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Entertainment Barns

by Kathryn Boughton

A farm used to be utilitarian, with beauty, at best, an afterthought. Barns were places for hay and grain to be stored, where animals were protected and cows were milked. Cows pooped, farmers shoveled. There was no elegance to be found.

Today, in many instances, the barn has been completely transformed. As the face of farming has changed cows have been banished to open barns with efficient milking “parlors.” And with dairy farming on the wane in New England, the historic barn has become an endangered species.

For some, preservation has come through their transformation into elegant “party barns,” the agricultural origins buried under amenities no longer designed for bovines but for society’s beautiful people. The entertainment barn is a growing phenomenon in the tristate region, with a number dotting the hills of Litchfield County.

At South Farms in Morris, a fourth generation of the Paletsky family is preserving its agricultural tradition by embracing a modern reality—modern farming is as much about entertainment as it is about husbandry.

“Running a farm today is not a one-man operation,” observed Ben Paletsky in a previous interview. “To make a farm a success, you have to work both harder and smarter. And the first step is to take an inventory of what you have, to recognize your assets.”

Part of those assets, as it turned out, was the big—20,000 square-foot—white barn that still proudly displays the name of Paletsky’s grandfather, Sam. While the Paletskys still work the land, raising beef cattle, hops and hay, a portion of the barn has become a 5,000-square-foot events center. Two connecting outdoor courtyards lead to an adjacent three-acre landscaped field with pond, gazebo, bridges and trails.

“We can do any kind of event, but we happen to do a lot of weddings,” said Sarah Worden, events manager. “Our expectations were exceeded as soon as we opened the doors.”

She added that the farm is also seeing a rise in private parties. “People are looking for that kind of experience that will surprise their guests rather than a country club or ballroom” she explained.

She said many brides look for a different experience and the scenic potential of a barn wedding is attractive. “Tons of people want to do it and a lot of farms would allow it, but once they wade into (the planning) they are not prepared to walk through the mud and manure.”

Enter venues such as South Farms. “The barn still looks like a barn,” Worden said, “but at the same time there is no sawdust, hay or smell of manure.”

When the award-winning project was started, there were still “troughs and smells and cracks,” according to Worden, but today they have been replaced with heat and air conditioning, lighting, a dance floor, coat closets, restrooms and the like—all while maintaining rustic charm.

The Parlor Room, for instance, features rough-cut wood walls and custom designed lighting with antique steel accents, while The Hayloft offers soaring 50-foot ceilings and an open wrap-around mezzanine overlooking the main floor. The room is finished in barn board, reclaimed aged lumber from the barn’s original horse stalls, and metal roofing accents. A heavy wood-beam and steel staircase trimmed out with accents from the farm’s grain auger leads up to the second floor.

“We also have a separate ceremony barn in the lower lawn area that is charming and has great acoustics,” she said.

Not all the events barns in Northwest Connecticut are old and not all are designed exclusively for entertaining. In Kent, Diane Meier, owner of Meier & Co., a luxury marketing/style firm in New York, and her late husband, BBC broadcaster and author, Frank Delaney, had a different need: an “intellectual space” where they could pursue their respective careers while providing a flexible place in which to entertain.

“We knew we needed a place for Frank to work, and not just a room in the house,” explained Meier. “He wanted to get up and go to work. And, he had a collection of about 6,000 books, so it had to accommodate a library that was very much used. That determined the scale and size.”

In this space, Delaney produced a great flurry of work in his last years as he churned out eight books in six years tracing the history of his native Ireland. In a loft at the other end of the building, Meier carries on her work positioning transitional companies, while managing her own writing career.

But there was more at stake in the design of the building. They became aware of the many good causes in the region that deserved patronage. “We decided what we were both good at was lending our talents, time and energy to organizations that were raising money,” she said. “We were building this barn and decided that Frank could give lectures and I could do fundraising dinners.”

Thus, the comfortably furnished main floor features a rustic kitchen and a marvelous dining table made from a cherry tree cut down on the property. Wood from the tree was also used in one stand, the kitchen island and two end tables that can clip to the end of the dining table to allow up to 20 guests to be seated for dinner. All the pieces were designed by Meier.

“Everything on the ground floor is on wheels,” said Meier. “We can move it everywhere. Next Saturday, I will have members of the Kent Land Trust and their spouses here and actress Margot Martindale and I are joining forces for a dinner for 12 for the HVA (Housatonic Valley Association) as a fundraiser. Frank interviewed actor Sam Waterston here at one fundraiser.

From our earliest plan, this barn was always intended to work just as it has – as our office. We may walk through the snow to get here, rather than drive downtown, but we’ve always gone home in the evening for dinner. It is truly a place of business – and, because of its flexible design, one that also allows us to give back to the charities and institutions we so treasure."

Although new, the barns—there are actually two of them—continue the agricultural tradition of the property. Meier said that the garage was originally the milk barn. “So, placement was predetermined.
The timber for the frame was purchased from a Vermont firm that re-creates timber-pegged barns.

Raising of the its frame was delayed well into the construction season, however, and the couple worried about getting it closed in before winter.

“We were panicked,” Meier said. “It had cost a great deal of money and would we lose that money? Then, a man drove up the driveway—we never got his name. He asked when we would close it in and we said, ‘We’re trying.’ ‘That’s the problem with you,’ he said—I presume he meant people from the city—‘The real new England barn was designed to take the elements. You people close them in and insulate and heat them.’ He said the timbers would split if we closed in too soon.’”

So, the couple, operating on faith, left the timbers exposed for two years. “When it was time to close it in, we had a real pang of sadness,” said Meier. “It had looked like a gorgeous art project and we wondered if we could ever like it as much. We loved its sculptural beauty.”

Outside, the landscaping has subtle echoes of Delaney’s Irish origins. “On the north side, there are terraced levels banded by big rocks,” said Meier. “I think they are called ‘ha-has’—that flat terraced idea of how to handle a slope is certainly Irish.”

The color of the barns is “cornbread,” according to Meier.

“My mother was a well-known painter of decorative finishes,” she reported. Meier grew up in a house that was often filled with “practice boards,” on which her mother painted colors to see how they would function in a particular environment.

Delaney and Meier applied the process to their barns. “We would make practice boards and look at them in varying lights,” she said. “We might love it in the sun, but hate it under cold clouds. We adjusted it to what nature said had to be done. And the amber colors of the interior dictated how we wanted the outside to mix with the greens.”