Just before the turn of the last century, James Preston, former CEO of Avon and then a resident of Kent, had a vision for the town. Preston was concerned about the number of barns slowly deteriorating in the former agricultural community and determined that they should be preserved.
He moved six of the structures to the south end of the village, behind Main Street, and there they became the nucleus of what today has become a village within in village. The complex grew to include six new buildings that blended New England, the American West and Far East styles, all designed by Preston’s son, Matthew.
The complex soon became home to a variety of businesses, including the innovative Morrison Gallery, which for a number of years served as its anchor and became a Mecca for shoppers looking for novel items, for diners seeking finer fare, and for those searching for a spa or fitness experience.
By 2013, however, Preston was pulling up his roots in Kent. He sold his home and nearly 400 acres in the town for more than $8 million and moved to Litchfield. Soon after, in 2014, ownership of Kent Barns passed to a number of investors, including Hiram Williams, who had a distinguished career in real estate investment and is currently president of Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust.
Williams, who had long known James Preston, understood his desire to sell to someone who would maintain the high quality of Kent Barns. He said at the time it “just seemed like the right thing to do.” The sale was concluded for only $2 million.
The new corporation, Kent Center, LLC, undertook extensive renovation of the landscaping and began the restoration of some historic buildings on Main Street. Fulling Lane was opened to through-traffic thereby connecting Kent Barns directly to Main Street and further knitting the complex into the village fabric. In the spring of 2016 landscaping began in earnest with the planting of many trees, plants and the addition of more places to sit and walk.
The section of town considered to be part of Kent Barns expanded to include some stalwart business along Main Street, such as the House of Books and the like.
“We’re almost at full capacity now but there is more to come,” said Karolene Carlson, marketing director for Kent Barns. “We just had Get Back and Perch—which is an outpost of Pergola in New Preston—open. And chef Joel Viehland at Swyft will soon open Ore Hill so there will be two restaurants in that building.
She declined to discuss the future plans for development, saying only, “stay tuned,” but extolled the current list of tenants at Kent Barns. “We have world-class art galleries like James Barron Art, Eckert Fine Art and the Ober Gallery which has super-funky Russian and American artists,” she said.
Carlson noted that businesses located in the growing complex include everything from Bedford Studio, a private and tranquil setting offering one-on-one movement training, to the Chestnut Woodworking & Antique Flooring Co. which sells antique flooring, barn siding and hand-hewn beams from centuries-old barns.
Perch, Get Back and R.T. Facts are also targeted toward home design with Get Back offering repurposed design elements drawn from the country’s industrial past while R.T. Facts takes a similar approach, harvesting architectural elements and recrafting them into handsome pieces for home and landscape. Perch delivers a distinctive mix of art, noted ceramic collections, design curiosities, books, and choice items from old and new Japan.
Some of the businesses counted as part of Kent Barns have longer histories. Perhaps the oldest business is Kent Barns is the ever-popular Kent House of Books, established by Carol and John Hoffman in 1976. Now on its third owner, the store continues to attract locals and visitors alike and remains Kent’s literary landmark.
Indeed, Kent Barns has shops, galleries, restaurants and a number of service businesses in more than a dozen buildings, all accessible by foot. Musical concerts are held in the plaza and a social event called Second Saturdays continues into this fall on the second Saturday of each month from 4-7PM. Each month brings new gallery shows, book signings and more.
Each event is unique at each venue. Some shops stay open and refreshments are served.
“It’s really exciting,” said Carlson. “There is always something different happening. And this month’s Second Saturday, which is on October 13, is at the perfect peak for fall foliage.”
Events also occur at different times during the month. September 29th, the James Barron Gallery will host author Michael Pollan for a book signing of his most recent release, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Pollan's book examines various altered states of consciousness, as well as the latest brain science and the thriving underground community of psychedelic therapists.