Sen. Portman joins Barker House talk

NEWPORT TWP. –One of the top endangered historic sites in Ohio had a visit Tuesday that could lead to some federal support.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, joined the Friends of the Barker House board to discuss not only the significance of the Judge Joseph Barker Jr. House located on Ohio 7 south of the Willow Island Lock and Dam, but also what efforts are needed to preserve what the home represents.

The house was built close to 200 years ago, and is one of the few remaining with the unique characteristics of Federal style still standing strong, despite years of weathering on the brick structure sitting along the Ohio River.

Last month, Preservation Ohio recognized the site on its most endangered list for 2018 because the home was scheduled to be demolished by the end of fall.

“It is threatened with imminent demolition by its owner, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, to make room for material dredged from the Ohio River,” said the Preservation Ohio release. “Although land has been donated, fundraising efforts have thus far fallen short of the amount needed to move it.”

So Portman met with the local organizers seeking to preserve the building and the connections to the Women’s Suffrage movement, the abolition of slavery and the local preservation of rural education and history.

“I thought it was going to be fieldstone rock, but look at how those stones fit together, they did it right,” said Portman as he examined the foundation of the house Tuesday.

Portman is in his own process of restoring an old Quaker home, he explained, and said society’s connection to history is more tangible when one can feel it, walk through it and see it.

“If you can touch it, it means more,” he added. “It’s good to keep as much of our history alive as possible. If you don’t restore the buildings you lose that part of history.”

The Barker house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 for important associations with master builder Col. Joseph Barker, one of the earliest white settlers in the Marietta area who was lauded as a regional practitioner of the Federal style of architecture. He built the Newport Township home for his son, who later became a judge in Washington County Common Pleas Court, but also served as a lawmaker in the 1830s in the Ohio General Assembly.

“Col. Barker was a ship builder who would build up these boats in his sawmill and then wait for the Muskingum River to flood to lift up those and send them down river to be sea-faring ships,” explained Bob Rhoads, a member of the group raising funds and support to save the house.

But Judge Barker is also significant to the township for more than his positions.

“There was a cemetery being threatened by the river,” Jack Haessly explained to Portman over lunch at Haessly’s home. “And Barker gave a piece of his own land to preserve the community’s dead. My parents are also buried there.”

But the Barker house currently stands on the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps used the building for its offices during the construction of the Willow Island Lock and Dams but have since let the building fall into disrepair.

The corps has the land distinguished for use when dredging the river, though the practice is not often used anymore. They originally gave a short window for interested parties to purchase and move the building this past winter, but have extended that deadline several times over the summer and allowed the Friends of the Barker House to have the building professionally appraised to estimate the cost and process for moving the house.

“But when I heard about this it didn’t make much sense to me,” said Portman before setting out onto the property itself. “I wanted to come out and talk with Jack, the archaeologist and others. The Corps has been saying that they can’t restore the house there but I want to make another run at them.”

Archaeologist Wes Clarke noted that the home is a nationally registered historic place, but is worried that if the Corps insist the building be moved off its land the home may lose its designation.

“We’d work to keep that, but it’s very rare that if you move the structure, which the Corps has after much negotiation said we’re allowed to do, you’d be able to keep that designation,” said Clarke.

Portman said he’d rather see the federal dollars and locally raised funds used to restore the property and make it a draw not only for historic education, but also for education about the river lock system and the dam.

“Moving could be a wasteful expense for everybody. Why not put that money into restoring it?” he said. “I understand they want to use the land for other purposes, that’s why I’m going to look at it today and (then) see if there’s some alternative… Maybe if I get personally involved, it might help.”