Clemmons Farm connects with D.C. museum architect

photo by Marice Providence
Singer/songwriter Myra Flynn (left) shares redesign ideas with Zena Howard FAIA architect, musician John Hughes of Brattleboro, and Eliot Lothrop of Building Heritage inside the top level of the Big Barn at the Clemmons Family Farm recently.

It’s all working out for Lydia Clemmons. She made a cold call to an architect, won a sizable grant, and has an historic barn that needs both of those things as she strives for it to reach its full potential.

The result is a connection to an accomplished architect who is helping the Clemmons family with the restoration of the Big Barn on their property, the historic Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte.

In the summer of 2016, Clemmons, daughter of farm owners Lydia and Dr. Jackson Clemmons,  was following closely the progress of the creation of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“I was thrilled to discover that one of the lead architects is an African-American woman,” she recalled.

Atchitect Zena Howard is managing director and principal at Perkins + Will in Durham, N.C. She was pleased to be asked to participate by the Clemmons family and enthusiastically discussed her ideas about the project.

She said an interest of hers is “using design to recall history that is long gone or forgotten.”

Though Charlotte, Vt. is far from Charlotte, N.C., where Howard is based, she said that phone call two years ago was memorable. In her firm’s cultural practice, when they are choosing a project, she said, “we usually are intrigued not necessarily by the size or scale. Every once in a while we see these nuanced projects that are very unique because they represent something that’s not prevalent or particularly common.”

In the Clemmons’ case, it was their 148-acre farm, which they purchased in 1962 and is now one of the oldest and largest African-American owned and operated farms in the state of Vermont. The vision that Jackson, Lydia, and the younger Lydia, who is the executive director of the farm, have for the property now is to create a community-based hub for performing arts and community gatherings that celebrates and focuses on African-American heritage in Vermont. They call the project “A Sense of Place.”

In 2017, the farm project won a $350,000 National Creative Placemaking Fund grant from ArtPlace America.

Lydia said they designated about half of that amount toward work on the Big Barn. Once they had the funds in place, they contacted Howard again. She was ready, and over the span of three days in June, she visited the farm to work with the Clemmons family along with local preservationist Eliot Lothrop from Huntington-based Building Heritage.

One of her interests, Howard said, is “using design to recall history — long gone or forgotten.” She said that African American farmers in particular are being neglected from a historical perspective. “This whole notion of anything agrarian and African American – that’s been sort of a lost focus in many ways for African Americans, and there are many reasons why.”

She said the memory of African Americans in an agrarian context is uncomfortable for many. “Some people have a visceral reaction because of slavery, and are running away from anything farming or gardening.”

She said the Charlotte project, as well as one she’s working on with urban gardening in Los Angeles, represent a future of African American farming and history recollection that encompasses all aspects of the African American agricultural experience.

During her time at the Clemmons farm, Howard conducted a site survey, participated in a meet-and-greet with almost 100 guests at a reception, participated in a discussion and brainstorming design charette and gave a presentation highlighting the importance of cultural spaces fostering connections between people.

She also held a mentoring workshop with girls of color from the area who are interested in the field of architecture.

Howard said her time here was “just fascinating…It’s an incredible story. It’s a model for all the projects I can do – everyone can learn from this. I can learn from this.” She plans to continue to work with the Clemmons family and the rest of the barn restoration team throughout the project. “It is truly a great cultural destination,” she said.

Roz Whitaker-Heck, director of communications and community outreach for A Sense of Place, said the project is taking shape and moving into its next stage. “Phase two will require the work of an architect as well as a structural engineer for new interior spaces.” She said John Jordan, a New Hampshire architect who has consulted on the barn, several Vermont architects, and Howard have all indicated their desire to further participate in the project. The farm is currently beginning fundraising efforts to finance this next phase.

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