Historic Newport home’s fate discussed

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking for input on the potential fate of a house tied to a prominent figure in the area’s history.

The Judge Joseph Barker Jr. House, located about a mile below the Willow Island Locks and Dam on Ohio 7 in Lower Newport, is on the National Register of Historic Places, due at least in part to the belief that it was designed and/or built by Joseph Barker Sr., whose architectural contributions include work on the second Washington County Courthouse and the mansion on Blennerhassett Island. The two-and-a-half story frame and brick structure served as an office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during construction of the Willow Island Locks and Dam, but has been vacant for many years.

“It has fallen into a state of neglect, a state of disrepair,” said Keith Keeney, a Louisville, Ky.-based archaeologist with the Corps.

The Corps is now looking at ways to “divest ourselves” of the house, Keeney said. To fulfill requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act, the agency is soliciting opinions on what can and should be done with the house. A meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Campus Martius Museum, where people can submit vocal or written statements.

An open house is planned from 10 a.m. to noon the following day, but access will be limited due to deterioration in parts of the building, Keeney said. The windows on the structure are boarded over, paint is peeling and holes are evident from outside the chain-link fence that surrounds it.

Options for the house, built in 1832, include selling, leasing or transferring it to another entity or owner.

“Quite a bit of it would have to be updated and a lot of work would have to be done to get it to that point,” Keeney said.

If that isn’t feasible, demolition is a possibility. Ray Swick, historian of West Virginia State Parks and Forests, said he hopes that doesn’t happen.

“It most certainly ought to be preserved because there are so few older structures … that have survived in our part of the Ohio Valley,” said Swick, based at Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park in Parkersburg.

Swick said Barker was the “construction supervisor and probably contributed architectural guidance” for the original mansion on Blennerhassett Island, destroyed by fire in 1811. He’s been tied to other buildings in the area; however, his role in the construction of the home that bears his son’s name is uncertain.

In 1981, the Corps authorized a study of the house as it looked at expanding a nearby dredge disposal area. Despite its inclusion on the National Register two years prior, there were still questions as to how involved Barker was, if at all, in building the structure.

“Although there is an excellent possibility that Barker contributed his building skills and knowledge to his eldest son and namesake’s home, that supposition cannot be documented on the basis of the research undertaken here,” says the report, on file with Marietta College’s Special Collections.

The report says there are similar issues with other structures with which Barker is associated.

Architecture was not Barker’s only, or even primary, interest, the report notes, which could explain why he did not develop a distinctive style that distinguishes his work. He was a politician, judge, farmer and shipbuilder as well, credited with building the boats Aaron Burr is believed to have authorized for the expedition that eventually led to his being charged with treason in a conspiracy tied to Blennerhassett Island.

The report ultimately contends the house demonstrates historical significance, citing its “integrity of location, materials and workmanship” and its association with the life of Joseph Barker Jr., a 19th century judge and legislator who is “usually credited with being one of the first children to have been born to the New England settlers of the Marietta region.”

Swick said it seems unlikely the elder Barker wouldn’t have contributed in some way to his son’s home, but he believes the home has value even if he did not.

“It has its own worth, just from being a house of that period,” he said.