Adapting to Changing Times: The legacy of old dairy barns

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability
VIA Architecture

Western Washington has an architectural legacy from its former dairy agricultural past which is both valuable and perplexing at the same time. This area was once considered ideal for dairy farming due to its gentle climate and lush landscapes, producing brands such as Carnation, which became synonymous with “contented cows” and healthy milk products in the early 20th century (1). As with so many forms of small-scale agriculture, the family dairy farm began its decline as industrial-scale enterprises began to dominate production in the post-WWII years. The agricultural landscape gave way to suburban development throughout the Puget Sound area, but in many places there remain visible reminders of this architectural and cultural past. The challenge now is how to preserve and adapt these structures, particularly barns and silos, to present-day uses. In recent months we have visited three former dairy farms that are each rising to this challenge in distinctly different ways.

Petersen Farm, Silverdale

The Petersen Farm in Silverdale is a 167-acre parcel that was farmed for 51 years as a dairy and subsequently a beef cattle farm by Gerald Petersen, who passed away in 2009. His estate has been working with the Great Peninsula Conservancy, a Kitsap-based non-profit land trust, to purchase the development rights to the property in order to maintain the property as active farmland in perpetuity. Last month, with local business and community support, the farm’s fundraising campaign met its goal to raise matching funds for a USDA Farm Protection Grant. This is one of the last remaining large agricultural parcels in Kitsap County, and preservation of the area’s farming heritage in the Clear Creek Valley is an important community legacy.

Petersen Barn (credit)

Peterson Barn (credit)

An interesting thing about this farm is that it contains portions of three homesteads in the area that date back to the late 1800’s, when the land was first cleared. One of the original houses built by the pioneering Levin family still stands on the property, as does the 1902 Holm barn, recently placed on the Washington State Heritage Barn Register (2). This makes for an interesting archaeology in considering restoration work, and how to be respectful to several simultaneous layers of architectural history. The barn, a gable-on-hip style with vertical stave wood grain silos adjacent, is in need of basic structural stabilization work before any new uses could be contemplated. Preservation and adaptive reuse of this structure is going to be a big challenge.

To read more about this project visit:

Kinnear Ambold Barn, Fall City 

Also recently placed on the Heritage Barn Register is the Kinnear Ambold Barn, part of an original 40-acre farm that served as a dairy until the 1940’s. Much smaller in scale than the Petersen property, a portion of this farm is privately owned, left to a Seattle business owner by an elderly neighbor in 2008, and the remainder being donated to the PCC Farmland Trust. Its barn sits prominently on the Fall City-Issaquah Road, and is noted as a prominent feature on this historic corridor in King County literature (3).

Originally built in 1910, this is an English Gambrel style milking barn with an adjacent concrete stave silo. Deeply buried in blackberries when the current owner took on the task of building renovation, the floor and foundation were decayed enough that restoration was not a possibility, and a complete re-build of the lower floor was the only way to save the building. Working closely with King County’s preservation architect Todd Scott, the owner hopes to modernize the structure to meet current codes while honoring the building’s original architectural style, and provide the infrastructure to suit a future commercial tenant. The site is ideal for who could develop a business catering to interest in local agriculture, or some kind of commercial enterprise that caters to the cyclists and sightseers that pass by frequently on the Issaquah-Fall City corridor.

Kinnear Ambold Barn, Fall City (credit VIA)

To read more about this project visit: (subscription required)

Tahoma Farms, Orting

One of the PCC Farmland Trust’s most recent conservation projects is the 100-acre former Ford Dairy in Orting. In 2009 this farm was transformed, through the purchase of development rights, into three organic farms including the 40-acres Tahoma Farms. The Ford Dairy had operated for over 70 years and had over 300 cows at its peak; the Tahoma parcel received the bulk of the building infrastructure from the former dairy, including a rambling collection of barns, sheds, silos, and paved livestock yards. The challenge for the current owners is that their production is focused on organic fruits and vegetables rather than animals, so they have little use for such a large amount of built space beyond basic needs such as office space, washing and storage rooms, and equipment storage.

Most of the buildings are in fair condition, consisting less of traditionally enclosed barn space like the Petersen or Kinnear Ambold properties, and more as a large and diverse covered area of pole construction with trusses and rafters. The opportunity is there to eventually develop these structures into uses that are compatible with organic farming, creating a potential agritourism destination and diversifying the farm’s income stream. The buildings are currently clustered together in a way that suited the dairy’s needs; the design challenge for adaptive reuse will be to keep the best of the structures and create space between them for other uses to flourish.

Aerial of Tahoma Farms (credit Google)

Tahoma Farms Barn (credit VIA)

Tahoma Farms former dairy structures (credit VIA)

To read more about Tahoma Farms:

What these barns share, despite different settings and circumstances, is the challenge of adapting to a change in context. All purpose-built for an industry that no longer needs them, through a variety of ownership strategies, funding sources, and commercial needs, each of them is likely to find its way back to an extended useful life. Here are some great examples of the reuse of barns and silos that could be used for inspiration:

NL Architects adaptive reuse competition, Amsterdam (credit)

Happy Holidays from VIA!

For over 25years, VIA has sent out holiday cards to clients, colleagues, and friends. Thisyear however, in the spirit of the season, we’ve decided to devote resources toa new holiday tradition that will give back to our communities.

Staff inboth our Vancouver BC and Seattle WA offices donated cans, scratched theirheads, and worked collaboratively on a “canstruction” project. After buildingtheir design, cans were donated to the local food bank. Play the videos belowto see what each office canstructed.

Wishing youthe very best for this holiday season!


The VIA Team