ESSEX — The 18th-century barn at 11 John Wise Ave. isn't coming down without a fight from the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum.

The barn is situated inside the site lines for construction of the town's new combined police and fire station, and demolition is scheduled to take place next month. According to Museum Director Ted Watkinson, the museum learned about this in December and "mobilized rapidly to help save it."

"A premiere example of pre-industrial workmanship, the barn features hand-hewn timbers and traditional mortise and tenon joinery," museum staff say.

Originally built to store sweet wheat on Essex's historic Cogswell Grant farm, it had been converted into a three-story home by the 20th century. Prominent American architect Eleanor Raymond gave the space her own personal touch during a redesign in the 1960s. It remained as living quarters until the town bought the property for the public safety project last February.

The museum is looking to raise around $50,000 by the end of the third week of February to save the barn. This will cover the costs of cleaning it out and breaking it down piece by piece. So far, $22,000 has been raised from private donors. Public donations have been open since Thursday, and the museum has promised to match up to $20,000 during this campaign.

"The donation page hasn't been up for 24 hours yet and we already raised $2,000," said Chris Stepler, the museum's operations administrator, on Friday morning. By 6:30 Friday night, $5,225 had been pledged. "It's been a long, arduous journey but it's good we're up and going now." 

Volunteers started clearing out the barn's modern furnishings Jan. 2 using equipment donated by local firms. Project coordinator Tim Walsh said they're about halfway done with this portion of the project. Once fully gutted, the museum will bring in a team of professional timber frame experts, shipwrights and tradespeople to study the structure. 

"Shipwrights absolutely love this building," said Stepler, because the type of timber is also used in historic ships. "Plus, (the construction) was all done by hand."

According to Watkinson, if the money keeps flowing, they'll be able to finish their deconstruction before the town's demolition deadline.  

The current plan is to reconstruct the barn at the museum. It will most likely replace a shipbuilding shop and Waterline Center conference room. Watkinson said the museum wing that houses the shop and conference room has some structural issues. However, the second phase isn't certain at the moment.

"To repurpose the barn, we'll need about a half a million dollars," he continued. "Once we get (the barn) saved we hope to go after state grants, which could pay for half." 

Last May, the Historic Commission recommended the town preserve the barn as it had historical value. Originally, the town planned to deconstruct it and use the wood in some cosmetic fashion inside the new facility. After receiving a few pricey estimates, the town ultimately decided the project would be too much of a burden on taxpayers.

G&R Construction, the firm hired to build the public safety building, originally was interested in taking the barn's wood for its own future use. However, after a quick survey, the construction team knew the barn was worth much more than stripping it down for parts. 

"Speaking to their good stock and helpful demeanor, the contractors hired to construct the new town safety building have no appetite for driving their steel buckets through the still sturdy, quite entirely intact, original roof and walls of this long-serving, still ready, good friend," said David Brown, vice president of the museum's board, in a prepared statement. 

To learn more about the project or to make a donation, visit www.essexshipbuilding.org/barn-rescue.

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.

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