Transformed barn dazzles with 'Secret Sky'

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Playing with light and dark thrills Catie Newell.

The Detroit architect's most-recent exercise, "Secret Sky," just unveiled after two years of construction, was carving a tall acute angle in the side of an old barn, from foundation to roof, and somehow filling it with light.

With "Secret Sky," architect Catie Newell carved a sharp angle out of an abandoned barn south of Port Austin.

Drive past the weathered structure on Pinnebog Road just south of Port Austin at sunset, and be prepared to be dazzled. The slice Newell cut explodes with rosy light, framed by the dark outline of the rest of the nearly 100-year-old barn. 

"I'm interested in how darkness works in architecture," said the U-Mich Taubman School professor. "And it's happening here, too, in terms of trying to give the barn over to the sky and the transitions between day and night." 

"Secret Sky" designer Catie Newell, eating under the re-engineered beam work that now supports the barn.

"Secret Sky" is the third installment in a project organized both by Thumb residents and Detroit artists involving old barns. According to Port Austin native Jim Boyle, the goal was to rescue a number of disused structures -- with the full assent of their owners -- and turn them into art objects that would both preserve them and act as a tourist draw. 

"Driving around my hometown," Boyle said, "I was intrigued by these turn-of-the-century barns and the fact that they were deteriorating." He immediately drew a parallel with Detroit's collapsed industrial infrastructure that's provided artists with both inspiration and material, and sometimes actual canvases on which to create.  

About a mile away from "Secret Sky" is the second barn in the Port Austin series, Scott Hocking's "Emergency Ark" or "Barn Boat."

"I started obsessing about doing a similar intervention in a rural context," Boyle said, and so the 53North project was born -- named for M-53, or Van Dyke Avenue, which runs the 130 miles due north from Detroit's West Village to Port Austin. 

The first 53North barn was completed in 2013, with two murals by the Detroit husband-wife team of Steve and Dorota Coy, the Hygienic Dress League. And last year, Detroit artist Scott Hocking disassembled an ancient barn and then rebuilt it into what's variously called "Emergency Ark," "Celestial Ship of the North," or "Boat Barn."

The challenge Newell faced with her barn was that, quite naturally, it's got four walls, so cutting a tall acute angle at one end would just reveal the shadowed interior -- no visual drama there.

So "Secret Sky" turned into an exercise in barn re-engineering. She had to slice through not just the east end facing the road, but the long north wall as well and part of the roof, constructing a clear, triangular passage for light to flood through. 

This involved removing a vital column and a couple of beams on an already rickety structure, so Newell had to do a lot of work to stabilize the barn before she could even start the art project. 

"Before we finished all the structural work, just knowing the bad weather and the wind up here," she said, "every time I drove up I worried -- hoping it hadn't blown down." 

Constructing the sawed-out angle required a lot of challenging carpentry.

Newell got help from a number of sources, including etC Construction in Detroit, as well as structural engineer John Gruber at Sheppard Engineering, who donated his time pro bono. Among other challenges, Newell had to install a concrete "ballast" in the center of the barn's floor, which anchors tension rods that radiate out to the walls. 

Also involved was casting a new foundation where the slice would be cut, installing a new steel column, building nine box beams to strengthen the area around the cut, and adding a roof beam at the barn's apex. 

(How do you get up to the top of a 35-foot-tall barn? You hire an articulating boom lift.)

"Secret Sky" isn't Newell's first art project involving light and dark. Years ago with "Weatherizing," she adapted an old Detroit garage on Moran Street that had no windows, and was inky black inside. 

Newell drilled holes in a wall, and pushed in glass test tubes of varying lengths. Within the dark garage they lit up like little light sabers, capturing the outside sun and channeling it as far the glass tubes went - an exercise in breathtaking simplicity. 

With lights turned on inside the garage at night, they also lit up outside. 

And in 2016, the University of Michigan Museum of Art hosted a show of her nighttime photography called "Overnight." 

The local reaction to the 53North barn projects, said Port Austin Township Supervisor Brandt Rousseaux, has, with some exceptions, been positive. 

"Most people are fascinated," he said, "in part because we’re developing an art community at the tip of the Thumb, and making Port Austin a destination not just for our beaches and farmers' market, but culture as well."

Newell acknowledges there was some local pushback after Hocking constructed his ark, which, of course, looks nothing like a barn. That helped her decide she wanted to maintain the iconic look of a classic barn, "but still do something that could have major impact."

The "Secret Sky" brain trust -- architect Catie Newell, right, and U-M architecture grad students Julia Jeffs and Max Drapey.

Rousseaux says saving the area's barns is a priority for the Greater Port Austin Art & Placemaking Fund, which contributed upwards of $30,000 to the two recent barn projects, as well as making grants for other art installations around the village. 

"We think the barns are worth saving," he said, "as well as highlighting our legacy of agriculture in way that crosses the urban-rural divide." The hope, Rousseaux adds, is to eventually transform 10 area barns. 

For her part, Newell is decelerating from the two-year sprint involved in bringing "Secret Sky" to completion. 

"I'm not teaching at the university this fall," she said. "I'm so excited. The barn will be open, and I'm sleeping for two months." 

Creating "Secret Sky" out of a 1920s barn took architect Catie Newell about two years.

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Secret Sky' by Catie Newell 

5201 N. Pinnebog Road, Kinde

For information on and addresses for other 53North barn projects: