one side of the center hall, a room is filled with half-inch scale models documenting dozens of barns they have disassembled. Upstairs, the offices are filled with books, photographs, and files of measured drawings requisite for the re-erection of barnes and other structures.
One of New Jersey Barn’s more high-profile clients was Steven Spielberg, who had a residence built in the Hamptons from an old New Jersey barn. Artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel had New Jersey Barn salvage a building that would have become his studio, but was ultimately denied the variance he needed. Other clients have included Larry David and Bill Murray, both of whom have summer retreats on Martha’s Vineyard.
Closer to home, Endersby and Greenwood reassembled a barn to serve as the visitor center at Howell Living History Farm; re-created the Dutch barn at Rockingham; and for the Schenck Farmstead, a historic site in West Windsor, restored an early Dutch-English hybrid barn, a local one-room schoolhouse, and a timber frame replica of a wagon house.
Other recent projects include the restoration of a c.1800 barn relocated from Montgomery Township to the St. Michaels Farm Preserve, the D&R Greenway property in Hopewell. At Gravity Hill Farm near Lambertville, the Hendrickson Barn, a pre-Revolutionary War structure with Quaker origins, provides hospitable space for conferences and events.
Hendrickson Barn, Gravity Hill, Hopewell Township, 2017.
One client, Princeton resident Carol Wojciechowicz, had an English-style barn from behind the Plainsboro Municipal Building moved to her Herrontown Road property in 1990. It was taken apart piece by piece, labeled, fumigated, and reassembled with wooden pegs and vintage hardware. Wojciechowicz has hosted several weddings and numerous parties in the barn, and entertains her grandchildren in a small house she calls her “itty bitty” that the Barn Company resurrected from a site just down the road.
Endersby has had a passion for old houses since his childhood in Princeton. With dreams of becoming an architect, Endersby studied architectural history and fine arts at Trinity College, but became more interested in the history.
Returning home, he was recruited to collect oral histories for the Historical Society of Princeton, founded the Princeton History Project, and launched the Princeton Recollector, a monthly journal of local history. (Later he served on the society’s board for many years.)
Meanwhile, Greenwood, an Abington, Pa., native who’d studied sociology at Rider University, had worked for an architectural firm and realized his interest was more in early farmhouses, mills, and churches. He began restoring old houses, including Glencairn, now a bed and breakfast, with Clifford and Stephen Zink. An old barn on the property had collapsed, so after scouring the area for a substitute, they eventually settled on a barn in Dutch Neck destined for demolition. In 1977, friends and family gathered for a two-day barn raising, followed by a barn dance celebrating its completion.
When the project was complete, Greenwood and Endersby resolved to to pursue their mutual interests in historic architecture, carpentry, and restoration work.
“Working on Glencairn, a long-neglected property, was the best post-undergraduate training we could have,” says Greenwood.
Dominy house re-creation, East Hampton, New York, September 2019.
Tooled Out for Museum Usage
In 2016, New Jersey Barn Company dismantled an early barn in East Hampton, shipped it to New Jersey for repair and replaced wood damaged by termites, and then hauled it back to Long Island for re-erection as an event space at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Mulford Farm. A subsequent project for the Village of East Hampton is the reproduction of the Nathaniel Dominy V house. Dominy, part of a multi-generation family of craftsmen, built furniture, clocks, houses, windmills, and was a supplier of agricultural tools to farmers in East Hampton — his tool collection is now housed at Wintherthur Museum in Delaware.
The 1770 Dominy house had been torn down in 1946, but the village historian has put together the resources to have it rebuilt. Plans archived in the Historic American Building Survey of the Library of Congress were used to create the replica, which will become a museum for the display of Dominy tools and the works they created.
The challenge was that the new timbers had to be hewn so that the texture was exactly the same as the original, and hewing had to be done with tools of the era.
“We’re Luddites,” says Greenwood. “We’re one of the few construction companies that attempts to use period-correct materials and techniques.”
Typically they will use white oak from the woods of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In considering the sustainability of building with heavy timber, Greenwood notes that there couldn’t be a better use than in a museum honoring a wood craftsman.
“In Vermont, people have traditionally kept woodlots, and don’t always rely on lumberyards,” says Michael Cuba, a Barn Company staff member. A dendrochronology technician (one who dates trees by their growth rings), Cuba lived in the Green Mountain State for five years while working for the Institute for Social Ecology before joining the Barn Company. He points out that a timber frame should be good for at least several hundred years — much longer than it takes a tree to grow.
Greenwood and Endersby could not do this work alone. They contract architects and other specialists with expertise in historic periods. Dale Emde has worked with them for 15 years, and Cuba joined the team five years ago. A Doylestown native who went to summer camp at the Mercer Museum, surrounded by its vintage tools, Cuba met Endersby and Greenwood at a timber framing conference. “They were the two guys in tropical shirts,” he says.
And those antique tools for hewing? Cuba brings his own collection. He says he learned to use them by listening to the wood. And he couldn’t be doing this for a more appreciative set of employers, who are in their business for the love of it.