Mother Earth Living

From the Ashes: A Fire-Ravaged Barn in Lawrence, Kansas, Transforms Into an Outdoor Retreat

Evan Williams accidentally burned down her family’s barn-turned-cottage when she was a grad student. Now its charred remains are the centerpiece of her show-stopping Kansas garden.
By Carol Crupper
September/October 2010
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Bittersweet adds a delicate touch to a fall centerpiece.
Photography By Diane Guthrie
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On the grounds of her childhood home in Lawrence, Kansas, Evan Williams has turned a fire-ravaged barn into a sought-after shelter. Couples exchange wedding vows beneath its rough-hewn rafters; people gather for parties; friends and family cozy up on its decks. This magical place is the ultimate recycling project, a testament to how imagination can reframe what something might be.

Built as a barn more than 150 years ago, the structure served as a neighborhood slaughterhouse at one point. Evan’s parents, Odd and Jonell Williams, kept horses in the barn before they converted it into a cottage where various family members could reside for short stints. While living there during graduate school, Evan left a flame burning under a pan of grease and started the cottage on fire. Years later, she’s turned the charred remains into an outdoor retreat for her family and a party site that can accommodate up to 600 guests for her catering business, Evan Williams Catering.

Evan and her husband, Roger Walter, bought the 1861 limestone home overlooking nine acres, which Evan grew up in, after Jonell died 14 years ago. “The idea of selling this to someone else to turn into their own would have been more than I could bear,” Evan says.

After some remodeling to make the vintage house more comfortable, the family turned its focus to the remains of the barn at the bottom of the hill. Jonell had cleaned the blackened walls and strengthened them with mortar, adding new beams and two sunny decks. Outside the barn, she had laid a brick path and built raised vegetable beds using old railroad ties. “She made it a walkable, enjoyable space,” Evan says.

Evan replaced her mother’s vegetables with blue and green hostas, lacy ferns and jaunty columbine. To Jonell’s roses and peonies, Evan added perennial beds that make a dramatic sweep toward the once-charred barn. Clouds of dainty white clematis burst through its open beams and nestle against its limestone walls. Ample seating allows guests to sit and take it all in. Evan collects skulls, bone shards, birds’ eggs, bugs and other bits from nature. Some end up as décor, others as science projects. This magical place is the ultimate recycling project, a testament to how imagination can frame what something might be.

The family uses the barn and sprawling grounds for both business and pleasure. “Most of the time, I look around and see everything that needs to be fixed,” Roger says. “It’s almost like living on a farm. We all have our chores—mow the back 40 and water every day.”

Yet after a run, Roger enjoys having a beer on the barn’s deck, and he likes the family closeness its isolated setting encourages. Buzz, 14, remembers planting a secret garden near the barn when he was younger, while Sam, 18, has done his share of bug catching there. Sam made good use of the barn’s tranquility as a young adult, too, using it as a study hall for his college entrance exams.

When Evan is catering, the barn teems with people enjoying trays of deep blue grapes, blushing pears and local cheeses garnished with violas and nasturtium. Evan’s homegrown cherries, peaches, apples, tomatoes and herbs snipped just outside the kitchen door all make their way onto her menus.

After a party, much of the uneaten food goes to a local food pantry. On occasion, Evan invites friends and neighbors for leftovers. “It’s really fun,” Evan says. “It’s been really joyful for me to be the funny lady who lives next door.”

For a great garden party, mix imagination with seasonal flair. Evan Williams suggests:

■ Serve seasonal foods (from your garden, if possible).

■ Arrange food with art and color in mind. Mix plums and grapes with bright yellow pears; try a variety of apples in a glass bowl.

■ Fill antique toolboxes with veggies to resemble giant floral arrangements.

■ Use gatherings from your yard to decorate plates and tables. For fall, try maple branches, oak leaves, bittersweet, hedge apples, even thistle bouquets.

■ Place candles in Mason jars and dangle them from trees.

■ Use potted plants to fill in garden spots not in bloom.

■ Don’t follow seasonal color clichés. For fall, mix delicate oranges, pinks and whites.


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