How to Make a Livable
Mansion Into an Old Broken Down Connecticut Red Barn
by Col. Stoopnagle
“My wife and I are rather normal people. But we seem to have had a mutual secret yen for oodles of leisure in an out-of-the-way place with acres and acres of land, a bottomless savings account and a 20-year supply of frozen food. These things and many others having been denied us, we have been forced to tolerate our meager 12-room home and its gardens and swimming pools, all the while wishing we could ‘rough it.’ We have been itching to get rid of most of the servants, to throw away the fabulous works of art, sell the mushy oriental rugs and get closer to nature.
So one evening at dinner, as we sat hunched unhappily over our duck-under-glass, I said to my wife: “Darling, lately I can’t get the thought out of my mind that I’d like to chuck all this luxury and go live in an old red Connecticut barn, vintage of 1723.” She looked up at me from under the glass. “Honey-chile,” she said (she was born in southern Connecticut), “that’s a very strange thing. I, too, have been nursing a similar desire. Now, since you’ve broken the ice, I feel free to tell you that I fully agree.” She was a woman to mince words. And it was this amazing dialogue which started us upon our gay adventure.
Of course, finding an old red barn, vacant, in Connecticut is like looking for a haydle in a knee-stack; all the barns have been seized by people who read the home-and-garden magazines. Everywhere we inquired, the answers were nearly the same: “Yes, he had an old red barn, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it is now that large white clapboard home over there.” We were stymied. There was only one answer: we must make a barn out of our beautiful home. A radical departure, perhaps, from custom, but we were approaching a stodgy middle age and we felt the need for another joint venture to revive our lagging spirits and rekindle our interest in life and each other. This would do it!
So we got in touch with an un-architect we knew of. An un-architect, as you may have guessed, is a man who tears blueprints up and buildings down. This one, strangely enough, had the name of John Raze. As we sat there in his office, Mr. Raze kept absentmindedly picking at a brick which he used as a paperweight and brushing the dust into the wastebasket. This strange act was what phychoanalysts might call Occupational Urgency. It was a nervous habit brought on by his innate inclination to want to destroy that which had taken blood, sweat and tears to create. No wonder, then, that our Mr. Raze had become the most famous razer of his time. (Ed. Note: How Gillette that get in here?)
We explained our plan, and as we unfolded the details, Raze’s face brightened up until it was no longer necessary for the overhead lights. “Do you simply intend to tear down all but one hunk of your home and then live in what’s left?” he said. “I suppose that’ll be the final result, Mr. Raze,” I answered, “but we want the job to take a long time. It’s only fair because it took so long to build. My suggestion would be to rip off the downstairs bedroom first, to take about a month, while we get used to not sleeping in it. Then the servants quarters, then the kitchen, etc. Maybe a couple of months later you’ll send a few of your men to knock the lavatory apart.” I was about to go on, but by this time Mr. Raze was practically in my lap, so great was his enthusiasm.
“Colonel,” he said, “this is the greatest idea since Plymouth Rock landed on the Pilgrims! Here I am, an old hand at destruction -- the kind of a ruthless tycoon who rushes headlong into a job with sledgehammers and wheelbarrows and trucks and cranes, bent on tearing a 50-story building to pieces in three days. Often I am almost overcome by my desire to destroy, and to destroy as quickly as possible. Then along come you and your Missus with this fantastic idea for the painstaking, leisurely reduction of a home and you can’t possibly imagine how I shall love the change.” At each sentence he became more popeyed and he finally threw his arms about my wife and me, especially my wife, getting our promise to let him start the job at once and drag it along as much as possible.
The next morning Mr. Raze himself appeared at our home. We had removed the furnishings from the north bedroom, and my wife had insisted upon making it as clean and neat as though some new tenant were about to take over. At a given signal, Raze, at the head of a flying wedge of workmen, plunged headlong into the wall. Several of the bricks were dislodged, as was almost Raze’s head.
On the second try, they backed into the wall and did a much less workmanlike but a more painless job.
Now, with the work well started, Mr. Raze left, but not without a warning to his men to use no tools unless absolutely necessary, and to take deep breaths between each thrust. “Time out for lunge” was what he wanted to say, I suppose, but I’m glad he didn’t.
It was four months before our house was at last chiseled down to nothing but its high-ceilinged living room. We had found it great fun to have our quarters cramped a little more each day. It made us appreciate the conveniences of plenty of room, and the discipline was good for us after our many years of too comfortable living. True, our bathtub was in one corner with no pipes attached, and our toilet had been taken away entirely, but with a little ingenuity we managed, somehow, to take care of our personal foibles. For a couple of weeks, while Raze’s men were monkeying around with the roof, we had to live under the stars. On rainy nights we lived under the rain. The roof over our living room was wrong for an old red barn; they had to replace it with a roof of weathered timbers and leaky shingles of the period of 1723. At least, with the new old roof finally sagging there above us, we learned to know where the leaks were and simply moved out from under them when we preferred to be dry.
Finally the men came one morning with the stall-timber. My bed happened to be where the first stall would have been in an old red barn, and my wife laughed to see me crawl into bed there that night. Her first remark was: “You are a horse with a different collar,” at which I whinnied, swished my tail and took a big mouthful of oats from the bin. She laughed on the other side of her face when she found that her bedroom was to be a goat stall. My first remark, after she was installed in her new quarters, was: “No ifs, ands and butts, dear!” at which frightening remark she knocked her horned head against the side wall as she nibbled hungrily on the social page of the Sunday Times.
Another three weeks found most of the debris removed from what used to be lovely front lawn, the building had been painted an old red, with blotches, there were broken windows throughout and the loft was empty of hay but full of artificial spider-webs. Our un-architect had learned the trick from the Hollywood prop men. In fact, by now we had as authentic an old red Connecticut barn as there was in the State. The news got around soon, and we stepped to the door one morning to find 24 artists, equipped with easel, oils and watercolors, practically surrounding our home. They were having, shall we say, a hay-day, sitting there putting our barn on canvas. When the pictures reached the stores, they were snapped up at fabulous prices by lovers of barnlore, and our place became famous almost over night. Artists came from all over the country and brought their families. It got so that the roads were choked for miles around, and we were forced to charge a fee for the rights to paint. Our depleted bank account began an about-face, and the President of the bank now bowed and smiled solicitously as we passed, instead of pretending to be window-shopping.
Now our account has grown to really enormous proportions. But we are sick and tired of being gaped at by the public and we yearn for solitude. I think I shall give Raze a buzz tomorrow and ask him if he knows of a good architect who can convert an old red barn into a 12-room mansion.
[From My Back to the Soil, or, Farewell to Farms, ?: Howell, Soskin, Publishers, 1947]
Page created November 14, 2006. Copyright 1998-2006 by Richard D. Squires.