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July 31, 2014
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From a barn to a home; A dramatic renovation makes a modern living space

The completed barn
Photos by Jack Kucy


An original structure from an 1840s barn was left standing on River Road in Milanville, PA. Perched on a hill between dense woods and the Delaware River, the barn is rife with history as it was part of an old farm and a stop on the Underground Railroad. The building was on the brink of collapsing. If it fell, it would bring down its beauty and historical relevance with it. It was the perfect project for Joe Levine, an architect from New York City.

“We were all in love with this original barn,” said Levine. He and his family, wife Jane Cyphers and daughters Raye and Emma, bought the house in 1996. No strangers to the area, Levine went to camp nearby in his youth and the family often took trips down the river.

When he heard about the barn from friends who owned it, he knew that he wanted it. At first, he was a little wary to come back to the area for fear he’d find it over-developed, but he was happy to discover that it was “pristine as ever.”

Work began right away.

The first job was to stabilize the barn so it wouldn’t collapse. Next was to respect the original structure and space, which Levine said was the number one rule. The design concept was to put new walls on the outside of the existing post and beam structure, which Levine says is a “less than common approach.” There wasn’t much left of the original structure—70% of the siding couldn’t be used and the frame wasn’t square. However, Levine was able to build around the structure and re-use whatever he could.

Presenting an excellent model of repurposing and recycling materials, the siding was reused to make window shutters and what was left of the original floor was made into lofts. All the original bluestone in the foundation was still there, though more bluestone was brought in to rebuild the foundation and create a basement.

A new copper roof was put on and huge sliding glass windows were installed in the front and back, giving open views of the woods and the river. This lends to an “outside when you’re inside” feeling, which was the design concept.

Even the interior is open, an intentional design that Levine says honors the original space and “makes a one-room schoolhouse out if it.” Indeed, technically, there are no rooms in the house. The bathroom is an assembly of cabinets and the bedrooms are open lofts suspended on each side.

The task of building the Levine house went to cabinetmaker Larry Braverman, Levine’s next-door neighbor. Levine said he was “extremely lucky” to have Braverman. When Levine asked him if he would take on the task, Braverman replied, “I’m a cabinet maker,” to which Joe said, “Let’s consider it one big cabinet.” Levine said this was just the first of “a long relationship of doing uncommon projects together.”

One of those uncommon projects was creating the guesthouse to the home, built from a salvaged redwood water tower from New York City and made to look like the original tower. The structure is two-level, with a bathroom and sauna on the first floor and a bedroom on the second floor, all of which is sitting on the foundation of an old chicken coop. It has a copper roof and an outside shower.

The interior décor of the barn is minimal. Cyphers said that when she is decorating she keeps it simple. “The internal structure is so beautiful,” she said. “The post and beams are like a sculpture in itself; it’s a celebratory piece that is giving gratitude to the natural environment. I’m careful not to put anything in here that would detract from that.”

Levine agrees, saying, “I don’t feel like we’ve decorated.”

It’s simple, clean and contemporary. The kitchen is the largest piece of furniture. It’s an island that is a combination of wood and steel put together by Braverman. The staircases are steel, with a spiral stair going to one loft and a straight stair going to the other. The bathroom is made from yellow pine and cement, and the sliding bathroom door has a yellow pine frame with a translucent fiberglass panel. Everything was made off-site and installed in an effort to make everything moveable and freestanding, such as the kitchen island and the entire bathroom. This was an intentional part of the design concept, giving the owners the option to rearrange and restore the barn to its original space.

Much of the furniture is by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen. The dining room chairs are from his famous Seven Series. The large dining room table was designed by Levine and built by Braverman. Other furniture was collected over the years from flea markets and auctions.

The barn has been renovated and complete for many years, but some big changes are about to come. The house is currently heated by oil and a wood stove, but in the spring, the couple will install a pellet boiler and solar panels. These will replace the need for oil, and Levine recently made the call to cut off their oil. “It’s an exciting thing to sever our oil pipe,” said Levine. “That was one of the best calls I’ve made in a long time.”

The Levine family has enjoyed their second home for years, coming here every weekend and vacation and taking time off from their busy schedules. The house not only serves as a living space, but as a gathering spot for friends and a place to hold meetings. Levine said, “Escaping up to the country has been our salvation. It’s been such a privilege to be in this environment.”