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Building Character

Approach the center of Rowayton from the west and on the left-hand side you’ll notice a cluster of four unassuming barn-like structures that appear to be plucked from rural Vermont: Jo’s Barn Way. But a peek inside tells a different story. They’re a contemporary mix of stainless steel, glass, stucco and stark-white plaster walls that more readily befits a New York loft than downtown Rutland. The chief visionary and builder behind them is Barbara Garfield (aka “Jo” to family), who has made a name for herself,  and the street, by turning rundown New England barns into works of art.

It’s not just the uniqueness of their appearance that captures your attention; it’s their refreshing size – a mere 1,600 to 2,400 square feet. Barbara, a manicured, self-professed builder with no formal training, prefers to construct modest one- to four-bedroom properties and typically designs from the inside out, basing their construction on antique finds from the South of France. Take, for instance, her front door: an imposing eight-foot, 200-year-old hand-carved door from France. Or the outsize painted hutch that dominates the open-air kitchen and a collection of two-foot-wide oak shutters from a building in Nice that, during a two-hour train ride to Paris, became the inspirations for her current one-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot home. “I’ve lived in enough houses to know what’s important,” she says. Now the shutters cover the French-inspired windows in the living room and the hutch houses her extensive collection of eighteenth-century “Canton” china, which once belonged to her ex-husband’s great-grandfather, President James A. Garfield.

A tour of the space is like a private design lesson. “Proportions are the most important thing,” she says. Spaces are open, and ceiling heights are varied. Light streams in from different angles, illuminating a pleasing balance of wood, paint and metal along with rugs and throw pillows, which give the rooms their only splash of color. Wide distressed floorboards run throughout and old barn beams serve as anchors to the home’s thick, white-plaster walls. The few interior doors, all eight feet high, were fabricated on-site. Large by today’s standards, they were once the norm. “Seventeenth-century Americans made doors with horizontal panels on one side and vertical ones on the other,” Barbara explains. “They pressed the sides together, attached them with screws, then painted them.” Reflecting for a minute, she adds, “We’ve discarded wonderful old practices for modern blandness. You can have a high-tech house with beautiful old things that make it warm. And it doesn’t have to be huge.”

Her first project, a 6,000-square-foot Darien home in 1966, was for a very demanding client: herself. In a counterreaction to suburbia (which she calls “the modern plight”), she found a wood source that supplied her with panels from a Massachusetts tobacco barn. She used them to panel the family room and build kitchen cabinets. From there, it snowballed. “I couldn’t put in vinyl floors with that old wood,” recalls Barbara. So she got old wood floorboards and bleached them, to the horror of her builder. “I was both behind and ahead of my time,” she says.  Since then, Barbara has used barn parts in every renovation.

But there’s perhaps a more sentimental reason that Barbara favors rusticity over formality: childhood summers spent in upstate New York. Raised an only child in Chicago by a successful, but traditional, mother and musician father, Barbara regularly escaped a lonely childhood by taking the train to Dunkirk, New York. There she spent long summers on her aunts’ and uncles’ dairy and horse farms and entertained herself in and around the barns.

After attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, Barbara married George Garfield and moved to California, so he could attend Stanford business school. Then they settled in Darien. As a young wife and mother of four in the June Cleaver fifties, she did not admire career women. “None of us did,” she says plainly. “It never occurred to me to go to work. It would’ve been torture not to be with the kids.” But after building her then-dream home, Barbara found she had a talent for designing, building and decorating houses. “Because of my strange childhood, I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she notes. “I assumed everyone had that talent.”

It was mornings spent at a local junk shop furnishing her new home that gave Barbara the desire to turn her hobby into a business. First she bought paintings and small objects (for less than $10), keeping some and selling others for a small profit. She had no formal training but she had a good eye, which she credits to playing in wealthy friends’ homes as a child. (In fact, a $50 Indian sculpture that she coveted during one of those trips, but never bought, was later spied in the Manhattan apartment of a du Pont heir.)

In 1986, Barbara and George divorced after thirty-four years of marriage. As difficult and painful as it was, it also marked the beginning of her brilliant career. By then she had built a few homes and helped some friends redo theirs, though she never charged. After her divorce, with little money in her pocket, close friends promptly deposited $200,000 in her bank account, which they said could be repaid, interest-free, once she was making money. The money was a boon, says Barbara, but not nearly as much as the vote of confidence.

Her first significant business move was to flip a prefab house on the water in Darien. “It was no architectural gem, but I fixed it up,” she says. But a too-high mortgage and emotional paralysis kept Barbara there for eight years. It wasn’t until 1994, when a little place on Rowayton Avenue came on the market, that Barbara was able to move on. Because of zoning laws, she was able to live on the property and rent out an accessory apartment for income. “I knew Rowayton was where I wanted to be,” she says. “I could walk to the grocery store, the post office and, best of all, it didn’t look like suburbia.”

Through an ad in a barn magazine, Barbara tapped into a steady supply of barn wood from, “a crazy man with incredible talent in New Hampshire,” and, while reading the Pennysaver, she discovered a barn in Litchfield that she promptly scooped up. Her business officially under way, she was also fortunate enough to purchase one of Louisa May Alcott’s horse barns. Like many of the beams Barbara uses in her houses, those too were made of pine, hemlock and chestnut.

But what about old wood is so compelling? “I want my home to feel more like 1860 or 1880. So many Americans today have lost their sense of history, of tradition,” she explains, adding that today we’re disconnected from real style and craftsmanship. She tells a story to show how different we are from Europeans, who’ve never lost that connection. On a walking trip in Tuscany, she heard two older men having a heated argument. From their looks and gestures, it was obvious an old farmhouse was the point of contention. Curious, she asked what was being debated: A love affair? Had someone stolen money? No, the leader translated. They’re arguing over a new window that’s been installed. “These old farmers instinctively understood scale!” Barbara marvels, “But we’ve lost that appreciation: We’re exposed to so much ugliness, that it’s been beaten out of us.”

Today Barbara is (or should be) comfortable in her fifth Rowayton home. It was designed to her specifications, and accommodates her every whim, from functional to aesthetic. This is the ninth house she’s built from scratch, not to mention the “countless” renovations. Does she ever think about retirement? “Every time I start to do one, I say it’s my last.” Yet she has plans to build another five homes with a neighbor down the street and has four more in the pipeline after that. “It’s not instant gratification. It takes about six months to build after months of planning, but I love the whole process.”