Burlington is full of historic carriage barns. Some might get a second life – others won't survive
There’s a carriage barn at 111 North Winooski Avenue. It was constructed in the mid-1800s, and now it leans to one side, the roof is caved in, and the boards are weathered and brown and bare.
There are carriage barns like this one all over Burlington. And in a changing city in the midst of a housing crisis, the role these barns play may be shifting.
Once you know what to look for, you start to see them everywhere, with their gambrel roofs, hayloft doors, and cupolas indicating that a building is – or once was – a barn. They’re tucked in backyards and in proximity to big houses, mostly in the Hill Section and the Old North End.
The city has "an embarrassment of carriage barns, both spectacular and vernacular," says Mary O’Neil, Burlington’s principal planner for development review. Pretty much anything that happens with historic buildings comes across her desk.
She’s not sure how many carriage barns there are, exactly – but there are a lot. "Gobs," she says, "I couldn’t even venture to guess.”
Some have been converted into garages, or housing, or studio spaces. Others have fallen into states of disrepair.
Tom Visser is an expert on historic barns and building preservation who teaches at the University of Vermont. He says the barns help maintain a sense of what this place is, and what it has been.
“They’re not, shall we say, the dominant feature of the streetscape," he said. "They're secondary, but they are a supporting character, in that role of telling the story [of the city], and continuing to tell the story to residents and visitors into the future.”
Today, none of these barns serves its original purpose — sheltering horses and carriages and feed and tack. Instead, they’re vestiges of a time gone by, teetering between utility and obsolescence.
Burlington’s Development Review Board recently approved the demolition of the dilapidated barn I visited on North Winooski Avenue. In its place, six apartments will be constructed.
This is a welcome thing in a city with a dire need for housing.
“Our most recent analysis of the rental vacancy rate for Chittenden County was just under one percent,” says Meagan Tuttle, director for the Office of City Planning.
Tuttle says in a healthy market, the vacancy rate would be closer to five percent. This tight market has brought the value of real estate sky-high.
Which, on one hand, could make carriage barns attractive as potential housing.
In February 2020, the city made it easier for property owners to create accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. These are small housing units on existing lots – potentially, a converted barn.
But on the other hand, Mary O’Neil says while converting a structurally sound carriage barn into housing or an art studio or a workshop can be a sensible investment, the land under the building might be more valuable without the barn. This could be the case if the building is in a state of failure, or is the subject of deferred maintenance.
The city says it prefers for historic structures to be maintained – but one thing Visser worries about is demolition by neglect.
“By not maintaining the building,” he says, “at some point, it becomes, shall we say, more attractive to apply for a permit to demolish it.”
In the case of the carriage barn at 111 North Winooski Avenue, a previous owner allowed it to slip into disrepair – this was before the city instituted zoning ordinances designed to discourage that sort of thing. By the time someone else bought it in the early 2000s, the second floor had collapsed and the roof had caved in.
Now, the barn has advanced into what the Permitting Department characterized as a “unredeemable state of failure.”
Visser says the loss of a structure like this is almost imperceptible – but still significant.
“It's subtle, but as part of the fabric, it's like listening to a piece of music, and suddenly you hear a wrong note, boom, it comes out,” he said.
But there are also residents who see value in maintaining these barns.
Mary Ann Ficociello has one behind her house at the corner of Howard and South Union streets. The bottom is a garage now, and the top is an apartment she rents as an Airbnb. The short-term rental is the main source of income for her and her husband, who are in their 70s.
“It's actually allowed us to stay in Burlington with all these rising costs,” she says.
Nearby, other carriage barns have been converted into offices and storage at UVM, and classrooms and student housing at Champlain College.
Ficociello sees them, and many others in her neighborhood, when she’s out walking her dog. She’s fond of them.
“It’s just like Vermont barns are,” she says.
Like their countryside counterparts, they remind her of another time.
But the stories told by carriage barns are different from the ones told by less humble landmarks. They’re not stories of wealth and fame – instead, when we look at these barns, we might wonder: Who was taking care of the horses? And where did they live?