Naperville to celebrate memories of Barn teen center
There's no denying it: Barns are a part of Naperville's history.
But there's also no denying this: The Barn, otherwise known as the Naperville Park District's Barn Recreation Center, is soon to be history.
The moment wrecking ball meets red brick is sure to be a sad one for many Naperville natives whose awkward high school dances and rock concert jam sessions took place in the now 51-year-old structure.
But end the Barn's era must, park district officials say, because the district is in need of a new central maintenance facility, and the Knoch Park land now occupied by the former teen hangout is the best location.
As the park district has planned for demolition of the Barn after this year's Ribfest, officials have led longtime residents and Barn pioneers who've since moved away on a trip down memory lane. Together, Barn builders have recalled door-to-door efforts to sell no-interest bonds for construction costs, long hours spent painting or hauling bricks, early romances at Naperville High School dances and community support for the Barn as a place for teens to be teens.
On Saturday, June 4, those memories will come alive once more during the Barn Farewell Event from 4 to 9 p.m. on the lawn west of the building at 421 W. Martin Ave.
Bands will play -- including Nepenthe, an act featuring performers who were regulars during the Barn's early years. There will be free food, with beer and wine for sale, and a ceremony to open a time capsule tucked into the cornerstone of the building.
"We will have a memory lane set up inside the barn where people can view some of the contents of the time capsule and lots of pictures that people are providing," said Sue Omanson, community development manager for Naperville Park District.
Planning to attend the farewell are Barn-goers including George Bussey of Hawaii, who became president of the youth organization that oversaw the Barn in its early years, and Linda Stevens Hjorth of Glen Ellyn, who remembers helping paint the Barn and taking tickets from peers attending dances and shows.
They're exactly the kind of crowd the park district hopes will enjoy the farewell before a part of their youth gives way to forward progress.
"We hope it'll be a good time for people to connect and celebrate the memories of the Barn -- and really looking forward to the future, too," Omanson said. "Even though it's sad to see something like the Barn go away, we'll be preserving the memories of it and we're providing something better for today's kids."
It was January, 1965, in Naperville and George Bussey was among teens who liked high school student Diana Mayes' idea of building an agricultural-themed hangout that could be all their own.
"Back then we were surrounded by farms and barns were a big deal," said Bussey, who had a view of one from his Naperville house growing up, where the Highlands neighborhood now stands. "It did actually fit into the motif of the town at the time."
Teens went door-to-door during an era when that was more common and asked their neighbors not to donate to the Barn's cause, but to buy bonds that would be paid back later -- at zero percent interest. Sometimes it was a tough sell. Other times, a resident would surprise the teens by buying much more than they asked -- not one $25 bond, but a handful of them.
Al Carr, father of one Barn-building student, was a general contractor who took over the project once $50,000 worth of bonds were in hand. He and other community supporters donated time and supplies to the effort, and Linda Stevens Hjorth said she was glad the leading adults let teens keep a hands-on investment in the work.
"He could have told us, 'Go away, kids. We don't want you painting and messing up our walls.' But he let us work alongside the workmen," she said. "They only let me paint. I think they were afraid of letting me do anything else."
When the place was ready to open Dec. 4, 1965, anxiety and anticipation were high among the students most involved in the Barn-building process. Bussey said he worried his peers would try to sneak in cigarettes or beer, when the teens needed to prove they could be trusted not to cause trouble.
"This is going to be a good thing if we all behave," he remembers thinking as crowds streamed in.
The first concert was packed, as were many Sadie Hawkins dances -- like a modern turnabout, in which the girls ask the boys -- and later shows by local teen bands like Winslow Savage and bigger acts from Chicago like The Flock. Yearbook photos were snapped there, capturing the scene. Teen leaders kept the place tidy, scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets. They owned the Barn and it gave them a place.
"It was a wonderful way to take care of the teenagers," Stevens Hjorth said.
A fond farewell
A few years after it opened, the Barn became part of the Naperville Park District, which formed in 1966. After taking over the structure in 1969, the district eventually began hosting youth recreation programs on a gym floor that once was the dance floor. This let some Barn regulars get a second use out of the structure even though their teen years had passed.
"Since I stayed in Naperville as a young mother, I took my children to programs at the park district, too," said Donna DeFalco, a city of Naperville employee who has lived in town since 1962. "The Barn has been a continuum in my life."
Stevens Hjorth said she was surprised how little the structure had changed when she returned a few years ago to revisit the site of her high school nights.
Park district officials say this lack of adjustment is part of what makes the Barn outdated. It'd be expensive to retrofit it to the accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A modern recreation center just wouldn't be built with a barnlike layout.
A new recreation facility would look more like the Fort Hill Activity Center, which is scheduled to open this summer with 80,000 square feet of indoor space -- much more than the 3,600 square feet the Barn offers. The $24 million activity center will have gyms, a track, a fitness center, multipurpose rooms and more -- all available to the community, including its teens.
With the new recreation space nearly ready to open, the Barn-raising days of the past are giving way to a Barn razing project and the future.
"In Naperville, time marches on. We can't stand still," DeFalco said. "The Barn will live on in our memories -- and in our yearbooks."
If you goWhat: Barn Farewell Event
When: 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, June 4
Where: Barn Recreation Center, 421 W. Martin Ave., Naperville
Details: Hosted by Naperville Park District, includes performances by bands Nepenthe, OMT and the second-place winner of the youth battle of the bands
Cost: Free admission, free food for first 250 people, free commemorative cup for first 500 people; beer and wine for sale
Info: (630) 848-5000 or napervilleparks.org