Only a tiny percentage of the approximately 3,000 barns in Washington State are round. Enchanted by their beauty, complexity, and historical significance, Tom and Helen Bartuska have been researching, visiting, and photographing the Pacific Northwest’s round barns since the 1960s, shortly after Tom accepted a teaching position at Washington State University’s architecture department. “Barns—especially round barns—are unfortunately vanishing from the rural landscape, yet they have an important and fascinating tale to convey.  They are beautiful icons of our country’s landscape and are an important part of our history and cultural heritage,” the Bartuskas say.  Focusing on agricultural structures over 50 years old with at least two stories, the pair eventually compiled a list of 21 buildings and made it their mission to create a comprehensive inventory—recording who built each one and when, original and current uses, individual characteristics, construction details, and anecdotes they learned along the way. They compiled their work into a new book, Washington State’s Round Barns: Preserving a Vanishing Rural Heritage.

Since most of the barns were constructed in the early 1900s, the couple explored archives to gather historic photographs and paperwork. When possible, they also took interior and exterior photographs and talked with owners about each structure’s story, revisiting several sites to document how the barns changed over time. For example, Washington’s oldest known round barn was originally located on a hill overlooking Cathlamet and the Columbia River, but now sits in a field behind the town’s cemetery. It was built around a large live tree. After completion the tree was removed, but the cut-off trunk remains as an integral part of the roof.

In addition, the Bartuskas researched round barns’ fascinating history and development across the United States—including similarities and differences, various construction methods and designs, advantages and disadvantages, and the reasons they were built.  Perhaps surprisingly, one is that they were cheaper. Utilizing shared labor from extended family and neighbors made materials costs the largest expense. One early 1900s report calculated total materials savings for a 60-foot diameter round barn versus an equivalent sized plank-framed rectangular barn as $378.77, or 36%.

Sadly, the structures continue to succumb to economic and technological changes, as well as to fire, disrepair, and the forces of nature. Seven of the documented Washington barns no longer exist, and several of the remaining fourteen are in peril. Hoping to inspire others to help maintain, preserve, and restore these unique cultural icons, the authors added examples of successful re-use and creative conservation nationwide, along with ongoing efforts to save other types of barns, buildings, and rural communities.

Cover of Washington State's Round Barns

About the authors:

Tom and Helen Bartuska have been interested in round barns and reanimating rural buildings and communities since their college days. Avid world travelers, they spent a year in Afghanistan after Tom received a Fulbright Award to teach at Kabul University. While there, Helen taught at an international primary school. They now reside in the Pacific Northwest and volunteer at IslandWood, a school nationally recognized for its outdoor programs and contemporary sustainable design. Tom received his Bachelor and Master of Architecture from the University of Illinois, and completed post graduate studies at the University of Manchester. After a forty-year teaching career, he is now a professor emeritus at Washington State University’s School of Architecture and Construction Management. Helen attended the University of Illinois and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and holds a BA in Home Economics, Child and Family Studies. She received her Montessori certification from England’s St. Nicholas Montessori Training Center, and taught young children for over two decades.