It all began with a knock on the door.
The massive E.B. Green-designed barn at the edge of the village in East Aurora had seen better days in 2017 when it first crossed the radar of brother-and-sister team Peter and Mary Zittel. But they saw an opportunity to transform this landmark historical property into something different.
They just weren’t sure exactly what that would be yet.
At their mother’s urging, they nonetheless knocked on the owner’s door. An elderly woman suffering from terminal cancer, the owner was happy to sell it to a local family who promised to bring it back to its original glory. Four months later, the Zittels began work on the property.
Finding purpose for the surrounding farm buildings—a former milk bottling dairy and ice house—was easy. The Zittels tackled those structures first, creating three rental units whose income could help offset the costs of the barn renovation.
But what of the 11,000-square-foot barn with 53-foot ceilings—tall enough to reportedly once be home to a Ferris Wheel restoration, and large enough to house 100 cows?
“We had no idea what to do with it,” said Peter Zittel of the structure, which had most recently served as storage for a hotel supply company.
Plus there was “an overwhelming amount of damage,” said Mary Zittel. A giant hole in the roof had been inviting rain, sleet and snow into the barn for around eight years; not only did the roof need fixing, but so did the 32-by-16-inch area of rotted floor beneath it. Replacing the roof was the first order of business, and installing stunning green metal immediately transformed the exterior of the barn.
Also on the agenda: clearing out the barn of contents that had been left behind, including 120 huge rolls of commercial carpet.
Next, Peter and Mary spent weeks on a boom lift, scraping, cleaning, priming and painting the steel trusses supporting the barn. They sanded 100-year-old floors; replaced windows; laid tile; restored walls and ceilings; painted the buildings’ exteriors; cut down trees and landscaped. The barn’s front columns, bowing out from age, were completely restored, as was the concrete foundation that supported them.
Mary and Peter, both in their 20s, have the energy for the hard manual labor needed to restore a 100+ year-old historically significant barn. Canisius College graduates who’ve made this project a second career (he’s an accountant, she is practice manager at her mother’s doctor office and a student in the Yale School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program), they’ve completed around 70 percent of the work themselves, with contractors helping on the rest. They grew up working on home restoration projects with their parents, so taking on this project wasn’t completely novel…just bigger. Their parents help out with barn projects, too.
The four-season granary is now fully restored, and the barn is scheduled for completion by early 2020.
And they’ve decided on the barn’s purpose—hosting weddings and events. They’ve installed insulation about halfway up the barn’s walls so The Barn at Elmhurst (a nod to its original name, the Elmhurst Special Milk Company) to keep it more comfortable into the cooler months. An adjacent two-story building will be transformed into a bridal suite.
“The barn is a piece of history, and everyone should be able to enjoy it,” explained Mary.
The brother-and-sister team has learned some important lessons along the way.
“Everything takes longer than you plan. You always have to adapt. You always have to change,” said Peter Zittel.
But, says Mary, they have grown as siblings and they each bring different strengths to the project.
“It takes a strong brother and sister to put something like this into action—I consider ourselves lucky at how we can work so well together,” said Mary.
E.B. Green: A versatile visionary
It may seem surprising that architect E.B. Green—the man responsible for designing some of Buffalo’s most noteworthy buildings, like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo Savings Bank and Twentieth Century Club—would have also designed a 1900s dairy barn. But, in fact, the prolific turn-of-the-20th-century architect was known for his versatility.
From Tudor masterpieces like the Mayfair Lane complex on North Street, an enclave of English-village style rowhouses, to the Romanesque, like the imposing First Presbyterian Church at Symphony Circle, Green did not attach himself to a single style as did some of his equally renowned contemporaries like Frank Lloyd Wright. Rather, he created a diverse body of work in multiple styles that define Buffalo’s world-known architectural landscape to this day. Many of these were private homes for local business titans at a time when Buffalo was among the country’s wealthiest and fastest-growing cities.
One of these businessmen—friend and client Stephen Clement—had a vision for a pastoral country summertime estate in East Aurora that would include a dairy farm…and the E.B. Green-designed barn, built in 1912, still stands today. It is among 160 of Green’s existing buildings in Western New York.
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