JOHNSON COUNTY– That a mere barn could inspire such awe, amazement and admiration would be hard for some to believe.
Until they see it for themselves.
“I’ve even had a couple people spontaneously weep,” said barn designer Dick Schwab.
Schwab’s Celebration Barn off Sugar Bottom Road in rural Solon is a 100 ft. diameter, 50 ft. tall, true-round barn, dressed in Stone City stone. Brick pavers, gleaned from the old streets of certain Iowa cities and even salvaged from the original 1947 Lincoln Highway, form a patio around the building that leads to a breathtaking view of a pastoral pond. A terraced amphitheater, with seats of stone and grass, faces a great stone arch that frames the view of the pond, creating a perfect wedding spot.
Inside the barn’s two sets of enormous French doors, the walls and ceiling are finished in an assortment of beautiful native Iowa woods, from cherry to soft and hard maple, hickory, walnut, red and white oak, ash, elm and white pine. A massive stone fireplace is situated next to well-appointed men’s and ladies’ rooms. Schwab calls the ladies’ room the “bridal lounge– the action center,” while the men’s room of old barn boards and a cast-iron sink is a bit more rustic.
Throughout the structure are notable little trappings like an inlaid checkerboard, trompe loile birch-trees and an airbrushed version of Grant Wood’s Road to Solon painting. Above it all, a circular staircase rises to a 24 ft. diameter cupola, lined in cedar shingles and with windows around a catwalk that provide a bird’s eye, 360-degree view of the scenic countryside below.
Most of the structure was built with reclaimed or salvaged wood, or boards that Schwab– retired businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist and wood craftsman, among his many designations– cut from fallen trees on his wooded property, milled in his woodshop and dried in his kiln for somewhere between two and 15 years. There are even intact architectural features saved during demolitions of other structures.
“There isn’t a new door in the place,” he said. “The only wood I bought was used in the beams and the ceiling.”
And though it was only been finished for a few months, the barn already contains more intriguing stories than its single stone wall can contain.
To begin, this barn, like the mythical phoenix, literally rose from the ashes.
The Celebration Barn was conceived and designed in 2006, and with the help of a volunteer crew working 10 to 20 hours a week for nearly a year, the walls were erected, the cupola set on top and the roof was covered in sheeting. In the summer of 2007, just as the interior rooms were being finished, the roof shingled and the windows put in their frames, disaster struck in a single stroke. In an early morning thunderstorm storm on July 19, 2007, the first Celebration Barn was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
“I got the call that the barn was on fire at 12:45 a.m.,” Schwab recalled. “I came immediately, but by the time I turned the corner, there was nothing but embers and a whole lot of vehicles with flashing lights.”
There was an instant outpouring of help from the community, even as Schwab’s friend Jay Proffitt of Proffitt Construction–instrumental in much of the earth-moving involved in most of Schwab’s barn building– was using his heavy machines to bury still-burning debris.
“It was a big decision– now what?” Schwab said. “It took about three days, but I knew I had to build it again.”
Though the weddings scheduled for 2008 had to relocate to another venue, some couples chose to reschedule their nuptials and wait for the barn to be re-built. Again, with the helping hands and of many friends and community acquaintances, the new Celebration Barn took shape.
And Schwab will tell story after story about those who helped; Jack Neuzil, with his own woodworking skills and engineering insight, was a nearly constant companion at the build site; Jerry Menninga, who started pulling nails in the fall and just kept coming back; John Gross, who traded his labor for some wood-planing work and went way beyond repaying his debt by working through the barn’s completion; young Ryan Krafka, a student and summertime jack-of-all-trades who learned masonry well enough to design and construct the distinctive sets of stone and brick pillars now lining the site’s drive; Buck Keith, the only guy Schwab trusts to direct the crane operators who lift the heavy beams and cupola structure into their places.
Schwab admits, there are too many to name, from the people who brought food and treats for the workers to the man who designed the over-sized French doors and the Iowa City wood crafters who built them. One young couple, Zach and Kristin Eastlund, came on a regular basis. Theirs was the first wedding scheduled to take place in the new barn, on May 9, 2009. They may have had extra incentive to lend their time and assistance, but in the course of it all, Schwab said they became his friends, as did many who shared in the project.
In order to be done in time for the Eastlund’s wedding, Schwab said the final months became a “serious march to completion.
“During the last month, on average, we spent 14-16 hour days here. We really pushed hard,” he said. “On May 8, we got ready for a party.”
Though finishing touches were still being added the night before, on May 9, the Eastlunds were the first to say, “I do” in a place where they and so many others did so much.
It is these stories– of the people who came to build, of the boards and bricks and stones that contain their own unique histories– that have become the true foundation of the Celebration Barn.
As Schwab takes admirers on a barn tour, he points out the hallmark qualities, modestly turning acclaim away from himself and toward the contributions of others.
“They become your friends. We had a porch party to celebrate the completion of the barn, and at the same time, we celebrated other things going on in their lives,” he said. “It’s really quite amazing.”
Use of the Celebration Barn will be limited to just 12 events each year, including a few that are part of Schwab’s own community philanthropy: this fall, the Celebration Barn will host the Solon Dollars for Scholars gala on October 17, and one week later, the Johnson County Heritage Trust will hold its annual fundraiser, “Under a Cider Moon; a Celebration of Autumn,” at the site.
It’s the perfect venue for those events that are both formal and relaxed, large yet cozy, fun but held in the name of a serious cause. In Schwab’s words, the Celebration Barn is a marriage of “utility and beauty. That’s the combination I was going for.”
As it has turned out, it’s a match made in Iowa heaven.