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Star Barn shines brightly in new home

Barn Spotlight: The iconic Star Barn is noted for its Gothic-revival style and the five-pointed stars on the façade.

Tucked back along a winding road just outside of Elizabethtown, Pa., on the Stone Gables Estate, the famous Star Barn is flourishing in its new home.

The Star Barn came from nearby Lower Swatara Township in Dauphin County, its home for more than a century, until DAS Companies Inc., founded by David Abel, purchased the historic barn and outbuildings and moved it to Elizabethtown a few years ago.

The most distinctive feature of the barn and its outbuildings are the louvered stars that were designed into each of the buildings. Each building’s spires are topped with a fleur-de-lis.

The Star Barn complex was once part of a 164-acre tract that John Motter purchased in 1872. The barns were constructed in 1877 following a Gothic-revival style. The main barn was used as a 20-stall working horse breeding farm. Motter made his fortune selling his horses to the U.S. Calvary.

His faith was reflected in many design elements, Abel said in the documentary, “The Star Barn, the Moving of an Icon.” That’s especially true of the five-pointed stars, which symbolize hope and prosperity for the nation, but also the five wounds of Christ.

The Star Barn has cathedral-style windows and spires, and while cupolas aren’t uncommon on barns, spires are, Abel said. These spires point to God, he said, and they’re topped by fleur-de-lis finials to represent the trinity.

Barns like this are truly unique. But the Star Barn’s journey to its new location was required to save it from destruction.

John Motter died in 1901, and the farm was passed onto his only daughter. She sold it, and it was converted to a dairy farm, where it remained in production until the 1980s.

The construction of Route 283, a four-lane highway, split the farm from a large portion of its farmland. The encroachment of development made the continuation of the Star Barn as part of a working farm nearly impossible. The rest of the land was divided off, and the barns began to fall into disrepair. 

Before Abel and his wife, Tierney, stepped up to purchase and relocate the barn to its current location, there were several attempts to save it — including a planned move to Grantville, Pa., northeast of Harrisburg, as part of a larger agritainment destination.

Those plans fell apart, and the Abels made an offer on the barn in 2015. The Star Barn was heavily in debt, and several banks had liens on the property. The couple negotiated with all parties, and soon the barn and all of its outbuildings were theirs.

Big move

It was a painstaking process of dismantling the buildings, labeling and cataloging the pieces before sending them to Elizabethtown.

The Abels wanted to preserve as much of the buildings as possible, as 90% of the buildings are original. But the passage of time has required replacing wood where needed.

Nearly all the wood and stone from the original structures was reused, including hand-carved stones, cedar shingles and 65-foot-long summer beams — made of white oak, felled in the 1870s in New York and floated down the Susquehanna to a Wrightsville lumber mill.

The biggest challenge, though, was the removal of the large cupola from the top of the Star Barn. It would not dislodge, Abel said, and a storm was about to hit. Abel said that he got in his car and prayed as he couldn’t watch the contractor attempt to remove it.

Finally, he got a call from the contractor saying the 24,000-pound cupola was intact and on the ground. 

The hog barn was in the worst shape and on the verge of total collapse. It required extensive renovations.

In the Star Barn, workers had to convert the bottom floor’s configuration to make it look like it did when Motter built the 25 horse stalls. In the early 1900s, the original timber posts were replaced with metal poles to accommodate more dairy cattle. Wooden poles from another barn were used to return the barn to its original look.

Stone from the original foundations was also moved and rebuilt at the site.

One unique feature of the barn, an arched limestone tunnel, is not easily noticeable. It would have been used for cold storage at the time of its construction. Today, it provides a unique entertainment area on the first floor of the barn. It also exits into a sunken garden.

The restoration brought to life the main barn — as well as the hay barn, milk house, carriage house and hog barn. A reimagined loafing shed and spring house were also built as part of the larger complex. The reconstruction paid close attention to building techniques to preserve its spot on the National Register of Historic Places (it was added to the register in 2000).

Another challenge was bringing the buildings up to code to host public events such as weddings and business retreats. It is a careful marriage of old and new as the Abels have worked to hide many of the complex’s modern elements, such as electrical wiring, and still maintain its historic look and feel.  

For example, on the second floor of the barn, it’s hard to see the modern amenities as they quietly blend into the background. A mezzanine allows guests to sit under the massive cupola and see the giant stars in each wall.

The hay barn has been connected to the Star Barn and has many modern amenities such as a commercial kitchen, restrooms, and an elevator between the first and second floor. 

The milk house was originally built in the 1920s and now serves as a private bridal party location within the barn.

Today, the Star Barn’s beauty shines brightly as it hosts weddings, events and retreats. It hosts public events throughout the year — allowing people to come, visit and take in the craftsmanship of this unique barn.

For more information, visit stonegablesestate.com/history.

Espenshade writes from central Pennsylvania.

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