A BARN reborn

Breathing new life into a family treasure

By Anna Mason


Born and raised in Alaska, Sarah Phipps grew up on her family’s 16-acre farm in Palmer, an original Colony farm. The barn on the property, built by homesteader Virgil Eckert, is one of only two original gothic-style Colony barns left standing in the state. During Sarah’s childhood, the barn was used to store hay and house all the livestock on the farm, including Sarah’s 4H horses. It was also in this barn, she fondly recalls, where she helped deliver calves.


General Contractor/Builder:
Joseph Hale, H Construction
Mike Forss, H Construction
Sarah Phipps
Plumbing & Mechanical:
Chris Vogel, Rock Solid Plumbing & Heating
Matt Forss, Last Frontier
Electric, LLC
Richard E. Dienes-Oehm, Architectural & Structural/Civil Engineering Consultant
Scott Cleeves, Cleeves' Home Improvement
General Framing &
Building Materials:
Spenard Builders Supply
Doors & Windows:
Summit Windows & Doors
Forbess Floor Covering
Custom Insulated Barn Door:
Robinson Millworks

Sarah left her hometown to attend college out of state, and continued living in the lower 48 for a number of years with her husband, Taylor Massey. Throughout those years, Sarah would return for visits – and saw her beloved childhood home slowly deteriorating.

“It made me sad to see the property not being farmed or taken care of,” says Sarah. “It’s great soil, and I was scared the land would get turned into a store or a subdivision, so we worked out a way for me to buy it from my family.”

Sarah knew she wanted to clean up the property and make it her own. “Of course there’s a lot of sentimental value for me,” she says. “All my best family memories are here. For me, this was a project to try to reclaim this family space that had fallen apart and have somewhere my family could come together again.”

The process to transform the abandoned property into its glorious new life would be a long and exhausting one.

“The (amount of) trash was crazy; just the cleanup alone was overwhelming at times,” Sarah says. “We spent a good deal of time doing clean up and demo of collapsed buildings, an old house trailer, abandoned cars, etc. On the barn itself, the biggest challenge was that we had to basically build a house inside an existing structure.” Much of the log work in the house that was originally used for structural purposes is now mainly decorative, as new structural supports were added in during construction. Thankfully, the new structural reinforcements were placed just in time, as the November 2018 earthquake hit shortly after. No damage occurred to Sarah’s barn/home, but the earthquake did slow down the timeline due to new demands for construction.

Joseph Hale of H Construction, the general contractor, says this project was the most unique one he’s ever been involved in. “We had a lot of fun doing it; every time we turned around there was a new challenge but Sarah was really easy to work with and knew what she was doing.”

Sarah had challenges throughout the process finding products and materials in Alaska that fit her unique aesthetic, and was constantly running into heavy costs to ship things up from the lower 48. To solve the problem, she hired local craftsmen to fabricate those items she couldn’t find in Alaska. Some of the local talent included H Construction building the balcony and stair railings for the exterior, and Scott Cleeves of Wasilla, who spent all winter building the custom cabinets.

As an interior designer, Sarah had a specific vision throughout the project. “I liked the idea of crafting something both rustic and modern,” she says. “I wanted to put contrasting elements together to make something stunning.” To do this, she kept as many original elements of the home as possible, like the spiral staircase and the soapstone fireplace and hearth. The railing for the staircase is hand-steamed alder, built by her family. The soapstone for the fireplace and hearth is from her family’s mine in
Hatcher Pass.

One of Sarah’s favorite spaces in the home is the upstairs bathroom – a transformation that undoubtedly surprised a few skeptics. “When we were first doing the demo, in hazmat suits, scraping mold out of the upstairs, I walked into the corner and said ‘I want to put the world’s most over-the-top bathroom here! A soaking tub, a chandelier, the works.’ Everyone looked at me like I was crazy!” she recalls. “But that bathroom is super cool, and I just felt that the high ceilings and the beams and the curves of that room needed some dramatic modern fixtures.”

When Sarah bought the farm, she donated much of the land to the Alaska Farmland Trust to ensure that it would never be developed. Of the land that she kept, some of it became a peony farm. When Hygge & West came out with a peony wallpaper, Sarah knew she had to use it. “I love that wallpaper!” she says with a laugh. And this proud owner’s raves continue: “I love my butler’s pantry. I love that we saved the spiral staircase and the fireplace. I love that if you’re standing at the sink you’re looking out at the flower fields.”

Sarah plans to use the barn home as an Airbnb during the time she spends in Oregon (she and husband, Taylor, split their time between Alaska and Oregon), and also wants to use the property as a wedding venue, with the home acting as a bridal suite.

The newly restored barn may pleasantly fool a few with its rural-vibe exterior: “I wanted the outside of the barn to keep its rustic look and for it to be a surprise when you came inside.” For many future visitors, the surprise will be a warm and wonderful one.