Montana's Finest Homes: A classic remodel of a barn in Bigfork, Montana

By David Reese, Montana's Finest Homes
There’s an old barn that sits on the edge of a wide, green field just above the Swan River.

Built over 80 years ago near Bigfork, the barn used to be home for pigs and cows. But now with the help of Bigfork designer Doug Syme, this historic barn has been dramatically converted to a usable, livable — and gorgeous — 6,000-square-foot home. Syme and the homeowner were able to use all of the existing structural elements of the original barn, and turn it into a spacious, two-story guest home. Just a few minutes from the town of Bigfork, this tranquil setting gives the homeowners access to a vibrant arts and cultural town, combined with the peace and quiet of a pastoral farm setting.

And they’ve preserved a piece of Montana history. Where once there were stalls for animals, there are now bedrooms. Where pigeons and songbirds once occupied the second floor, a spacious entertaining area now looks out over the meandering Swan River. Where cats, raccoons and bats inhabited the ground floor, a new living area with kitchen, dining room and bedrooms was created. In fact, when Syme Design started the project several years ago, the barn didn’t even have a locking door. When the barn was first built, the original owner could only afford to paint one side of it red — the side facing the road that people could see.

Now, the weathered barn wood has been used throughout the home’s renovation, from trim to shutters to flooring. Some of the red barn wood was used to create a unique powder room — what the designer jokingly refers to as the outhouse. The barn is rich in local history.

During the renovation process, longtime locals were curious about what was happening to the old structure just south of Swan River School. Unlike many Montana barns that have had to be pushed over by bulldozers to avoid safety hazards, this barn was being saved. Bedrooms along the main floor are decorated in a western, country style.

The kitchen opens to a dining area that looks out over the river, and with this open feel, the home is perfect for entertaining. Quiet nooks off the second floor offer places to sit and relax with a book or play board games. Syme has designed custom homes throughout northwest Montana, but had never done a renovation project like this. “Every piece of it is a restoration,” he said. “You’re not trying to just refurbish, but modernize.” This meant adding structural stability to the barn and installing modern conveniences like air conditioning, high-speed digital wiring, and insulation, among the dozens of other custom improvements.

Syme used local artists and craftsmen to get the barn converted into a livable home. “Your best idea is only good until you find somebody to bring it to life,” Syme said. “There are some very talented people here, and everybody on the project enjoyed working on this.” Swan River Door created doors for the renovation project with wood reclaimed from the barn’s original doors.

“The owner wanted something rustic but also upscale,” says Jeff Matern, owner of Swan River Door in Bigfork. “We created an authentic look." Swan River Door specializes in custom looks and their craftsmen are adept at creating everything from Tuscan and European styles to western, rustic doors made for the barn.

The barn’s history dates back over 80 years, and throughout that time the local community had used the barn to house their various 4-H projects. One well-known Bigfork developer remembers keeping his 4-H hogs in there. Syme was intrigued by how well the barn had actually withstood the test of time. “Here’s this building that’s 80-some years old, that was built by common sense and simple triangulation,” he said. “It’s held together quite nicely. It was a functional piece.” By upgrading and renovating the outer shell of the barn, Syme helped create a building that will stand the test of time.

“Hopefully it will last another 100 years,” he said. “All the additions are creature comforts. In the end it’s a functioning piece ... it’s just that it has changed its function. Other elements were added to the barn, like cupolas on the rooftop. “Some of the embellishments were fun, like adding jewelry,” Syme said.

The barn’s owner, who lives out of state, was inspired by the idea of reclaiming and recycling the historic structure. “Dollar for dollar you could probably just start over again,” Syme said, “But in reclaiming and re-using, it gives you the satisfaction of having that original piece. The authenticity is very important.” Some of the barn’s materials had to be replaced, but much of it was re-used.
The old metal roof was torn down but some of it was used as the roof of the powder room on the upstairs level. Recycled roofing was installed by Glacier Steel Roofing. Windows from Valley Glass in Kalispell were trimmed with the old barn wood, too, and old baling wire found on the property was used to tie together parts of the upstairs beams.

Valley Glass was able to match the color and style of the old barn window, and also brought a modern, divided-light style that is energy efficient. Valley Glass project manager Larry Iverson spent many hours with the owner to create the look she wanted. Valley Glass was able to keep the integrity of the old sash look with a modern, high-performance, energy-efficient window.

In keeping with the barn’s original style, even some of the old knee-braces on the upstairs roof supports were chiseled out with axes to give them an authentic look. “If you can’t tell the new from the old, then we did our job,” Syme said.

“It’s like pounding out an old Bentley,” Syme said. “It has its own appeal.” •

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