Barbara Johnsen conceded that her friends thought she was "absolutely crazy."
The property she picked to be her new Wine Country rural showplace was a dump, located just a jog off Eight Street East, Sonoma's light industrial zone.
Scenic it wasn't. And if you were somehow able to see over the 8-foot fence - built higher than legal limit, all the better to conceal the horror beyond - you would have seen a graveyard of junked cars and parts, along with several mules. The county had waged a fruitless enforcement battle with the property owner for years to clean it up.
"You couldn't even see from one side of the property to the other," Johnsen recalls. "It was an absolute nightmare. Even the agent who had the listing advised me not to buy it."
And then there was the second folly in her plans - trucking a 19th-century barn across country and somehow remodeling it into a home fit for an interior designer.
"It was quite feasible in my mind, because I'd grown up around construction," she said with a laugh. "The idea of rebuilding something wasn't as daunting to me as it might be for most people. Now ask me to reboot my computer and I'll crumble."
But after years of "interpreting the dreams and wishes" of clients, Johnsen felt "it was time for me to do something I wanted to do."
Johnsen, a horse lover, had always been drawn to the rural landscape. And after being given a beautiful coffeetable book on barns by a New Jersey company that rescues them and adapts them for re-use, she became intrigued by the design possibilities. The flat bit of Sonoma acreage was affordable and seemed like the appropriate location for a more rustic structure.
She enlisted Sara Woodfield, a Santa Rosa architect experienced in rural design, to figure out how to take the frame of an 1840 barn from Neshanik, N.J., and turn it into a house that was functional and beautiful as well as reflecting environmentally sustainable building practices.
Although trucking a barn on a flatbed from the East Coast seems counter to that practice, Johnsen said she couldn't find what she was looking for in California, where you'll more commonly see "cowboy barns," constructed much later out of milled redwood.
"I wanted hand-hewn beams and big 8- to 10-inch timbers," she said.
Woodfield said it took a year to clean up the site. The barn arrived in 2008, consisting of one main barn built of white oak in 1840 and an early 1900s addition made of hemlock. Everything was constructed in the old pegged mortis and tendon style, without nails.
A team from the New Jersey Barn Co. spent nine days erecting it on a perimeter foundation, a service included with the price. Cost, Johnsen said, ranges from $80,000 up to $180,000 for a barn built during the great age of timber barn construction between the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
The barn arrived only as a frame - the sheaving and roof are rescued and re-sold for flooring and other uses. Woodfield and Johnsen took pains to stay within it, using the mirror image openings on either side as big patio doors, flooding light into what might otherwise have been a dark space.
"I let the spaces themselves fall where they fell," Johnsen says. "The barn told me what kind of spaces I had to work with. I wasn't going to move any walls or add any main openings or change the character of the architecture."
In order to do that and keep the space functional as well as historically accurate, Woodfield had to do a lot of problem solving. There was no space to put in stairs to access a second floor loft where Johnsen has her master bedroom, bath and office/studio. So she decided to conceal a circular staircase within a new metal silo attached to the side of the house. She added a cupola and dormers to the roof to bring light and headroom into the loft.
An 8-foot-wide space between the two barn parts was created to add pass-through and storage room. All the old beams, wearing their original, rough and weathered finish, are exposed. They are tied together with discrete dark rods to meet California's earthquake standards.
"It was almost like a precocious child, because the frame was so powerful," Woodfield said.
She filled in the frame with super-insulated SIP - Stuctural Insulated Panels of foam between particle board. The outside was sheathed in simple board and batten cedar siding, while the interior was finished with a simple plaster applied directly to the SIP.
The floors are ancient hickory - salvaged from other antique barns - laid in a puzzlework of wildly different lengths and widths. But the old walls and boards conceal some high-tech amenities, including photovoltaic panels and a radiant heating system that doubles as a structural sub-floor.
Downstairs, heavy sliding barn doors can wall off a guest bedroom and powder room into a suite.
While Johnsen winters in Palm Desert, Bill and Ginny Perry of Pennsylvania have been renting the barn house as a base for touring the Wine Country.
"We used to live in New England and Connecticut, where there are a lot of attempts at creating and re-doing barns into homes," says Bill. "I've never seen anything this well done."
Johnsen said she hopes it may inspire others to see the potential in seemingly hopeless properties and in rescuing America's rapidly vanishing barns.
"There's nothing about this project that took land from anybody or used up more than it should or offended the neighbors or got anybody mad," she said. "It shows you can do anything if you make up your mind to do it."
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 521-5204.
Features, The Press Democrat
Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.