Renovations rob 200-year-old barn of aspects artists prized

The crumbling Swede Run Barn, a 200-year-old structure in Moorestown, N.J., had to be either rebuilt or completely destroyed. The publicly-owned property was a hazard and a liability.

Preservationists are rallying to save it, but some artists lament the loss of an iconic ruin.

It’s just a few yards off of Westfield Drive, a busy street bisecting a soybean field. It caught the eye of Tom Finley, an amateur painter, when he drove past years ago.

“A lot of watercolorists I know, they are attracted to the antiquity of things,” said the retired Philadelphia schoolteacher. “Not new buildings or cars, but old buildings, old trucks, old roads. Art and nostalgia seem to work together.”

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In five years, Finley painted the Old Swede Barn nine times, most recently last winter, when the light and landscape are particularly striking. The barn had a gaping hole in its rotting roof, allowing sunlight to pour inside. Shadows played across the crumbling masonry walls. Two of his barn paintings are on exhibit at the Moorestown library.

Last spring the city of Moorestown spent $24,000 to repair that roof with crisp new wood and fresh slate shingles, and the ground has been cleared of brush. The barn is now surrounded by a chain-link fence.

Finley says it’s not so interesting anymore.

“There were weeds growing inside. And the light from the open rafters hit those walls and the floor, and it made a beautiful picture,” said Finley, looking at the repaired masonry. “If you try to paint this now, there’s not much there to do, you know?”

Finley is not the only one to feel that way. Serena Blackwell of Collingswood, N.J., wanted to take wedding photos in front of the Swede Run Barn.

‘Beautiful in its own way’

“It was crumbling, but it was beautiful in its own way,” said Blackwell. “It is still falling apart, but it’s still there. It’s still standing. Good for that building. I want to hug it. Good for you, you stood the test of time.”

Before Blackwell could take those wedding pictures in front of the barn, construction had begun on the new roof. The site was off limits, and the appeal was gone. Instead, she and her future husband found another dilapidated building in Moorestown — a nice garage with rotting planks, rusted hinges, and wild vines.

Fixing the roof the Swede Run Barn was the first step. A full renovation will cost more than $160,000. The Historical Society of Moorestown is raising some of that money and petitioning the town to dip into its own open space fund to pay for it. That effort may spark a court fight.

For some, the love affair is already over.

“They did such a nice job doing it, but it just doesn’t look old, you know?” said Finley. “It’s so perfect.”

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