On cold, gray December days, John Guertin can be found near the blazing forge in his Grand Rapids workshop, one hand on the gas valve, the other slowly turning his branding irons. Their glowing shapes are his tools of art.
Their searing heat burns unique designs into the faces of his handcrafted birdhouses. Birdhouse building may not be the typical vocation for a man who earned an English degree, but Guertin’s avocation, albeit his passion, is historic Michigan barns.
“The barn is more than just the structure of beams and shingles,” Guertin explained. “It houses something of reverence — life itself.”
Guertin’s career path led him to the feature film industry, business communications and newspaper publishing, but he found his calling in old, dilapidated barns. “I saw these old barns falling down and thought it would be a noteworthy thing to save them for a better purpose,” he said. That purpose? Turning barns into birdhouses. And the Heart and Eagle (barnsintobirdhouses.com) company took flight. The endeavor allows him to blend his passion for conservation and nature with his eye for architecture and design.
Guertin has purchased eight Michigan barns more than a century old. He finds planks with promise hidden among masses of termites and timbers. In this 21st century disposable age, he shuns the thought that most items are destined for the landfill. The barns he chooses have historical significance. One came from a thriving dairy farm, where a freshman Michigan Congressman by the name of Gerald R. Ford made good on a bet by milking cows there in 1948.
“Having made architectural scale models, I spent hours upon hours poring over old patterns, looking at pieces of Victorian architecture, Gothic design, which
are all quite lovely.”
— John Guertin
“We’ve saved a piece of history, and we’re bringing a new generation of native birds into the world by repurposing that material,” Guertin said.
Few 19th-century barn scraps go unused, according to Guertin, who incorporates them into his architectural designs. They become a steeple on a cathedral or a cupola on an English cottage. “Having made architectural scale models, I spent hours upon hours poring over old patterns, looking at pieces of Victorian architecture, Gothic design, which are all quite lovely,” he said.
Guertin’s handcrafted houses have garnered attention throughout the Midwest. “I love having John at our festivals,” said Amy Amdur, CEO and president of Amdur Productions, which puts on 30 juried art festivals throughout the Midwest. “He has a high level of engagement with the public. He’s always explaining what he does.”
Guertin enjoys that engagement. “I do a lot of shows in Illinois and talk to thousands of people about what it’s like out there on the farm, the wonders of barn construction, the historical view and how even a small thing like a birdhouse is making a statement about history.”
In his workshop, Guertin runs his calloused hands over rough-hewn timbers, nodding approvingly, almost a genuflection. “Aw jeez,” he opined. “That wood’s been hanging out there for 120 years. Look at it. It’s the signature of the Almighty’s hand in that. And it’s still going strong.”
He sees holiness in that history — a vision that allows the beauty and age of restored barn wood to once again house nature’s delicate creatures.