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Part of an ongoing contract with Howard County, Md., Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects studied the 1840s era stone bank barn for possible future uses.

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It was built for practical use — a barn to thresh grain and house horses.

But, walking in to the historical Belmont Barn in Howard County, Md., you don’t feel like you’re entering a barn, says Peter Schwab, associate principal with Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects.

“It’s similar to a cathedral,” he says.

On a nice day, sunlight pours into the barn through lightwell windows, illuminating the massive space.

The outside is just as picturesque. Stone walls 2-feet wide are broken up by a huge pair of red barn doors.

It’s the kind of place you could imagine as a historic interpretive education center or the backdrop for a beautiful wedding. But, before it could become either of those things, it would need some work.

Conducting a study

Howard County, which owns Belmont Manner where the barn is located, tapped Peter and his team at Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects to conduct a study of the barn in an effort to explore its possible uses.

The stone bank barn was built with utility in mind, Peter says. It was built into a hill purposefully so the upper and lower levels could both be accessible.

The upper level was the threshing level, where the work was done. Horses would walk on the grain, threshing seeds that would fall and be collected to grind at the mill. The lower level was where the horses lived.

Belmont Barn is estimated to have been built in 1840. In that time, it would have been essential for the owners.

“It was a completely central part of life and survival,” Peter says.

‘Spectacularly beautiful’

Once tapped, he and his team set to work, detailing the dimensions of the barn in drawings and evaluating its structural integrity. They did resistograph testing, using a machine to push into the wood to test how hard it pushes back, to determine how structurally sound the wood was. They also tested for destruction by insects like beetles.

Photographs showing features of historical significance and detailing potential problems with the building went into his report, along with information on the barn’s history.

It was phase one, just an exploration of possibilities. But even in that small exploration, Peter, a seasoned architect, was impressed.

“This is one of the most spectacularly beautiful bank barns I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Personal connection

Adding to that professional respect for the structure was an unexpected personal connection for Peter. The Belmont Barn was originally owned by the Dorsey family, a prominent family with roots in Maryland dating back to the mid 1600’s — a family of which Peter just happens to be a descendent.

It was exciting to dig through the history of the barn and to know that some of that was his own history.

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Now, the future of the barn is in the hands of Howard County. Peter’s report contains recommendations for possible uses, and what the barn needs structurally to move forward.

“From a preservation standpoint, we’re hoping to ensure the historic life of this property,” Peter says.

The building’s future

Howard County remained rural well into the late 20th century, then suddenly was overwhelmed by developments.

“So, this is really important to preserve and keep some of the historic aspects of Howard County,” Peter says. “What we’ve done is open up the options.”

He sees a possible future for this grand barn as an interpretive education center — one where people young and old could learn about the history of the area inside this beautiful structure. In a time when many of us have our eyes down looking at our phones, he thinks the barn is so inspiring and so beautiful, it would make even the most sullen of teenagers stop and look up.


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