Houses on Wheels

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004

One of the most interesting things I have ever seen is a house, or part thereof, moving down the street to another spot. The movement of houses on this island can reach epic proportions, especially in the winter when the modular homes are being moved in at a record pace. If you haven’t been stuck at the corner of Frances and Union waiting for a part of a house to round the corner, you haven’t truly lived.

Moving houses has a long history on this island. Think first of the great migration from Sherburne to Nantucket. If you don’t know the story, out near what is today called "Tuppancy Links," the original settlers came to the island and used a small inlet that is now Capaum Pond. When the inlet closed, the islanders packed up their belongings, took down the houses and moved to present day Nantucket town. They didn’t roll them like we do today, but instead took them apart piece by piece, making sure to save as much as possible. Labor at that time was the cheapest thing going, but materials made up the bulk of the cost.

On the mainland, houses were moved less frequently, but often nonetheless. When I was at Roger Williams University they had just finished the piece-by-piece move of a historic barn to be reused as a theater. Historic silos, old barns, outbuildings, and the like were commonly moved around a site. Houses were less common, but when they had to be taken with them, they were. That’s why today you will often find pieces of buildings that don’t really seem to fit together right.

Today, most house movers can slice and dice apart a house and get it moved to where ever you might need it. The new Westmoor Tennis Club just cut up a good building into three parts and is going to use it for employee housing. On a regular basis, we have people come into the Historic District Commission office asking about moving a house or other building to their lot. Buildings get traded for new houses. Fortunately the Nantucket Housing Office has established a program to receive these houses and reuse them for their affordable housing projects. This plan has been one of great help to the community and I hope it continues – only with fewer historic buildings.

One of my favorite moves to watch was when a shed was being moved into Codfish Park in Sconset. The shed came down the road and stopped in front of the pedestrian bridge. The movers thought about it for a while and then decided to remove the roof to get it under the trestle. Finally they came under the bridge and went on their merry way. The logic puzzle that presented these movers was the highlight of that particular day.

However, the movement of buildings has meant the downfall of contextualism for historic buildings. Many feel that they can just move a building away to build their dream home and then not feel guilty for having destroyed a historic property. However, what many people do not realize is that removing a house from a property destroys the context for that building. It was placed there for a particular reason and was useful for that particular place.

I recognize that I cannot argue for the retention of all historic features, but I must argue lightly for the retention of historic buildings on a property. Just in the way that a gut rehab destroys the inside of a building, a move destroys the landscape. More people need to think in relationship to the landscape of a building, rather than the single element of a house.

The modular move is another beast all together. Seeing these boxes trundle down our tiny streets, across fields, and on top of their foundations makes me think of the turtle with its house on its back. The new development on Nobadeer Farm Road was described to me as "instant house," as though one needs only to add water to make each house suddenly appear.

Modular homes are tricky subjects for the architecture and historic community of Nantucket. Kit houses have been popular since the early twentieth century. On Easton Street there are a few. On Pine Street, I believe there to be a few, although they might just be standardized plans. These houses, in the Midwest at any rate, would have been brought in by train and set up on site with each element already cut and ready to assemble.

Modular houses then are not much different. Each piece is laid out and prepared in a factory and then shipped to wherever it might need to go. Since a manufacturing center is in Vermont, these modular houses are popular around the region. Each design can be taken right off the rack and prepared for the site. However, they offer a higher range of individualism that allows each homeowner to make their home their own. This is a new spin on an old idea.
The standardization of housing stock, whether by kits, modular plans, or just because of architectural design restrictions can cause a community to rot from the inside, just like introducing chain stores and franchised retail can. Places like Levittown overcame its sameness by introducing more solid interaction between neighbors. But in most suburban development we can end up in a situation where neighbors never know each other. Nantucket is special because most people know and talk to their friends and neighbors. Yet, when your homes are equally spaced, set back, designed the same, and are designed in such a way as to be insular, we create a situation where we don’t interact.

But I digress…back to our topic of moving houses. Moving houses on Nantucket is a old and common practice. I caution though that this practice can lead to degradation in the historic context of our landscape. When we move a house, we eliminate the key element of that landscape. More thinking about the contribution that structure lends to the landscape must be given. In much the same way the demolition of a building can ruin a place, so too can the move. For a move is nothing more than a demolition without the bulldozer.

Make sure your move is the right choice before considering it. Talk it over with your architect to see if you can integrate the house into a new design. This was just as common, as many of the ells on historic buildings were once outbuildings. Find out what the cost of saving the building is before dismissing it out of hand. Our community will thank you for it.