Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between roundups of historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
The sight of a house freed from its foundation and rolling down the road is not one we usually associate with stability. But—as we at Curbed are well aware—the task of moving a house is not an uncommon one. Houses are moved for a variety of reasons, from providing the building with a better plot of land to saving it from demolition. Sometimes, the houses being moved are relatively modern. We recently covered a ski home that was slung across Telluride. Other times, the buildings are historic—like Chicago's Harriet F. Rees house, which we reported on quite extensively when it was moved two years ago.
Counter to our expectations, moving a historic house isn’t the most delicate—or limiting—procedure. "As far as a route can be provided that will fit the house down the street, we can figure out a way to move it," says Mike Brovont of Wolfe House & Building Movers.
Brovont, who grew up around people in the house-moving business and has spent his whole career transporting structures, went on to explain that the process of moving a house is consistent regardless of the size, shape, or material of the structure. "You start by digging underneath the house to expose the foundation, which you ultimately put holes in," Brovont said in his calm, matter-of-fact voice. "Steel beams and cross beams are then installed in those holes. The key is making sure to shim up to all the bearing points of the structure.
The steel latticework temporarily takes the place of the foundation. That latticework is what keeps the building on a flat plane during the move. "We have yet to come across a house that cannot be moved," Brovont says.
He really means it. The firm even moved one of the first Quaker meeting houses—which looks like it could fall down at the next breath of wind. "We jacked up several of the floors and then framed in the walls and put in proper supports," Brovont said nonchalantly. He has never been on a move that's ended in a pile of rubble. "Then we sheeted the roof and sides and basically put the house back together." In essence, they built a structure around the meeting house to support it and ensure it didn't fall apart as it was lifted onto its steel platform.
Once a house is lifted on the platform, then it can be transported: "It can travel securely at a walking pace," Brovont said. "If the house is small enough, we could even attach it to a truck and take it on a highway going 30 or 40 mph."
One of the projects that Brovont worked on that we were specifically interested in was the translocation of the Hamilton Grange National Memorial. The Grange, built in 1802, was Alexander Hamilton’s house in uptown Manhattan. It was once the centerpiece of the founding father's large farm when Harlem was more-or-less still considered the countryside. The Grange, which had ended up wedged between an apartment building and a large stone church, was being moved about 600 feet to the edge of a grassy hill.
"Since we didn’t have access to the sides of the building, we did have to adjust our procedure a bit," Brovont said when we asked about how he goes about moving a structure in the city that may abut other buildings. "We put our main steel supports through the foundation and then put a number of smaller cross beams—but the real issue was provided by the church."
The neighboring church had a porch that swung out in front of the Grange, which prevented the house from being moved straight out onto the street. The solution? "We lifted the house 32’ above the street, slid it over the church and its porch, and lowered it back down onto the street level. The streets were closed for about two weeks while we were building the infrastructure needed for the move."
Of course, once the house arrives to its new plot of land, it needs to be matched with a new foundation. In order to be sensitive to the often uneven structure of older houses, the new foundation is completed in two stages. After the majority of the foundation has been laid, the house is rolled into place on its steel platform. The foundation is then built up to the house around the steel beams. From there, the steel beams are extracted and the holes left behind are filled.
"An old house like the Grange is most likely not going to be perfectly square. And so if you try to set it down onto a square foundation, you’re going to end up with inches off in one corner and inches off in another," explained Brovont. "Putting the house in place allows you to build the foundation off square, off level, whatever needs to do to match it up to the house exactly."
While, in the history of house moving, some buildings haven't fared so well, the houses that are moved successfully can be renovated and worked on in exactly the same way as those that haven't budged an inch. Both Mia Jung, director of interiors at architecture firm Ike Kligerman Barkley and Terry Plyant, a principal at Historical Concepts, have only had good experiences working with transported structures.
"One property on Nantucket had a guest house that had been moved years before I had a chance to work on it," said Jung. "There were essentially no signs of it having been previously moved."
"There was a farmhouse I worked on in South Carolina," said Plyant. "It would have otherwise been left to decay in its current plot, but it was moved to a gorgeous piece of land where it truly served as the anchor for the site. The move brought new life to the house."
Now, if anybody is looking to move a house out there, be warned: it doesn’t come cheap. Brovont quoted us about $40,000 to move a small farmhouse—and, mind you, that doesn’t include the cost of laying the new foundation and connecting the house to plumbing and electrical. "When you get into these historic buildings—a stone or a brick building...you can’t build them like that anymore. Sometimes literally, they won’t allow you to—by code!" says Brovont. "But, you know, when you’re working with history, then there’s a lot more value there than just the cost."
- All Period Dramas Content [Curbed]
- Coverage of the Harriet F. Rees Move [Curbed Chicago]
- Frank Lloyd Wright House Is Rebuilt Anew, Piece by Piece, in Arkansas [Curbed]