Two West End rowhouses, free for the taking. It seemed too good to be true, and it was, kind of – the houses are free, but the lot is earmarked for a condo development, so if you want the houses, you have to move them. It sounds sort of like the punchline to a not-really-funny joke, but the fact is, there have been so many houses moved in DC that it’s surprising we don’t see them in morning traffic.
The historic Dumbarton House, in Georgetown, originally sat 60 feet south of where it sits now. When the city decided to build the Q Street Bridge to connect Georgetown and Dupont Circle, the house was jacked up onto rollers and pulled by a mule to its present location. (Vaguely ironic that a house that’s now a museum exhibiting an “authentic” 19th century lifestyle isn’t even in its original location.) The Warder mansion, on 16th Street, was originally built on K Street, but after owner Benjamin Warder died, the family sold the land to developers planning an office building. At the last minute, an architect named Charles Oakley Totten, Jr. decided to save it, and single-handedly disassembled the house and moved it to its present location, piece by piece, in his Model T. (This was the sort of thing people did for fun before the internet existed.) Then there’s the house on Newton Street, in Mount Pleasant, which was bought at auction and then moved to its present spot. Halfway through the move, a storm hit, and the new owner just left the house to sit in the middle of Monroe Street for almost a week before finally getting around to moving it the rest of the way.
So how are these buildings actually moved? Usually the process involves digging down around the foundation, inserting support beams of wood or steel, and jacking the entire structure up until a platform can be slid underneath it. When they moved the DC Eagle building, on New York Avenue, to make way for a new development, they bricked up the windows for added stability, jacked it up, and then just it rolled it down the street on wheeled platforms. The process can be expensive – over $100,000 – and in most places, you have to pay the city to stop traffic and move overhead wires out of the way. But it can be worth it, if you buy your dream home for a steal – one couple in New Jersey bought a lavish home for just one dollar, and then spent the hundred grand moving it to their lot. Though most moves cover relatively short distances – less than a mile – one man in India took his ancestral home apart and put it back together 1500 miles away.
Why go to all the trouble? Reasons vary. In Chile, people will move their house to escape ghosts, and Turkey founder Ataturk moved his vacation home ten feet to avoid cutting down a favorite shade tree. In a stunning display of historical indecision, Alexander Hamilton’s former home has been relocated not once but twice. Buildings have been moved to make way for stadiums and roads, and there’s a long history of lighthouses being relocated when wave erosion eats away at the supporting ground. But other moves have been more capricious.
In the early 20th century, the fashion among the rich was to build European-style country houses. A wealthy Richmond, Virginia businessman named Thomas Williams decided to take the idea to its logical conclusion, and bought a vacant 15th century manor house in Lancashire, England named Agecroft Hall, had it disassembled, shipped across the Atlantic, and reassembled in Richmond. (It’s still there, and is now a museum.) If people are mad about gentrification, think how much madder they’d be about rich people seeing houses they liked while on vacation and having them shipped back home.
In 1925, American gazillionaire William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for “Citizen Kane”), bought a 12th century Spanish monastery and promptly began taking it apart for shipment back to the United States, where he planned to use the ancient stones to build a castle in California. (The rich: they really are different.) But when the Great Depression hit, Hearst’s fortune dwindled, and he abandoned the disassembled monastery in a New York warehouse. It sat there until the Fifties, when a Florida entrepreneur bought most of it and assembled it in Florida as a tourist attraction. Eventually, after it failed (who ever could’ve foreseen that kids wouldn’t flock to see a 12th century monastery?!), it was bought by a church and turned back into a monastery. Weird how things work out sometimes.