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City's 1st Timber-Frame Barn Since Chicago Fire Going Up In Washington Park

By Sam Cholke | October 19, 2017 6:06am | Updated on October 20, 2017 11:47am
 The barn has been built using a lot of traditional techniques making it likely the only structure of its kind in the city.
The barn has been built using a lot of traditional techniques making it likely the only structure of its kind in the city.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

WASHINGTON PARK — As buildings are being torn down in Washington Park, a barn is being raised.

The Sweet Water Foundation has erected likely the only barn of its kind in the city on a lot where Moseley Elementary School once stood and that is now a farm. The barn appears to be the first since the Chicago Fire in 1871.

“This is the first timber-frame barn in the city of Chicago since the fire that we know of,” said Emmanuel Pratt, founder of the Sweet Water Foundation, which is running the Perry Avenue Community Farm at 57th Street and Perry Avenue.

About 40 volunteers and three experts from Trillium Dell Timberworks of Downstate Knoxville lifted the Douglas Fir timbers as thick as a grown man at the waist and carried them into position during a Sept. 23 harvest festival, then secured the structure with wooden pegs.

Mike Reynolds, a retired carpenter who volunteers to train kids in woodworking, said the project is different from building a house. It was like something you would expect to see the Amish doing.

“Now, it’s a symbol of life, revitalization,” Reynolds said. “When it was Moseley, it was a warehouse for boys before they sent them to the penitentiary or figured out where they would send them.”

It’s the latest plan from Pratt, who’s raised as many questions in the neighborhood as plants on his 2-acre farm.

The barn is the latest effort of Emmanuel Pratt's community-building projects in Washington Park. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

The barn, however, won't house livestock or grain, as barns traditionally have done.

Pratt said he cooked up the idea for the “thought barn,” as he calls it, during a fellowship last year at Harvard University where he paired with Chicago architect Jeanne Gang to sketch it out.

“We’re still designing the barn because we don’t know what it means to have a barn in the 21st century,” Pratt said.

He said it will allow him to expand the classes, workshops and events that are in a house across the street that he snatched up after it went into foreclosure. The house is now draped in a new mural, and its bedrooms converted to design studios, classrooms or whatever else gets cooked up.

Pratt has an extremely open mind when it comes to what the foundation does in Washington Park. When the farm needed a greenhouse, Pratt turned it into a design challenge to build it on top of a shipping container. That spawned new workshops on fabrication and carpentry on the skills needed so kids from the neighborhood and from partners like Chicago Builds could make it happen themselves.

Pratt said that same process will continue with the barn. Maybe he adds a stage after the roof goes on and then does job training to get the walls put up, he said. He said he’s going to take his time because as its role in revitalizing Washington Park starts to take off, the barn will change depending on what the community needs.

“I’m looking at this with a 20-year outlook,” Pratt said. “I want this for an entire generation.”

He said his next project is to rehab an abandoned house across the street at 5731 S. Lafayette Ave., which will be a chance to train people on how to fix up a house and provide them with a place to live when it’s all done.

In the longer term, Pratt is hoping his “thought barn” produces the idea that will bring back the neighboring Raber House, the oldest surviving farmhouse on the South Side, dating from the 1870s, and whose former fields are now mostly empty lots.

“Now people want the Raber House to come back,” Pratt said. “The barn is the path to that.”

But in the immediate future, as the growing season wraps up, a roof will go on the barn as people continue to come to the Friday markets to pick up the last of the collards, kale and chard growing on the farm.

Pratt is calling the structure a "thought barn" as a place to expand the evolving programs on his Washington Park farm. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]