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Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009 03:32 pm

A portrait of the landscape in barns


One of several barns restored by businessman Steve Gerdes in Bureau and Lee counties.

Photographer Larry Kanfer is known for his elegant, beautifully composed prairie scenes in Illinois. Many are like portraits of the landscape.

The University of Illinois Press has just published Kanfer’s fifth photography book, Barns of Illinois, and who better to document the American barn than he? Trained as an architect at the University of Illinois, he clearly “gets” barns and respects their structure and history. He is also a master craftsman with light and color.

Kanfer currently operates a photography gallery on South Neil Street in Champaign, but his first gallery was even in a round barn on the western edge of the city.

Happily, Barns of Illinois is a joint project for Kanfer and his wife, Alaina, who wrote the text. She writes of the barns and their histories as lovingly as Kanfer has photographed them. The stories are interesting, and some are moving.

In 1885 Lester Teeple built his beautiful 16-sided barn with a cupola in Kane County. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Just a week after Kanfer photographed it, the barn collapsed from high winds. This barn, which suburban Elgin has grown around, is on the book cover.

John Baker built a 21-sided barn in Will County in 1898, reportedly from lumber salvaged from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Thanks to the preservation efforts of a later owner, the structure is now the Round Barn Farm Museum southeast of Joliet.

The Phelps barn in Peoria County was a stop on the Underground Railroad. A cross cut out of the gable was said to be lit when it was safe for slaves to continue north on their journey.

Other barns have morphed into schools and gymnasiums in Kane and Effingham counties, while another now houses an animal rescue organization in McLean County.

Readers will recognize the familiar round barn on the campus of the University of Illinois, a fixture of the agriculture department. The red barn within Chicago’s Lincoln Park is included, as is the white barn at the Dominican Sisters’ Jubilee Farm west of Springfield.

McDonough County barns are some of the most eye-catching. The once grand Doner barn is deteriorating, but still is an imposing structure on the landscape west of Prairie City. The Kipling barn was a livestock barn before being converted to a three-story chicken barn. It is notable for having more than 50 windows, and at one time the barn housed some 1,500 hens, 500 per floor.

One of several barns restored by businessman Steve Gerdes in Bureau and Lee counties.
But the Newt Willis barns, with all their detailed trim, bright colors and many windows, are the fancy barns. There are some 30 of these distinguished barns in the Macomb area, and they are featured on a self-guided local barn tour.

Builder Newt Wilson specialized in cupolas, causing farmers to try to outdo each other with a distinctive cupola. It is said that the Hammond barn was painted with yellow and white stripes on the gable above the red barn because those were the only colors the farmer, who was colorblind, could identify.

Some of the most beautiful photos in this book are of the interiors of round barns. The craftsmanship on these structures are just a marvel to comprehend.

Kanfer says people often ask him to photograph barns, and he wonders about the emotional connections those folks have with a particular barn. He was commissioned to photograph a barn in disrepair just west of Interstate 55 in Livingston County by a woman who spent a lot of time driving that highway. “Im afraid one day it won’t be there,” she said. You may have noticed it too while driving to Chicago.

Kanfer’s beautiful book will appeal to all kinds of folks and will make a great gift. It is also a tribute to the stewards of our farmland. Kanfer the photographer writes, the book is “my attempt to peel back the layers of architecture and history, to reveal the personal memories, the emotions, and the inspiration that barns spark in all of us.”

It will also make you want to take to the road to see some of these barns for yourself on the next bright autumn day. I’m lighting out for McDonough County soon to take a look at Newt Willis’s lovely barns. Where will you head?

Ginny Lee of Springfield is a writer and award-winning Springfield photographer who also appreciates barns and fine craftsmanship.

Barns of Illinois by Larry Kanfer, text by Alaina Kanfer. University of Illinois Press, 115 pp.