An Eight-Sided Barn Called Home
If not for my desperate crush on an aspiring poet named John Badger, I might never have heard of the Secrest farm.
It was the summer of 1997. I was living in Iowa City, having just finished a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Some poet friends of John’s were throwing a party outside of town, and though I’m not a big party-goer—especially when the going involves a 10-mile drive over unlit dirt roads at night—I’d driven far greater distances for lesser crushes, and my crush on John Badger was, in no uncertain terms, colossal.
And entirely unrequited, though I didn’t know that as I set off along Highway 6 to the town of Downey.
John’s friends were living for next to nothing in a dilapidated farmhouse they’d rented from Rich Tyler, a faculty member at the university who’d bought the property in 1995. Tyler planned to restore and live in the farmhouse someday, but in the meantime, he was renting it out to students. The house was in pretty rough shape, but the eight-sided barn, which Tyler had restored, was a different matter. It stood across a field, freshly painted red, stately and majestic.
When someone suggested that we head over, the poets, who held the barn in a kind of reverential awe, made everyone put out their cigarettes before we even started walking. The field had been mowed that day, and everything smelled of grass—heady, like the quintessence of summer—and though John Badger had done little more than say, “Hey,” to me that evening, I walked through the prickly, dewy grass feeling like everything I envisioned between us was imminent and gloriously possible.
The approach to the barn’s main entrance took us up the sloping lawn to a pair of giant sliding wood doors. This was the second level of the barn, above the old stalls for horses and cows. I couldn’t see much as we made our way up a wide, creaking staircase to the hay loft on the barn’s third level, but at the crest of the stairs the space opened up before us, and I think I may have heard a collective gasp.
I was having a hard time getting my bearings, figuring out the dimensions, the scope of the chamber in which we stood. Moonlight beamed in through several small windows, one on each of the barn’s eight sides, as well as through the eight windows of the octagonal cupola, which was so unfathomably far above us, the moon might have been stuck up there on a lightning rod of weathervane. Stepping into such a space—entirely unobstructed by supporting posts, beams, or columns, just open, empty, enormous—was like stepping into a cathedral.
I no longer cared about John Badger. I had fallen for something else. All I wanted was to lie down on those wide-board floor planks and gaze up at the illuminated god’s-eye of the cupola. Along the interior of the bell-shaped roof, a suspended stairway hugged the ceiling’s curve, providing access to the cupola from the floor far below. I imagined climbing those rickety steps to reach the cupola’s cage, longing to lean out and stroke the smooth flank of that big white marble of a moon, seemingly perched just outside.
One of the earliest examples of a multisided barn in the United States can be traced to Virginia, where George Washington built a small 16-sided building near Mount Vernon in the early 1790s. Barns such as Washington’s were seen as the extravagant showpieces of wealthy gentleman farmers—nothing more than folly.
In the mid-1850s, however, a philosopher of sorts named Orson Squire Fowler sought to create a movement in favor of octagonal structures. Fowler believed that the circle was the most perfect shape in nature, but that an octagon could be more easily built. Children reared in octagons would be, he argued in his treatise A Home For All, more amiable than those raised in traditional right-angled houses.
Soon, octagonal barns came into vogue in many parts of the country (though none was definitively influenced by Fowler’s hypotheses). Heralded for their ability to withstand and deflect gusts of prairie winds, octagonal barns seemed perfect for a place like Iowa, and their existence in the state can likely be traced to the ingenuity of one prominent Iowan.
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Lorenzo Coffin, an influential Iowa farmer, erected a 68-foot octagonal barn near Fort Dodge in 1867. Coffin sank the first level of his structure into a slope so that it could be entered in two ways: The back entrance was located at the foot of the hill, the front entrance on the second level near its summit. The design was an innovation, since a wagon could pull in, load or unload, and drive off without ever having to back up or turn around. The only problem was the roof.
In the 1860s the invention of the horse-drawn hay fork (and the subsequent shift away from the hand-forking) meant that great quantities of hay could now be lifted high in the air and easily stored, if one had a large unobstructed area in which to maneuver. Coffin’s barn, however, was a round barn with a modified hip roof, which meant that his upper-level hay mow (or storage area) was obstructed by a number of pillars and crossbeams; movement inside was cramped and difficult.
A better roof design could be found on an 80-foot octagonal barn across the country in Erie County, New York, where farmer Elliot Stewart created a self-supporting roof, with eight flat wedges resting upon the exterior walls and coming together at the roof’s peak. The size of Stewart’s hay mow and the ease of maneuverability inside his barn were revolutionary.
In 1883 Joshua Secrest commissioned a local master builder named George Frank Longerbeam—honestly: Longerbeam!—to help him build a barn on his farmstead in Downey. Working together at Secrest’s kitchen table, they designed a barn situated on a bank (like Coffin’s) that utilized a self-supporting roof (like Stewart’s). But their roof design is what made the Secrest barn so unique.
That gorgeous space that took my breath away upon first sight is crowned by a “Gothic roof,” and it’s the only one still standing in the country. To create the self-supporting roof, Longerbeam hand-laminated eight gigantic ribs—each 40 feet long and made by soaking and bending 18 strips, then nailing and bolting them together. The technique (known as bent lamination) had long been used in ship- and bridge-building.
At the Secrest barn, it proved to be the most effective means of achieving a—forgive me—longer beam and shaping said longer beam into the desired curvature. The rib supports were assembled on the ground; a tremendous force of man and horsepower—as well as a scaffolding system, pulleys, hoists, poles, and probably a good deal of prayer—was then required to raise those ribs into place.
When George Longerbeam raised the Secrest barn, he had the ribs begin at the irregular limestone foundation and meet at the base of the cupola. Without support beams, or other space-obstructing timbers, and because of the expansive arch of the ribs, the mow beneath this cavernous roof could hold a significant amount of hay.
Architectural innovation though it was, the Secrest barn has a story that’s not entirely happy. In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Joshua Secrest’s son, Guy, was foreclosed upon by the State of Iowa, and the property given over to the first of a series of absentee owners who rented out the farmhouse but did little In the way of upkeep. All that changed when Rich Tyler purchased the farm.
Tyler began attending to structural concerns at the barn by encasing the ribs in three-sided steel boxes, with four steel cross-rods securing the ribs together. The walls, which once listed precariously, were stabilized with diagonal steel rods anchored to the ground in buried concrete.
That the barn had stood for more than a century without any structural alterations was something of a marvel. Tyler suspects—and research on the subject supports him—that the barn owes its extraordinary lifespan to the genius of the design that Secrest and Longerbeam drew up at that farmhouse kitchen table.
Which brings me back to the poets. A year after that unforgettable party, the poets’ lease on the farmhouse was up. My friend Erin and I had just received fellowships from the University of Iowa, and we jumped at the chance to spend a year on the Secrest farm. We moved in on July 4, 1998, just days after a tornado swept through the county and left a tree across the hood of my car and a train dangling off a railroad bridge in the middle of the Iowa River. The massive barn, 75 feet tall and 80 feet wide, stood unharmed amid the wind-thrashed cottonwoods.
Erin and I were two wayward fiction writers who, at our Goodwill table in the farmhouse kitchen, came up with an idea for a book of stories, recipes, and collages we called The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook. We ended up including a number of photos of and references to the Secrest barn, which we looked at during the book’s composition, while sitting at our writing desks. Who else had gazed upon that old barn over the years? I wondered. What had gone through their minds at the time?
In January 2007 I published a short story called “Don’t Sweat the Petty” that takes place at a wedding in an octagonal barn, and I’ve got a novel set there percolating in my head, too. I know I’m not the only one for whom the barn has had a transforming effect. Erin and I invited a poet we knew to live in the farmhouse with us, and he hosted workshops out in the barn when weather permitted. For years, I taught in a summer program for teenage writers, and we always took them to the Secrest barn, to see how it might inspire them.
Did a similar barn, I wonder, inspire John Casey, whose 1977 novel, An American Romance, features a hexagonal barn-turned-theater outside Iowa City? In an ideal world, there would be a wealth of round barn literature out there. In an ideal world, the Secrest barn and so many others like it would be preserved both in body and on paper, in the flesh and on the page, renovated, represented, and remembered.
I’m no structural engineer, and I can’t work wonders with a hammer—I trade in words; this is how I can play my part. But in writing this, in trying to transport folks to the Secrest barn, I have been quietly taking a wistful journey of my own, back to a time in my life I’ll never forget, a hopeful time full of possibilities, and to a place that holds sway over my imagination, no matter how far away from it I happen to live.
Thisbe Nissen is the author of three works of fiction (most recently, the novel Osprey Island), and coauthor of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook. This story originally appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Preservation magazine.