Barn Beautiful

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

Video by Nick Ehrenberg

Just how big is a barn?

Large enough for Alan Weinstein and his wife, Nina, to live, work and play all under one roof. So spacious, in fact, that they may not even encounter one another for hours.

Originally designed as a shelter for horses, this iconic symbol of rural living has been the primary residence for the Weinstein family for the past 26 years. Alan, an artist, and Nina, a writer, raised their four children here and until two years ago, they operated The Barn Collections, a home-based fine arts gallery featuring antique quilts, pottery, sculpture and art.

Today, the 8,000-square-foot structure remains the family hermitage, Alan’s expanded art studio and gallery space showcasing a large collection of his work. There is also plenty of room for visiting kids and grand kids. The couple’s second home is a farm in the Cottage Country region of Ontario, Canada, where they retreat in the summer.

Rustic and artsy, the one-of-a-kind residence on Owl Song Lane appears more like a contemporary home from the outside, though it’s actually a vintage remnant of the Penningroth farm that once was located off American Legion Road east of Iowa City. The barn was purchased about 45 years ago by Bob Strub, a local homebuilder, who devoted six years to converting it to a home for his family.  An indoor swimming pool is among the amenities he added that still remains, along with retro-style bath fixtures in bright ’60s color schemes of orange and brown and yellow and chartreuse.

In place of cornfields that surrounded the property for many years after the Weinsteins moved in, new upscale homes have cropped up, part of the growing Windsor Ridge residential neighborhood.

Interesting stories are told of the barn’s conversion. In its more primitive state, 24 horse stalls divided the ground floor and Bob reportedly used a tractor to shovel out the manure. An innovator in the building trade, he retained the barn’s rustic character by insulating the exterior of the structure, leaving the interior walls natural unfinished barn wood. Most of the original hand-hewn beams still stand, along with the wide plank pine floor that’s now finished with a glistening shine. The massive barn door where hay bales were once delivered now is an oversized window.

Alan and Nina’s living quarters are confined to a portion of an expansive second level mezzanine. They created an enclosed living area by adding interior walls and a ceiling that encompasses a wide galley kitchen, dining room, living room, study and bath. White paneling in a hallway has pedigree origins — it came from the historic Old Capitol.

Pairs of French doors seal off this cozy living space from a vast open area that is left unheated year ’round. This is where a selection of Alan’s work is displayed for special exhibits.

An orange spiral staircase outside the kitchen doors leads to a loft overlooking both the mezzanine and the pool below. Low bookshelves border this balcony, which appears as a sort of veranda to the master bedroom.

Up in the rafters of the barn, Nina writes in a corner of the secluded, light-filled bedroom. She has written two books including an award-winning collection of short stories titled “No Peace at Versailles.” She also serves as administrator for the Agudas Achim synagogue in Iowa City.

Alan’s work is more apparent. His signature is everywhere, greeting guests on his vibrant landscape scenes at the entry foyer and on artwork displayed throughout this unique dwelling. A sweet and serene portrait of a young Nina hangs over the fireplace upstairs. Since 1968 when the two met — he as a graduate student, she as an undergrad — his painting has touched on themes of religion, nature and the human form. Many of his larger works including his “Orange Woods” series and a model sequence of athletic figures he has proposed for the Iowa City Recreation Center are found in the barn’s newest space: A 26-by-32-foot art studio tucked away in a remote cavern on the main floor. Nine square skylights loom high overhead, forming a grid pattern that immerses the quiet, isolated space where he paints in natural light.

While there’s ample room for creative pursuits, housekeeping for an 8,000-square foot dwelling can be a challenge. “There are always cobwebs,” Nina shrugs, peering over the edge of the loft balcony into a huge abyss of unreachable space.  “It’s part of living in a barn.”

Every square foot of this immense property seems to go its own way, independent of current trends, reflecting the priorities of two people of international scope, who are at ease living in a relic of the past.