Photo by Daniela Ruiz
Photo by Daniela Ruiz

History lies at the base of UC Santa Cruz in a crumbling, decaying form. Unusable since 2006, the Cowell Lime Works Hay Barn demonstrates what campus was like before the school was founded.

The barn, which was built on the UCSC campus about a century before the school began, had an important role in the manufacturing of lime and limestone products in California. The barn housed oxen that hauled these products to the wharf for shipment. After being purchased by Henry Cowell, the barn became part of his local business named Cowell Lime Works.

The barn is being preserved by the Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District. This group is planning to renovate the barn and transform it into a modern building available for campus use.

According to the group’s website, the organization “works to restore and preserve the old lime kilns and historic buildings of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District.” The group’s president Frank Perry attributes the barn’s steady deterioration to years of weather damage. “It’s no longer in use because it’s in too bad of a condition and it’s not safe to go in,” Perry said. “After periods of storm damage, the barn became unsafe.”

A fight for the restoration of the barn has been going on for the past few years through many proposed project ideas.

“For one reason or another, [the ideas for restoration] just didn’t work out and finally about a year ago, there were some people who had a serious interest in saving the barn,” Perry said. “It’s possible now that it will be in fact fixed up and put to use by the campus. It’s just a matter of finding the funding and so that’s what a number of people are working on right now.”

Dean Fitch, who is in charge of physical environment planning at UCSC, said the barn’s feasibility study is in its final review stage. The planned reconstruction will maintain the original heavy timber frames while also meeting current building codes. The complete design and environmental analysis of the rehabilitated barn project still needs to be defined, which may take about a year.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) became involved with the project about a year ago when the museum got in touch with the Friends of the Cowell Lime Works Historic District. The museum’s “Barn Raising” exhibition, which will be open until March 17, focuses on the future of the Cowell Lime Works Hay Barn.

“Since we are both an art and history museum, we’re all about investigating the history of Santa Cruz,” said the curator of “Barn Raising,” Marla Novo. “So we thought it would be great to turn [the barn’s restoration] into an exhibition.”

The exhibition consists of different pieces of art and historical artifacts that are related to the barn’s history, such as photography of the barn throughout its years, various belongings of workers who were involved on the barn’s site, timber framing tools and a hay fork trolley. The exhibition’s main attraction is an interactive model of the hay barn under construction, which can be taken apart and put back together by visitors.

“It’s really fun when we have volunteers actually pound out the pegs and put the hay barn together,” Novo said.

Novo said the exhibition is a chance for students to learn some history about their home away from home. “We thought it would be wonderful to show our community something like timber framing and have an exhibit that uses interactivity so people can come and actually find out a little bit about the Cowell Lime District up at UCSC,” Novo said.

Daniel Press, a UCSC professor of environmental studies, said he predicts the newly reconstructed barn will be used for numerous projects like storing fruits and vegetables for the on-campus Community Supported Agriculture program, as well as holding classroom workshops, office space and exhibits.

“My goal and hope is that people would be fighting for space in the barn,” he said. “It would be that busy.”