Moving Historic Barns & Buildings, Part I

History of Moving Buildings:

Our Yankee predecessors were less willing to tear down buildings that had required a significant investment in materials and labor to construct. Without modern tools, equipment, and techniques, many man-hours were required to accomplish tasks that are far less time-consuming today. In fact, during the 19th century, it made good economic sense to move and recycle a building no longer wanted on its original site.

The cost of labor in 19th century America was relatively more expensive than elsewhere. David Stevenson, a Scottish civil engineer born in 1815, traveled in the United States and Canada for three months and published his professional observations in 1838 in his Sketch of the Civil Engineering of North America. Noting that American laborers earned more than twice the daily wage of their British counterparts, he wrote, "In consequence of the great value of labour, the Americans adopt, with a view to economy, many mechanical expedients, which, in the eyes of British engineers, seem very extraordinary." Chief among these expedients was the moving of houses, to which Stevenson devoted a whole chapter of his book.

In the 19th century, buildings might be moved disassembled, partially disassembled, or intact. As John Obed Curtis explains in his Moving Historic Buildings (1979; reprinted 1991), these same methods are still used today to preserve historic buildings from demolition.

Total disassembly involved the dismantling of a structure piece-by-piece. Each piece was marked so that the various elements could be put back together as they had come down. If the building had a foundation, the stones could be marked, removed, and reused, or the building could simply be reconstructed on a new foundation. Total disassembly involved the loss of a building’s original plaster and so was not the method of choice when the preservation of interior walls was a priority. It was, however, well suited to the moving of barns, sheds, and other minimally finished buildings.      Hints that an historic building has been moved is to see numberings and chalk marks on a beam.

Sometimes little complicated engineering beyond the raising of the building off its foundation was necessary. Under the right conditions, sheer animal power could accomplish the rest.   Here is a home efficiently being moved to its new location.   Often, winter was the best time to move as sleds would be used as  ice and frozen, snowy ground eased the travel of buildings over the landscape.

Often, however, additional engineering measures were required to transport a building once raised off its foundation. As described in wonderful detail in an anonymous article on moving houses in the American Agriculturist for November, 1873, one much-used technique was to place the raised structure onto rollers and to move it to its new site over timbers. The rollers consisted of wooden carriages fastened beneath the building’s sills (by means of spikes projecting upward from the carriage) with wheels attached to the underside of the carriages. The rollers traveled over heavy wooden timbers placed beneath the raised building. By means of a rope and pulley or capstan arrangement, a team — generally no more than two animals were required — pulled the building along the timbers. As it moved forward, the timbers from behind were taken up and replaced ahead of it. As long as the move was well managed, the interior plaster would remain uncracked throughout. Scotsman David Stevenson marveled back in the 19th century, how successfully even houses with items hanging on the walls were moved.

In some cases, a building might be moved by a tongue and groove type of setup rather than on wheels. It would slide over beams with projections that fit upward into grooves in the wooden pieces above, onto which the sills were fastened. The beams were greased to facilitate movement. More complex situations required special preparations, such as the construction of cribwork to manage the moving of a building down a hillside. As time went by, other forms of power besides animals were used for transportation.

Why Historic Buildings should be moved:

From the architectural historian’s point of view, total disassembly as a modern preservation technique has merit, even though it involves the destruction of original plaster and mortar. As Curtis points out, the process allows examination and documentation of the various layers of a structure.    In addition, if a new site is not determined, a home can be disassembled, catalogued and stored until a decision is made to reassemble the structure.

Partial disassembly involved the removal, marking, and transportation of structural components of a building rather than individual pieces. This method was less time- and labor-consuming than total disassembly.    In a partial disassembly, the interior finish work, plaster, lath, and floors are removed first, then the roof. (As with total disassembly, the original plaster is lost in the process.) Non-load-bearing interior walls are handled as discrete units. The four exterior walls and two gables each comprise a separate unit.

There were various methods of transporting an intact building in the 19th century, but before it could be moved it first had to be raised up off its original foundation. This was commonly accomplished by the use of screwjacks. Sections of the foundation were removed to allow placement of the screwjacks under the sills. A large building required more screwjacks than did a small one.


Why Moving Buildings has become far less common today:


Nowadays, it is often perceived that it is easier and cheaper to raze an old building, haul it to a landfill, and put up a new one in its place than it is to move and recondition it. People sometimes purchase an old house specifically for its lot, with the intention of demolishing it and erecting one more suited to modern needs and wants.

In addition to changing economics, the modern complications of telephone and power lines, plumbing connections, heavy traffic, and the necessity of obtaining special permits have all contributed to the present-day disinclination to move old buildings.


Historic homes can be rescued through relocation or raising:

                                                            “Raise the home not raze it”

Because new construction is so expensive especially in the Northeast, people are finding out that moving and renovating a home is often cheaper than tearing it down. Moving a building often costs less than new construction and preserves owner equity.”     Another scenario may require an historic home to be moved if it is in the way of progress due to so much new land development. These structures are worth saving and tax credits help with the process.”

Moving structures is a long-standing technique for ‘recycling’ rather than tearing down a valuable historic structure and filling our overstretched landfills.   Older buildings can be salvaged, restored, and enjoyed in new settings.     Doing a move is considerably less than tearing down the home and building a new one.   Historic homes are definitely worth saving.

The first step is to obtain National Register status and this is a no-brainer if the home is inside the Newburyport Historic District.       If a home will be used for rentals, an owner can apply and receive both state and federal tax credits helping to fund renovations, restorations and a house move.

As part of those renovations, a new location and a new foundation has to be poured.    House movers may provide this service as part of the package.      


One of the distinctive advantages of moving a building in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the over 100 year experience with structural movers has caused laws and policies to be put into place specifically to regulate and make it easier to raise rather than raze.     For example, Massachusetts General Law allows local control on the move


As a matter of state policy, the Commonwealth has a mechanism with the utility companies in which power lines are temporarily taken down for free to help facilitate the move.


General Costs:


Moving buildings in one piece is very economical.


Often the charge is by the weight of the house which if a home is 200 tons at $600 per ton. For smaller homes, they charge $14-$16 per square foot.

Today, as conservation and environmental concerns grow and a public aversion to landfills gathers steam, there is definitely a trend of having historic homes moved.


-P. Preservationist


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2 Responses to Moving Historic Barns & Buildings, Part I

  1. Pingback: My Blood Ran Cold | P. Preservationist

  2. Pingback: Preserving history, questions between abstract and concrete « Invasion of the Neurons from Outer Space

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