You see them tucked behind houses in the older sections of every town in Illinois. But while they’re part of the landscape most of us don’t give a second thought to the small barns that dot the urban landscape.
Some of these structures are smaller than a modern two-car garage. Others are far more elaborate, some built with multiple storys and some that once included living quarters for long-ago servants. Plans for urban barns were carefully developed, especially interior arrangements to allow efficient use of space. Books such as Barns, Sheds & Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted (1881) provided floor plans and design ideas.
Until the first quarter of the 20th Century, the elements of life on farms and in small towns was not that much different. Just like their country cousins, village residents often kept a cow for fresh milk; raised chickens for eggs and meat; and kept one, and sometimes two, horses to pull their buggies, carriages, and winter sleighs. Also like their country cousins, they built barns to house their urban livestock and their horse-drawn vehicles—although on a much smaller scale than the big horse and dairy barns in rural areas.
In fact, small town residential lots often bore a resemblance to tiny farms. Along with barns, chicken houses, smoke houses, well houses, and small tool storage sheds were not uncommon. As an illustration, on Dec. 18, 1918, the Kendall County Record carried this advertisement: “For Sale: A new eight-room house, gas and electric light installed, a barn, chicken house, and four lots. Inquire of Henry Schilling, Oswego.”
Urban barns, as noted above, could be simple or more elaborate. They could be purpose-built and they were sometimes created from other buildings that were repurposed instead of being torn down. And sometimes, after they were no longer needed they themselves were repurposed into homes and other structures.
When my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town, they bought a plot near relatives containing several lots in what was then called the old Village of Troy. Located about a quarter-mile north of Oswego’s village limits at the time, the property extended from the CB&Q right-of-way down to the Fox River and was bisected by North Adams Street. There was a timber-framed house on the property they had moved, close to the south lot line, and then remodeled into an urban barn and chicken house. Their new home, finished in October 1908, was built where the old house originally sat.
As remodeled, their urban barn included a chicken house to the east and stalls for their horse and a cow in the main portion to the west. They added a shed on a concrete foundation on the south side to house their buggy and sleigh. The sturdy old structure, with its oak and black walnut timber frame, which we use for storage, is still standing next to my house today.
The primary use for most urban barns in residential areas was to house the family driving horse or team and their buggy or carriage or their winter sleigh. Stalls in the barn were arranged so that horses had sufficient room, and the barn was built to include storage for bedding and food for the horse.
If a family cow was housed in the barn as well, provisions were also made for it.
In addition to barns in residential areas, commercial urban barns were also common throughout 19th Century communities. Many hotels had their own barns where guests could board their horses. Livery barns were also located in every town where those without access to their own barn could board horses or where a horse and buggy or a riding horse could be rented.
In Oswego, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad company provided a barn for the use of the station agent, where he sometimes kept a horse and where he also raised chickens to supplement the family diet.
Most of the urban barns in small towns were well built structures. It was not uncommon for the barn to be built first and then used as living quarters until a new home was finished. That’s the route Oswego builder Fred Kohlhammer used when he built his new home on North Madison Street (Ill. Route 25) at Waubonsie Creek back in 1904. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Sept. 7: “The new Kohlhammer residence, now all enclosed and much of the inside work done will be a showy and all around good one. The cellar is divided into three apartments and made very convenient; the walls and floor being of cement. The woodwork is all done by himself and is done accurately. The family at present is domiciled in the barn, which was built first.”
The heyday of the urban barn was probably in the last decade of the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. After that, the rapid replacement of horse-drawn vehicles with automobiles, trucks, and buses saw barns rapidly replaced by smaller, simpler garages. The change is evident in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map series. The maps recorded commercial and residential structures in virtually every small town and city in America, with an emphasis on fire protection measures. Each building is labeled with its use. The 1905 Sanborn map series for Oswego still shows urban barns labeled as “Stables.” The next series of maps for Oswego wasn’t published until 1931, and by then all of the village’s former urban barn-stables were labeled “A” for Accessory Building, an indication that many if not most had been turned into garages for the family automobile.
Unlike other more specialized structures, like smoke houses for instance, urban barns proved very adaptable, and so maintained their value to homeowners. The days of the family cow or horse and buggy is long gone, but urban barns have proven to be adequate garages as well as for storage and workshop areas.
It’s gratifying to see these days that communities are realizing the value of preserving their own architectural heritage. Entire neighborhoods are being designated for historical preservation. But while the value of fine old homes has been recognized and popularized by such programs as PBS’s “This Old House,” urban barns have sort of been left in the lurch. But their importance in urban cityscape planning and preservation has, I think, finally begun to sink in. In 2009 when my hometown of Oswego hired Granacki Historic Consultants to do an architectural resources survey and inventory of the village, they did, indeed, include 22 urban barns on their list of historic structures, six of which they listed as “Significant,” deserving special consideration, including the Kohlhammer Barn on North Street and even my own urban barn here on North Adams.
As they continue to soldier on, urban barns offer a link to a time that has been largely forgotten, an era when important aspects of rural and urban life were not that much different.