Cover Story

Beyond the Barn Doors

Within the newly restored walls of a 100-year-old barn in Culpeper lies the 

culmination of one man’s dream.

 by Laura Emery, Field Editor

Everyone thought W.  Junior Baker, 55, was crazy. His friends and family didn’t think it could be done. “The guys at work thought I’d lost it,” Baker recalls with a laugh.

Even the helpful people at the county zoning office thought the concept a little odd. After all, it isn’t every day that someone wants to turn a 100-year-old barn into a 3,200-square-foot modern home.

Undaunted, Baker was determined to make his 25-year-old dream come true. “As long as they would give me permission to do it, I was going to follow through with it,” he says.

And follow through with it, he did. Baker may not have been born in a barn, as the expression goes — but he’s living in one now.   

Today, his barn-turned-beautiful-abode has attracted many a curious passerby from nearby Route 29 in Culpeper. “People drive by and think it’s a barn, and then they get to lookin’ a little closer and realize it’s a three-story house now. It makes people curious,” he says. “Some of the older folks remember cows being led in and out of the barn when they were much younger. When they don’t see any cows or hay in sight, they’re confused.”

Baker’s fascination with barns began as a young child. He grew up in nearby Rappahannock on a farm in a family with nine boys and two girls. Baker has always been fascinated with barns — and with history. Over the years, he has seen many old barns disappear from the landscape. This has made a lasting impression on Baker. 

“What will new generations have to remember if we keep taking down old barns and buildings?” he asks. Baker has always been interested in historical preservation. He is a longtime maintenance worker at the Museum of Culpeper History and has helped restore several historic residences in downtown Culpeper.

“As a child, every time I saw an old barn or building get torn down, I knew its history was being destroyed with it. So, I wanted to help preserve history and get a unique house out of it at the same time,” he says.

“Unique” is the perfect word to describe his new home, because there’s more to this barn than meets the eye. He purchased the building five years ago after using it as a storage facility for his handyman business. From the outside view, the barn is quaint and attractive. Its classic barn-red boards contrast brightly against freshly painted white window trim, the picture complete against the vibrant green backdrop of a well-manicured four acres of lawn. It’s a rustic dwelling that blends into the landscape, and at a quick glance looks like an unusually well-kept barn.

The majority of the barn’s exterior boards are original to the 100-year-old structure. The barn’s boards have housed decades of history, shielding farm animals and equipment essential to many a farmer’s mainstay from harsh weather conditions.

But beyond the barn doors lies a home like few others. Inside, a 20-foot soaring ceiling rises above the main floor as daylight floods in through the home’s French doors and ample windows, and illuminates the beautiful knotty-pine floors and walls and the home’s focal point, a large stone fireplace. The décor is modern-meets-rustic-country. Antique milk cans, barrels, and kettles share the same corner of the house as contemporary furniture and sleek décor lines. A contemporary spiral staircase winds down from the upper floor, where Baker built a loft bedroom and a bathroom containing a bathtub surrounded by stone. French doors on the first floor lead out to a raised deck and beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains .

In the kitchen, smooth granite countertops are home to stainless-steel accessories — and a bright-red porcelain miniature-barn cookie jar brings back the rustic ambiance. “I know people probably expected me to put in antique-looking kitchen appliances, but I have always wanted stainless-steel appliances. I didn’t do what everyone else thought I should do; I made the decisions on my own,” he says. “Visitors seem to think I did a good job with the décor, so I’m quite proud of that.”

While experienced contractors handled the plumbing work, heating-system installation, stone-fireplace construction, and the electrical work inside the barn, most everything else was done by Baker. He estimates he hammered about 20,000 nails in the slanted walls. “I gutted the barn first, knocking out the doors and getting rid of all the dirt and hay. It was in pretty bad condition.” Then, he says, came all the necessary paperwork with the county zoning office.

The county office sent Baker to a local architectural firm, Design Options. “The architect asked me where my plans were. I told him that there weren’t any plans, it was all up here,” says Baker, pointing to his head with a smile. “When I told him what I wanted, he said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ and I said ‘No, this is what I have always wanted to do,’ ” Baker explains. The architect listened to Baker’s descriptions of his conceptual three-story barn house, and then drew up the plans accordingly. “He had to put my dream onto paper and it wasn’t an easy job.”

No School – Just Skill

With no formal training as a general contractor, Baker built his home with acquired knowledge and skills he’s picked up over the years. A devoted VDOT employee for 32 years before retiring, Baker did part-time work — a little bit of everything — on the side.

Baker revels in showing off his unique home. But it symbolizes something much more poignant than a mere house. Five years ago when he began to actively work on turning the barn into a house, Baker was down on his luck. “Without getting into details, I will say that I was going through a rough patch at that time, and it was like the bottom fell out from under me. I had to start all over again,” he says, his voice trailing off.

Board by board, Baker built up his confidence — while also building himself a new home and a new life. He devoted 14 to 18 hours a day to the project while he lived in a trailer on the property. “The good Lord was helping me and showing me the way,” he says. “And so I kept at it. I even surprised myself sometimes,” he says, with a shy chuckle. Nothing, aside from his two daughters (Wendy, 31, and Heidi, 28) and six grandchildren, makes Baker happier than his new barn home. “It was well worth the hard work. I would do it all over again if I could,” he says.

Completion of the two-and-a-half-year project was not just a physical victory for Baker; it was also a personal victory. It just goes to show you, he says, that one can rise above life’s difficulties. “It took a lot of elbow grease and a whole lot of determination,” he explains. “Not everyone saw my vision at the time, so it was hard to get people to help me out. They thought I was crazy. But, now, they’re just in awe. They can’t believe I followed through with it and turned my dream into reality.”

Baker can finally enjoy the fruits of his labor. “I don’t go out too often and my daughters always get on me about that. But, why would I want to go out anywhere?” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “I’m in heaven right here. I worked hard for this. This is what I’ve always wanted.”

 

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