New life for old barns
Robert Staab’s birthday gift to his 2-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, says it all.
He crafted a barn, with stalls and a roof that lifts up, to house her collection of realistic farm animals. There’s an Amish hex sign on the side, painted by artist Sue Voglio, Staab’s girlfriend, and which means “prosperity and good luck.”
Not only is there pride and craftsmanship in this gift but also respect for the past and commitment to the future.
“We’ve been killing this Earth for 200 years,” says Staab, a Hamptonburgh resident. “Our grandkids are in trouble. If everyone just did a little something. ...”
He’s not preachy or extreme, just pragmatic. Yet Staab’s commitment extends far beyond a handcrafted toy. He collects rainwater in a tub for his gardens. He dries his clothes outside. He composts, gardens, doesn’t use pesticides and is sure to recycle his beer bottles.
He also reclaims and reintroduces the wood from dismantled barns as custom furniture and cabinetry into homes and businesses from Montauk, Long Island, to Greenwich, Conn. “You have to love character,” he says.
Staab was a contractor forced to reinvent himself as the economy began to plummet. He discovered his new niche quite accidentally while accommodating a customer’s request. Designer Donna Wiedemann had just moved back to Greenwich from California and wanted an entertainment unit made of barn wood, he says.
“I found a barn in Montgomery, and that started it all,” he says of his business, After the Barn, LLC.
“He’s a creative guy with great taste,” says Wiedemann of the renovations he did in her house. “Since then, he’s collaborated with me. I have clients with fairly traditional homes who want a specific vintage or antique piece. It’s hard to find it exactly as they want it. … But he’ll make it for me to look old.”
Staab grew up in a turn-of-the-last-century home in Richmond Hills, Queens. As a boy, he collected spikes from abandoned tracks of the Long Island Railroad. He’d comb through the Borden Milk factory’s trash looking for coupons to redeem for prizes or bottles to return. A month each summer was spent with his grandparents at a working farm in the Catskills.
“That’s where the city boy got the country feel,” he says.
By his own admission, he goofed off in college – too much time listening to hops-embellished tales told in McSorley’s Old Ale House in the city. So he moved to Florida and did a stint on oil tankers in Alaska. He had a knack for construction, something he always fell back on, and remained in Florida for 19 years before moving his family back north. He evolved into a high-end contractor, known for his cabinetry – as well as entire home construction.
And it wasn’t long before his son, Robbie (Robert Staab III) began working alongside him.
“I built Robbie’s first tree house when he was 3, his second when he was 5,” says Staab. “He was always outside in nature.”
The Staabs also share an interest in history.
“As a kid, history and geography were my best subjects. My son has a great aptitude for history, too. I’m also a Civil War enthusiast,” Staab says. “I’d plan family vacations that were near forts – and always near the beach, too.”
The early American farmers did it all, Staab says with reverence. They hunted, tilled the land and built their barns with whatever wood was on their property – be it hemlock, hickory, chestnut or oak.
“There’s real American history in a barn,” he says. “The tree might have been 125 years old when the farmer cut it down.”
Then, once fashioned into a barn, it provided shelter for livestock and hay for more than a century.
So armed with their respect of the past and love of creating, the Staabs eagerly faced the Wiedemann challenge and fell into their future, with the younger Staab helping to ease his father out of his rapidly crumbling comfort zone.
“I embraced this because of him,” says Staab.
It wasn’t long after they dismantled their first barn that word began to spread.
“Then people knew we took barns down for the wood,” he says. But with experience comes selectivity. “Now, we look at 10 before we decide on one.”
It can take anywhere from a week to a month to complete the job properly, he says, down to the slab. Costs can run upward of $10,000 between trucking and labor.
While there’s no shortage of barns – depending on how far one wants to travel – it’s all about the quality of the wood. The Staabs try to stay within a 3½-hour radius of home, and there has to be a compelling reason to travel for several hours.
Fortunately, there have been a number of jobs in Orange County.
A notable one was a carriage house in Washingtonville.
“Everyone knew it as the carriage house to the parsonage,” he says. “My son and I did some research. We learned that the people who owned the drugstore lived there.”
This made sense, given what they found during the dismantling: hundreds of old apothecary bottles under the floor boards along with dozens of worn-out shoes.
Whiskey bottles and old coins and tools are fairly common finds.
But before those hidden treasures can be found, there is a procedure to follow.
First, they don masks, knowing that they will be stirring up years of pigeon waste, among other potential irritants.
Then they pull off all the hardware, which is saved in meticulously labeled boxes on shelves in the senior Staab’s garage. Maybe there’s a hay rake or some rusty tools, an old tractor seat or antique corn husker. Staab often uses those pieces as decorative accents around his home or gift some to collector-friends – old license plates or antique equestrian equipment that he knows will be welcome.
Now, without the hinges, the doors are off.
Next, it’s the siding – often used for cabinets and walls.
“I look at the rafters. If they’re hand-hewn, and not milled, they’re 200 years old. No one spent the money on milling back then,” he says.
After the late 1800s, rough sawn wood became more prevalent, so the Staabs prefer the hand-hewn.
Staab then examines the roof.
“Depending on the shape, we pull off the roof and dismantle the beams,” he says. “If the roof is bad, we pop as many pins as we can (and use the crane to pull it down) … we can’t risk injury – and no one has been hurt yet.
“The swallows will attack you, though. You’re dismantling their home.”
Next, the Staabs sift and sort. Although Staab says he saves just about everything, he also envisions potential purposes for the best wood. All the premium pieces go into the blue trailer – 16-, 18- or 20-inch boards that will one day be crafted into custom tables at the Montgomery shop, run by Felix Versweyveld Jr., whom Staab describes as the talent behind the furniture.
“I admired Felix’s father’s work, and he’s a chip off the old block, an artist in his own right,” Staab says. “Long beams, of course, are more valuable.”
Staab’s girlfriend’s uses historic wood for her country paintings of barns, bucolic farm scenes, roosters or fish that adorn the tops of mirrors.
Staab also shares a yard in Campbell Hall where some of the wood is cut.
“Hickory pieces might become firewood; scraps are turned into birdhouses,” he says. “And with a portable saw mill, oak beams can become flooring.”
Sometimes the owner provides a Dumpster. If not, what’s absolutely not usable is taken to Taylor Recycling in Montgomery.
“We try to walk the walk and do it all green,” Staab says.
Staab says they also try to do it with respect. Nothing is mass produced.
“I love finding the old farmers to listen to their stories,” he says. “I’ll put the stories in the back of my head and save pictures of the barn. … I made a hickory table for a client in Pine Bush and also gave them part of the original beam.”
It might take Staab three to four days to craft a table; if there’s a bulk order, such as for the South Edison restaurant in Montauk, then they’ll streamline the work by cutting the tops, then all the legs, etc.
“I’ll only sand one time and lightly,” he says. “I don’t want to lose the character. … I can do new, but this is what I enjoy.
“We used to use just beeswax, but then someone would set a glass on the table and end up with rings. So now we finish with a water-based polyurethane.”
“I was looking for a certain style – worn, beachy, funky, farm-to-table farmhouse with a little urban – plus a level of craftsmanship,” says Todd Mitgang, the chef-owner of South Edison.
He did a Google search and found there wasn’t a large pool to draw from. After the Barn caught his eye, so he decided to head north.
Today, his acclaimed restaurant boasts a number of Staab’s hemlock tables – two that seat 12; three that seat eight, and 12-14 that can accommodate two to four diners.
“He also provided raw wood for a bar top that a local guy sealed with surfboard resin,” says Mitgang, who says he was so impressed with the tables that he commissioned a 6-foot-wide island-like piece with a back splash, bar rail and foot rest.
Mitgang says his patrons just love the tables; a few have even gone as far as to have Staab create one for their own homes.
It’s not unusual for one job to lead to another. Staab might be commissioned to make a table, and then the homeowner decides on new kitchen cabinetry as well. An upgrade of the built-ins flanking a fireplace might lead to the crafting of a new front door.
“I’ve had to reinvent myself my whole life,” he says.
Not unlike the wood he now works with.
A BIRD IN THE HOUSE …
It starts with the perch.
“I don’t just slap anything together,” says Robert Staab of After the Barn, LLC. “It has to be cohesive.”
And where many people bring a bottle of wine when invited to a friend’s house for dinner, Staab might bring a birdhouse. And not just any old birdhouse.
“I have friends who collect bottle openers,” he says. So when crafting a birdhouse for his friends, a bottle opener not only was included but became the inspiration for other accents.
There’s thought that goes into each roof and coordinating siding, so that the finished birdhouse is quite different from the one it’s sitting next to on a shelf.
Yes, they’re all rustic. But the sizes vary greatly. Colors are different, as are the roofs. Many feature hardware reclaimed from barns, but not all.
Prices range from $25 to $300 and, when brought to a craft fair, sometimes open the door to his custom furniture line. Tables, for example, range from $1,600 to $3,400, and no two will be alike because no two barns are alike.
‘Wood’ – and its author - revered
One of Robert Staab’s favorite references books is “A Reverence for Wood,” one of some 38 written and illustrated by Eric Sloane.
Sloane, born Everard Jean Hinrichs in 1905 to a wealthy New York City family, was a prolific member of the Hudson River School of Painting. Almost 15,000 works are credited to him. According to a biography by Marshall Smith, “He painted one almost every day, often before lunch, striving to do better than the day before. Later in his life, he bought back or traded for some of his earlier work, which he destroyed by fire, contending it was inferior.”
After a falling out with his family as a teenager, Sloane left home and worked his way across the country as a sign painter, a skill he acquired from his neighbor Frederick W. Goudy, who was also a noted type designer.
Some of his early clients included aviators who requested that he paint identifying marks on their planes. He learned how to fly, and became fascinated with the sky and weather. Amelia Erhardt bought his first cloud painting; his largest fills a wall of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. He’s also credited with being the first TV weatherman – having farmers call in their reports which he’d broadcast.
Sloane’s spirit has been likened to that of the early American settlers, whom he became enamored with during years spent in New England. It is there he wrote and illustrated dozens books on Americana, including Staab’s favorite.
He died of cardiac arrest while walking to a luncheon in his honor on March 5, 1985. According to Smith, “Friends say it was the only time he was ever late.”