When it came time to build a multi-use barn on their Byfield property, Mindi Poston Gay, owner of Newburyport’s MPG Home Design, and her husband, Phineas, set out to find a builder who could bring their dream space to fruition. What they found in an Amish family of craftsmen from Lancaster, PA, were priceless lessons about quality and craftsmanship—and family values. by G. Jeffrey MacDonald. photographs by Brad Mintz
Curiosity drove onlookers to crane their necks one evening in late May in the woodsy enclave of Byfield overlooking the Parker River. They wondered—How could a 2,000-square-foot barn have possibly been framed and paneled in just two days?
They quickly learned technology had nothing to do with the building of this barn. Instead, the lightning speed and superior post-and-beam construction proved anew what can come of family cooperation and a craft passed down over generations. And that’s exactly why the Gay family brought in an Amish team from Lancaster, PA, to build the barn of their dreams.
“Just being around [the Amish] makes you want to throw away your cell phone and your laptop,” says Mindi Poston Gay, owner of MPG Home Design in Newburyport. “They make you want to just get back to living simply and just loving each other, which is what they do.”
For Mindi and her husband, Phineas, the hilltop barn that now graces their driveway entrance is a monument to the type of people they aim to be. It’s a versatile, two-floor structure that gives their boys, ages 5 and 6, space to play more rambunctiously than is allowed in the house. But it can also be an elegant entertaining space. Bring on the fancy dinner guests, the children’s birthday parties, the work or hobbies that might require a studio; the barn adapts. Visitors can’t help but recall simpler times, when nature’s rhythms kept the tune of daily life and resourcefulness was a treasured virtue.
Ideally, every facet of the project—from design to decoration—would come to represent the Gays’ quest for simplicity that makes room for luxury. What better way, they thought, than to hire for the job an Amish family, whose religious emphasis on humility goes so far that they choose not to operate automobiles or computers?
“We have electricity in our workshop, but not in our homes,” says Ephraim Riehl, the 45-year-old father of eight, whose four eldest sons comprised his barn-building crew in Byfield. “Once you have electric outlets, there’s too much else that comes into the home with it.”
Values honed in simple Amish homes were on display at the Gay family’s barn from the moment work began. Four sons, ages 16 to 22, were easy to spot—dark trousers, suspenders, modest bowl haircuts—as they put in 12-hour days with only momentary breaks. Their mother, Rebecca, wore a plain dark dress and netted white head covering as she prepared their meals beneath a tent, kept tabs on her four younger children, and grabbed moments to read The Amish Guide to Courtship. Over four long days, they maintained a remarkably cheerful atmosphere and anticipated each other’s needs, whether for replacement tools or food and refreshment, often without saying a word.
With this crew’s help, the Gays discovered what goes into weaving values into every seam of a construction project. The process involved not just planning and research, but also a personal investment that paid some unexpected dividends.
Plans came straight from the hand of Mindi, an architect and interior designer, who shaped the blueprints to capitalize on the location. Sliding doors and curtains on three sides allow hilltop breezes to sail through cavernous openings, each of which reaches 12 feet high and 11 feet wide. Hemlock beams give both the look and feel of sturdiness. Upstairs, 10 windows—including seven facing east—bring natural light to casual sitting spaces. The upstairs floor gives way in two spots, creating sightlines from ground-level entryways up to the roof. White clamshells from the nearby Parker River give the barn’s patio a bright, local touch. “I took the Amish workmanship and threw an element of modern design into it,” Mindi says, noting how elements like a reclaimed fire grate and metal cables give the traditional barn a distinctive, personal flair.
With plans in hand, general contractor Mike Sabatini of Rowley researched builders based on the Gays’ parameters, especially the premium they placed on craftsmanship. For a barn, nothing says traditional quality like mortise and tenon, an ancient building technique that forges strong joints by inserting a timber projection (tenon) into a perfectly fitted cavity (mortise). As Sabatini looked into mortise and tenon experts, the Riehls kept coming up, even though the family does no advertising. So he visited their workshop in Pennsylvania, and when their quote came in lower than others, the job was theirs.
From early morning to almost dusk, classic techniques got a showcase in Byfield, where skills of the young crew were allowed to shine. Example: 20-year-old Elmer Riehl used a hand-held chisel to finish off the stairs. The interior has no nail holes, because there’s no need for nails with mortise and tenon. Old-fashioned methods, it seems, are still in demand for good reason.
Throughout the process, the project was a family affair in every sense. The Riehls arrived in an entourage of 12: Ephraim and Rebecca, eight children ages 4 to 22, and two daughters-in-law. “It’s sort of like a vacation for us,” Rebecca says with a big smile. They stayed with Sabatini, who put them up in spare beds and on couches and air mattresses. While the crew worked, the Gay kids and younger Riehl kids played together in the yard and by the river. One day, Sabatini took them fishing.
In effect, the barn raising gave rise to a mingling of two cultures: The Riehls began their days with quiet devotions at Sabatini’s home, while their kids got a surreptitious taste of personal technology. “Don’t tell his mom,” 6-year-old Parker Gay whispered to his mother, “but Matthew (age 4) tried my iPod. He likes electronics.”
Not every bonding moment was so lighthearted. Phineas knew something terrible had happened on the third day when he heard a loud bang come from the garage. A hydraulic lift had rolled downhill from the barn, out of control after its brakes failed, and plowed into what Mindi termed his “prize possessions.” Smashed was the newly acquired 1980 Land Rover Defender, plus a vintage Kawasaki motorcycle and the garage’s back wall. Fuel puddled beneath the Land Rover. “It’s leaking gas!” Phineas yelled. “Get it out of here!”
Within seconds, Ephraim’s sons—Allen, John, and Eli—were pushing the Land Rover out of the garage, while the other boys literally raced uphill to gather sawdust shavings for the gas puddle. They stabilized the situation while Sabatini called his insurance company. “I’ve never had an accident before,” Sabatini said on the phone. “What do I do?”
Later, Ephraim put his arm firmly around Sabatini and assured him all would be OK. In a spontaneous moment, the Gays and Riehls paused to express gratitude that no one had been hurt. “[They’re] just things—things can be replaced,” Phineas said the next day. “Being around these [Amish] people and [seeing] how they value humility and simplicity helps keep that in perspective.”
Back on the jobsite, the Riehls added more features, such as structural insulated panels (SIP), which come pre-insulated for easy hanging. After a few more days, they handed the job over to local tradesmen, who made the space more comfortable than the average Amish barn. It’s now heated with propane upstairs and downstairs, while electricity powers mood lighting and smooth stereo sound.
Now the Gays’ taste for the environmentally responsible and the well-worn shows in both structure and contents. The cypress exterior comes from Mississippi and Louisiana, not Brazil. Reclaimed cedar from another barn shows its weathered side for aesthetic contrast with the barn’s newer features. A local craftsperson built a three-stool bar from old doors, while a well-used set of gymnastic rings and straps hangs from the second-floor ceiling. Padded chairs and brightly painted steel lockers come from such eclectic sources as the nearby Governors Academy, another school in Connecticut, and a hair salon on Cape Cod. Like the barn itself, just about every item inside has stories behind it.
Now, the barn plays many roles, including that of a showroom and meeting space for clients who’d like Mindi to design their own barns. Clients will no doubt hear how it came together, which has become a point of pride—even for those who just watched from a distance.
“I’m kind of proud that this is still a part of America,” says Mike Riley of Rowley, as he stood in the Gays’ driveway and admired the Amish work. “I’m proud that the talent is still there.”