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Rustic rebirth: Fall City’s century-old ‘Ruth’s Barn’ getting a second century with major restoration
Frank Shields slides up the window sash and takes in the view from the loft of the Kinnear Ambold Farm barn. Outside the window, beyond the metal scaffolding surrounding the barn walls, past the vintage milking shed by the road, Fall City’s rural vista of pastures, barns and farmhouses beckons.
“When this was a dairy, there were acres of area that this farm had to graze cattle,” Shields said. “Now, it’s all bought up in real estate.”
The Ambold dairy is now lost to time, and the barn itself, derelict to age, almost became a casualty. But next-door neighbors and new owners Tim and Nancy Uhrich stepped up to make sure that the century-old “Ruth’s Barn” has another solid hundred years of life.
Shields, who owns Excavators Northwest of Seattle, is entering the final leg of an 18-month restoration project as chief contractor.
Touring the loft on a cold March morning, he points out the cupola, one of the last features awaiting restoration. Daylight peeps between rotted timbers. When it rains, water comes in though several spots in the roof.
“It’s got some issues, for sure,” Shields said of the little tower.
A year ago, most of the barn was in the same sorry state. Built in 1910, the huge fir-clad structure is a legacy of the Ambold family of Fall City, whose farm once covered 200 acres. Nearby farm buildings, including a vine-covered concrete silo, still stand. But time, the elements and lack of maintenance had taken a hard toll on the big barn.
The Kinnear Ambold barn got its nickname from prior owner Ruth Afflack, a retired college professor who moved to Fall City because the place reminded her of a rural family getaway on the East Coast.
Afflack bought the property in the early 1980s, but had a hard time taking care of the barn. According to the Uhrichs, Afflack was an avid conservationist, and her priorities were more for the land than the buildings on it.
But Ruth knew Tim was interested in the property, and willed it to him before she passed away three years ago.
“We knew she didn’t want it developed,” said Nancy Uhrich. “She gifted it to Tim because she knew he would follow through. That’s why it’s so special. We’re doing it for her.”
“We had no idea Ruth was leaving it to us,” Tim told the Record. The restoration “is our way of keeping her in our thoughts.”
When the Uhrichs took ownership, the field between their farm next door and Ruth’s Barn was overgrown with blackberry vines—“I think some of it was holding the barn up,” said Nancy.
Tim started clearing the pasture, gradually mowing his way up to the barn. That’s when Tim and Nancy noticed that its condition was worse than they thought.
“It was sagging, swayback,” Nancy said. “We realized it would not last another winter.”
The Uhrichs hired Frank Shields to shore up the roof. His team then went on to pour a foundation and rebuild the building, piece by piece.
New and old
Old timbers now mingle with new in the barn’s structure, illustrating how the Uhrichs have invested in the past as well as the future. They didn’t have to do it this way, says Shields.
“It would have been easier to have taken it down to the ground and rebuild it,” he said. “But the owners were interested in preserving what was here.”
Unforeseen problems, such as rot and bug-eaten wood inside the barn, kept surprising. The Uhrichs didn’t realize quite how bad of shape Ruth’s barn was in until the project was underway.
“You start peeling it back, and it was one (set of ) bad news after another,” Tim said. Dollar-wise, it was risky investment. But Tim was compelled to do right by Ruth.
“Next-door donations don’t happen,” he said. “It’s kind of an all-in or all-out deal.”
A tear-down would have eliminated the footprint, and the possibilities of the barn becoming something new and productive.
Uhrich says he’s not a diehard preservationist. But when he makes long drives on the highway, he prefers to take the scenic route, past farms and fields.
“My deal is my personal contract with Ruth,” he said. “It’s getting up in the morning, looking in the mirror and saying, ‘This is what she wanted me to do.’”
Already familiar with large parcels and agricultural buildings, Tim worked closely with King County preservation architect Todd Scott to keep things real to 1910, and says county officials have been helpful during the rebuild process.
The Uhrichs are using an undisclosed amount of their own money to pay for the restoration.
Shields, for his part, is using the same wood, Douglas fir, cut to the same dimensions as the original boards in the Ambold barn.
“Everything’s the same,” he said. “That’s what makes it so gorgeous.”
Shields, who lives in Seattle, toured a number of Olympic Peninsula barns to get a sense of how they’re supposed to look. He normally repairs Seattle homes, “but I have some good contacts and know some good carpenters,” he says. “We have some pics to go by. It’s pretty authentic, the way we’re putting it back together.”
The Uhrichs may soon see this building come back to life. While a dairy may not be feasible any more, agricultural, tourism or artisan activity will be welcome when the 5,200-square-foot building is complete. Construction will soon halt while the owners consider the needs of future tenants.
Tim thinks an artisan would be the best fit, such as a craft business, glass blower, microdistillery, or maybe a small farm, catering to the weekend visitors and cyclists cruising the Fall City-Issaquah Road.
“Everyone has their own vision of what this place might be,” Tim says. “Now, we need to see what it actually gets used for. I wish we could just decide who goes in there—but it will be interesting to see what businesses might be interested and how they want to use the space.”
“If we had our druthers, we would like the property to be leased by somebody who complements the environment,” Nancy said.
She envisions a produce seller, event host or bicycle shop enticing visitors to Fall City.
“It would be so cool to do a quaint, wine-tasting thing in the country,” Nancy said. “I’d love to entertain the local vintners to explore that.”
Neighbors seem positive toward what the Uhrichs have done.
“As residents of the Fall City area, they care about what goes on there,” Tim says. “I think the approval rating is pretty high which we are happy to see. It says a lot about the town and its residents.”
Not only is the barn bigger and older than most in the Valley, Tim is certain it will be oldest surviving Valley barn a century from now.
“It is very rewarding to know you are creating something for the community for the next 100 years,” he said.
Seth Truscott/Staff Photo
Restoration work is nearing completion at the Kinnear Ambold Farm barn in Fall City. Owners hope to give it new life, leasing to an artisan or vintner.