Tuesday, November 06, 2012
Q and A with John Blackburn
by Beth Herman
Celebrated equestrian architect John Blackburn of Blackburn Architects, PC, also known for his deft restorations and renovations of historical properties, was charged with resurrecting a post Civil War-era bank barn, where the lower portion of the structure is built into a hillside, and where the foundation actually predated the war. Desiring a barn conversion where the 2,590 s.f. structure would be used for entertaining, much of the site design was driven by the client's wife, whose environmental concerns and adopted green practices resulted in an effort to preserve as much of the severely deteriorating historic structure as possible. The project received an AIA Merit Award in Historic Resources and Southern Living magazine's Home Award in Historic Restoration. DCMud spoke with Blackburn about the project.
DCMud: Tell is about the genesis of this historic structure and its metamorphosis.
Blackburn: It's my understanding that the bank barn foundation dates back to before the Civil War. It's on the banks of the Potomac in Loudoun County, Virginia, probably less than a mile from the Battle of Ball's Bluff (aka the Battle of Leesburg, October 21, 1861). I would imagine the barn was burned down at one point and rebuilt in the 1870s. The saw marks on the timber tell us the barn itself is post Civil War.
The open concept design includes an ample kitchen and a sleeping loft, so somebody can stay there overnight. An old corn crib on the south side of the bank barn has been converted to a sundeck on top, with view of the extensive horse farm to the west, and underneath it's a place for workers and caterers to pull in and conveniently unload trays and equipment out of view of any guests.
DCMud: What was the program for the bank barn?
Blackburn: In addition to extended family gatherings, it was to be used for meetings, receptions, office retreats, etc. The basement stores some of the family's classic cars, go-carts and other recreational equipment.
DCMud: What strategy did you use in adapting an historic structure like this for modern purposes?
Blackburn: My goal in doing any project like this is that when you walk away from it, you close it up and it appears like it originally was: a barn. Whenever I renovate an original structure I like to respect its original use and perpetuate that to any degree possible, though here the northeast facade was replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass that provides panoramic vistas of the property and Potomac.
DCMud: What about the exterior?
DCMud: The interior seems to maintain the barn's rusticity while courting air and light.
Blackburn: Interior materials and finishes are exactly from the original except where pieces were added to strengthen the structure or replace rotted board. Flooring is oak, as is the timber. We rebuilt the existing double sliding doors. After they are opened, behind them you have a double French glazed glass door entrance which lets in a lot of natural light and ventilation, but when you walk away, you close the barn doors so as not to see them, and the look of the original barn is maintained.
DCMud: During many barn conversions, we see items like patios and decks.
Blackburn: Many times when people want to renovate something like this they'll put a deck on it and that's a sure sign that it's no longer a barn but a residence. I didn't want to do that. Subsequently on the east side, where additional double barn doors were falling off, I did the same as on the front side: We rebuilt the barn doors and put French glazed glass doors behind it. When you open these 6-foot wide doors, instead of a deck sticking outside of the barn that doesn't fit, your interior space now becomes your deck. A railing behind the barn doors but in front of the French doors prevents any egress. As mentioned earlier the corn crib on the south side was turned into a deck, but it is out of view.
DCMud: There were other barns on the property, so did you preserve them too?
Blackburn: We used barn siding on the interior of the bank barn, for example the sliding door in the kitchen and paneling in the bathroom. We had an existing barn on the north end that was falling apart, and we used the wood for this one. I've also learned from designing over 160 horse barns (some from historic beginnings) that these structures tend to be organic: Over the years, farmers would add a window here, a lean-to there, etc., so that it grows as you'd find with an industrial building. We did punch in a couple of windows so that light was channeled into a bathroom or kitchen.
DCMud: How would you summarize the work you did on this barn?
Blackburn: It responds to its historic context, and yet it responds to the site. Two of the major elements that respond to the site are the north window, which completely exposes it to the view, and the corn crib sun deck to the south which faces out over the farm but is completely hidden. These elements were melded into the context in a very successful way.
DCMud: Speaking of architecture that works, what would you count among the District's most influential designs for you?
Blackburn: There are two, though different as night and day, that I think are the best buildings in D.C. For an interior space I really like the Rotunda of the Library of Congress--the big, open reading room--which is the grandest, most beautiful, functional space. It's ornate, historic and fascinating. From the exterior, my choice has to be the Finnish Embassy. Because of its design and embellishment like the vines growing over it, it's my favorite building in D.C.
photos courtesy of Kenneth Wyner