By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
If you think about what gives the North Bay its sense of place, you may think of vineyards and farms, orchards and dairies; small towns; closely knit communities.
But, said Jim Bracco, 53, there’s another aspect, “the ‘vernacular’ architecture – barns, water towers, unique old shacks and outbuildings – remnants of our rural agricultural heritage.”
Bracco quoted Bob Crittendon, author of Barns in the USA: “We associate the barn and the family farm with earlier, better days – days when kids climbed trees, and going to town seemed like really going somewhere. It’s not surprising the sight of a barn awakens those good, nostalgic feelings.”
When Bracco, a software engineer and self-described “photo artist” relocated to Sonoma County in 2003, “it reminded me of growing up in northern New Jersey,” he said. “ I was raised to respect open space and farms. I remember my parents and neighbors going to court to fight the hated developer McBride who wanted to build condos in the woods across the brook.”
After five years, though, when Bracco’s company left the area and his first child was born. “It was time,” he said, “for a midlife sabbatical.” He began photographing barns and other structures, “collecting images along the back roads while the baby slept and my wife Melinda said, ‘What, another U-turn?’
“I had hundreds of images before I realized these structures were disappearing,” he said. “And I wondered if they’d be around for other photographers, even in a few years.”
He investigated and learned there was no group that promoted preservation of the buildings. “I was shocked,” he said. “Isn’t California about preservation?” Other states, he learned, were way ahead. He cited Washington state, which passed a barn preservation bill years ago, plus groups like the National Barn Alliance. Locally though, he found historical societies “were more focused on documenting what has disappeared. They weren’t oriented to protect what’s in danger of disappearing.” And although he went to the county board of supervisors, “the great recession was on and interest and money were in short supply.”
He said there are a few local projects – Petaluma’s McKinney Livery Stable on the McNear Peninsula and Santa Rosa’s DeTurk Round Barn, but no regional effort like the National Park Service’s Heritage Area designation. Such designations, Bracco said, can bring in tourism dollars, “reversing the deterioration by giving it value.”
He commented wryly, “California is still too busy getting suburban sprawl down.
“Owners,” he went on, “are not motivated by current policies to preserve their barns. So many buildings have been reduced to just a roof. Owners don’t remove them because that would be an improvement, with tax implications, but they don’t do anything to arrest their decay or repurpose them either. The best we have now is a local business that makes bookcases out of them. They’re private property; it’s not like President Obama can issue an executive order. The only way to address it is with incentives to the owners.”
In addition he’d like to see rules to prohibit more destruction of structures by offering tax breaks; a program providing grants for structural restoration; a commission to create a barn bill similar to that in Washington state and a coalition of businesses that could benefit from a Heritage Area designation – something similar to Sonoma County Farm Trails – that would be a marketing took for county tourism.
Bracco’s created a website – barnsofsonoma.com – to showcase the buildings, promote their preservation and connect owners with resources on financial benefits for repurposing and refurbishing barns. He’s created posters, cards, calendars, planners and painterly canvas images and produced a book called, what else, “The Barns of Sonoma County.” “I’d like to find a local historian to add stories and historical narrative to the images for the next edition,” he said.
He wants to combine his business, Bracco Systems – which offers information technology (IT) services – with his passion for preservation and bring vintage barn signs back to Sonoma County.
Generally, he said, people appreciate the county’s rural heritage. “Look at the crowd during Butter and Egg Days. I’ve gotten calls from an LA film crew, a couple planning a wedding, artists, photographers, looking for the locations on my site. The question I put to people is, ‘Do you want to appreciate this by looking at pictures in books or driving past on your way to work?”