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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Summer 2004 > Like Checkers on a Checker Board

Like Checkers on a Checker Board


ABOVE Yokes of oxen provided the power to move this Newburyport, Massachusetts, building.


BELOW A demolition delay bylaw helped save the c. 1725 Allen-Swenson Farmhouse in Lexington, Massachusetts.


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ABOVE In 1888, the First Universalist Church was moved in two parts.
BELOW Boston's Hotel Pelham was moved in 1869, continuing to operate while en route.

"The building came along slowly, drawn by yokes of oxen. Every yoke had a driver beside it with goads, hurrying them with a 'Hush-whoa'. It seemed as though there were 20 or 40 yoke of oxen." Elizabeth Prince Peabody of Danvers, Massachusetts, thus described her memory of a house moving that she witnessed in 1845, when she was a little girl. Her description portrays the traditional method of moving buildings in New England. Structures were jacked up, placed on cribbing, and then rolled along on logs or wheels pulled by oxen or horses. From almost the earliest days of settlement, buildings were moved with surprising frequency, because the cost of materials in the pre-industrial era was just too expensive to disregard. Most towns can cite numerous examples of relocated buildings: in Lexington, Massachusetts, more than one hundred buildings have been moved, some more than once. In New Hampshire, a mayor of Portsmouth once complained that buildings were being moved around "like checkers on a checker board." To Europeans, the extent to which buildings were moved was a source of amazement. In Rhode Island, in 1783, Louis, baron de Closen, described being astonished at the number of fully finished wooden buildings in Newport that were "moved from one quarter to another or even into the country."

By the mid-nineteenth century, the technology of moving buildings had evolved to include the use of horizontal screw jacks, capstans dug into the road with horses providing the power to winch buildings along, and even barges to move buildings across water. Larger and larger buildings were relocated. In 1869, when Boston's Boylston Street was widened, the seven-story masonry Hotel Pelham was moved back thirteen feet ten inches. The five-thousand-ton structure traveled at the rate of one inch every five minutes with the help of seventy-two screw jacks and 904 rollers. Similarly, when Cambridge Street was widened in 1925, SPNEA's Otis House was moved back forty-two feet. One Boston firm active in the nineteenth century entitled its brochure, "There is nothing built but can be moved."


ABOVE A capstan, turned by horses, provided the mechanical advantage to move this building.

While thrift was originally the chief reason for moving buildings, a host of other reasons has come into play over time, including sentiment, fashion, convenience, status, and even spite. In 1811, diarist Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, noted the desire of property owners to build a more prestigious structure as a reason for moving a building. "It was not uncommon..." he wrote, "to see a new street quite full of small buildings and then stripped of them," as the original owners relocated their small dwellings elsewhere in order to build larger houses on their lots.

In the early nineteenth century, numerous meeting houses were rotated ninety degrees when new fashions dictated that a religious building be oriented along its long axis. Occasionally churches literally followed their congregations across town to newly fashionable neighborhoods. Buildings were often moved to make way for expanding business districts. Outbuildings on farms were rearranged to conform to farm improvement ideals of the day. There are even documented cases of buildings being cut apart, with one portion relocated when joint owners could not get along with each other.

Sometimes removal is the only way to save a historic building, like the early eighteenth-century Hancock Clarke House in Lexington, which was moved in 1896, when its owner wanted it re-moved as unsightly. (In 1975, the house was returned with much fanfare to its original site.)

Many towns now have demolition delay bylaws that impose a waiting period before a building of historic value can be razed, which can provide time to facilitate preservation through relocation.

In Massachusetts, people who wish to move buildings have an advantage not available in most states: towns own the air rights over streets and permit utilities to place overhead wires in exchange for an agreement to remove them free of cost when requested to do so. Even with this financial advantage, however, moving buildings is expensive, in part because of high insurance costs.

SPNEA's Alexander House in Springfield, Massachusetts, (see page 21) is one of hundreds of relocated structures in New England and reminds us that buildings, viewed as symbols of permanence, are not necessarily as stationary as we commonly think.

-Anne Grady
Anne Grady is an architectural
historian and researcher.


Like Checkers on a Checker Board