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A Showplace for Restored Farm Buildings

IT'S a barn, yet it looms like a castle on a verdant expanse of lawn in Shelburne, Vt. At up to five stories high, it cradles a two-acre courtyard and boasts many gables, several towers, and a couple of wings.

This is Shelburne Farms, a 1,300-acre agricultural estate that was considered one of the foremost farms in the country at the turn of the century. Today it has become a model for adapting old farm buildings to present-day use, says Thomas Visser, interim director of the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program.

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Shelburne Farms was built in 1886 by William Seward Webb and his wife, Lila Vanderbilt Webb, who wanted to create a model farm that demonstrated new practices in land use and farming. Webb built three barns: a coach barn to store carriages and other equipment; a farm barn that served as headquarters; and a breeding barn he intended to use for breeding horses that were good-looking enough to pull a carriage but could also work in the field.

Webb's breeding idea never got off the ground because local farmers weren't interested, and his efforts coincided with the advent of the internal-combustion engine. In the following years, the breeding barn wasn't used much, though the farm barn remained the agricultural hub.

IN the 1970s, the young fourth generation of Webbs wanted to use the property for educational activities and created Shelburne Farms Resources. When the land was bequeathed to this nonprofit group in 1984, it embarked on a fund-raising campaign to restore the farm barn, which by that time was in poor condition. Almost $3 million and 10 years later, the majestic building has undergone a huge transformation. Structural problems, such as a collapsed rear retaining wall, were fixed; a new roof was put on; and the entire building was reshingled and repainted.

Today, the farm barn is the center of Shelburne Farm's school programs and is used to teach and demonstrate the stewardship of natural and agricultural resources. It also houses offices, a bakery, a wood shop, and a cheesemaking operation.

Its renovation has been quite an accomplishment to both the organization and the public.

``Seven years ago, we thought it was impossible to restore the farm barn, and people would come into the courtyard on tours and say `Oh, it must have been so incredible,' '' says Megan Camp, vice president and program director of Shelburne Farms. ``Now it's exciting to hear people say `Wow, what a beautiful building,' without the sort of sadness of looking back to the past.''

The organization is now trying to decide the best reuse of the breeding barn, a gargantuan building that for 40 years remained the largest unsupported interior space in the United States.

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