Alum Pushes for Carriage Barn Restoration

Julia Herbst and Scott Hulver

Behind Johnson House sits a lone structure with boarded-up windows and a damaged roof. The building, known as the Johnson House Carriage Barn, has fallen into a state of disrepair and is no longer in use.

Steve McQuillin, OC ’75, the historic preservationist who renovated Johnson House in the 1980s, has recently initiated efforts to garner support to renovate the building.

The building once belonged to the Johnson family, one of the wealthiest families in Oberlin, and is where Henry Thomas, the family’s servant, lived. It is thought that the barn was built by Cleveland architect George H. Smith in 1885, who also designed Johnson House and many of homes on Cleveland’s Millionaire’s Row homes as well as the Cleveland Arcade.

“Johnson barn is not the biggest building in town, and it’s not the greatest architectural landmark, but it has significance and I think it deserves to be rehabilitated,” said McQuillin.

He is proposing to turn the structure into a dorm or a place for alumni to stay during Commencement. He believes that making the structure into dorms or a bed and breakfast would help pay for the cost of its renovation.

McQuillin said he would also like the building to be affiliated with the Jewish Studies Department, as Johnson House is the Hebrew Heritage House.

Other plans include landscaping the surrounding area and creating a more accessible path to the Arb.

In addition, McQuillin has proposed creating a meeting space and lounge on the first floor to accommodate up to 100 people. He hopes that this social space, as well as the creation of new paths leading to the Arb from the Barn, will help increase the number of students who take advantage of the Arb.

According to Noalle Fellah, College first-year and intern for McQuillin last Winter Term, the Environmental Studies department has expressed interest in the restoration project due to the building’s proximity to the Arb.

“We also talked with the Environmental Studies department, and they don’t really have a need for the facility, but they are really interested in getting it restored, because they do like … [the idea of] a building in close [proximity] with the Arb and Plum Creek,” said Fellah.

McQuillin believes that renovating the property would be more environmentally friendly than building something new.

“The Johnson Barn could be state-of-the-art in terms of energy efficiency,” said McQuillin.

However, as of yet, the College has not expressed much interest in the project.

“The College is really hesitant to release a lot of information about it because they are so unsure about [the project]. It is kind of a catch-22 because they don’t want to release a lot of information, but they also won’t move forward unless they have enough support for it,” said Fellah.

Because the barn is listed on the Nation Register of Historic Places, it would qualify the College for tax breaks.

“I think what the College hasn’t explored, that Steve and I have been really pushing towards, is [applying for] a tax credit to save the building. With the state funding they can get tax credit up to $600,000, and they project it to be a $1 million project, so that’s already more than half of the funding,” said Fellah. “The problem is that we need the College to get on board with it, because that paperwork is due March 30. … The basic problem is they don’t want to spend the time or energy on it.”

In recent years, the barn has suffered damage to its roof. Structurally, however, the barn is sound; the foundation and wood joists remain intact. Fellah wants to begin the project as soon as possible, before more damage occurs.

“If we miss the March 30 [tax credit deadline], we have to wait until September, and who knows how much more damage we’ll have [to the structure], especially with a lot of moisture with the snow melting,” said Fellah.

College architect Steve Varelmann was contacted for this piece but did not respond in time for printing.