Infusing an old barn with new life

When Alec Webster started paying attention to the old Cowell Ranch Hay Barn, a century and a half of use, disuse, and the elements had taken a steep toll. By the time he started really caring, it was clearly falling down.

Still, he saw an amazing opportunity. If restored, the barn could be a way to honor the history of UC Santa Cruz and the land itself, bring new focus to South Campus, add momentum to adjacent environmental and food sustainability programs, and become a catalyst for others to invest in the university.

Webster and his wife Claudia knew they could make the difference, do something that, if cared for, will stand for another 150 years. As trustees of the Helen and Will Webster Foundation—named after Webster's parents—they announced a gift in March of $5 million. It will be used to restore the Hay Barn as the centerpiece of a revived campus entrance and home for UCSC's innovative sustainability programs, and to fund programs centered there.

A former UCSC staff member, Webster worked on campus for 14 years. In his late 40s, he decided to go back to school and complete his degree, which he started at UC Santa Barbara many years earlier. A year after he stopped working at the university, he became an alum (College Eight '02, environmental studies).

The Websters' philanthropy at UCSC began in 2006. One of their first gifts was $30 to Friends of the Farm and Garden. They've supported a variety of programs, from scholarships to the Grateful Dead Archive, but most significantly those associated with food sustainability and environmental studies.

"If you don't preserve it, everyone forgets," Webster says. "If these buildings disappear the connection to the land and its history will be lost."

He and Claudia and the scores of others on campus and in the community who have come together to bring this project to the fore are looking forward to seeing the Hay Barn standing tall in 2015, which is also when the university will celebrate its 50th anniversary.