600-Year-Old Homes in a 200-year-old nation

The British are coming -- lock, stock, and rafter. Consider, for instance, the case of Californian Milton David, who probably owns the oldest house in America that hasn't been built yet. You know it's old because the structure is described in the Domesday Book -- that dusty census taken by William the Conqueror in 1086. Its corridors were once trampled by the likes of Richard, Duke of York (father of King Edward IV), and later by the Earl of Essex, the closet companion of Queen Elizabeth I who was beheaded in the Tower of London in 1601.

You know it hasn't been built yet because the frame of the house is bobbing somewhere out in the Atlantic.

"this house has quite an interesting pedigree," Dr. David, and MD who lives in Modesto, Calif., says of his more than 900-year-old purchase. "I was prompted to but it just for its unusual characteristics."

Dr. David is part of a small clique of novelty-minded people who are tapping one of America's newest and most flamboyant imports: the shells of old English homes, barns, and granaries.

These antiquated structures are being dismantled timber by timber, packed in 40-foot metal containers, and shipped to the United States, where they are being reincarnated as houses, inns, and restaurants. Tudors, real ones, are washing up everywhere from Nantucket to Utah to Hawaii.

Where possible, roof tiles, wood flooring, and other salvageable parts of the structures are being sent over. But mainly it's just the frames, and most of these are being taken from old barns, of 15th- to 18th-century vintage. Once here, they are sheathed in modern skins -- but usually ones mirroring their English heritage. Trickling in at fewer than a dozen a year, the gnarled oak timbers aren't likely to take over the prefab home market.

But they are making a few people stand up and take notice of their sturdy construction and ask: Why can't we make homes like that today? They are also raising a few questions among history-minded Britons, angered at seeing part of their past trundled off to the New World.

The housing flotilla is run jointly by two firms. The British half, R. Durtnell & Sons Ltd., boasts that it is the oldest building company in the country -- set up in 1591. The company's American counterpart is David Howard, a New Hampshire architect who is variously described by acquaintances as brilliant, masterly, and crazy.

Mr. Howard is as much philosopher as architect -- a Massachusetts Institute of Technology mind in hayseed clothing.He drives a scarlet Mercedes and rents a plane to shuttle around the country, but is apt to greet clients in flannel shirt, rumpled sweater, and blue jeans. This particular day is no exception: He strides into his squat two-story office in this tiny New Hampshire town (population 600) in full truck-stop regalia.

The office itself looks as if it might have been organized by opening a paper-stuffed file cabinet and then turning on a large fan. Somehow the stacks of clippings and records manage to lean precariously to one side without falling over. Small models of houses lie scattered about.The walls are done in early Polaroid -- a layer of snapshots showing Howard-designed homes at different stages of construction.

The bulk of Mr. Howard's business is designing and erecting new "braced frame" homes. Like their English ancestors, these are houses with a shell made out of solid oak. The exposed beams are notched and held together with wooden pegs. No nails. No glue. A post-and-beam house has the longevity of a Michener novel -- a characteristic most modern homes, with their softwood rafters and beams, can't seem to duplicate.

In the last six years, the New Hampshire architect has churned out more than 200 such homes in 22 states. But his real love lies with the English frames -- which he pushes with the passion of Teddy Roosevelt goading his Rough Riders.

"Here I am seeding all over the US actual timber frames that are 400 to 500 years old," he intones. "They will be there for centuries. Historians will visit them. You're bringing them a piece of architecture that is supposed to be a reminder of the past. That's what these are. It is an incredible reminder of our history, of our language, of our law."

Finding the English antecedents is a task that falls to Durtness & Sons. The British contracting firm scours the countryside for neglected old structures people are willing to sell. The structures are photographed, surveyed, fumigated, and carefully taken apart. Each timber is numbered for reassembly "like a big jigsaw puzzle," John Durtnell, managing director of the company, says.

You would think the idea of an antique barn ending up as part of a Tudor village in Florida wouldn't exactly excite history-minded Brits.Certainly Mr. Howard didn't help matters much when he once offhandedly mentioned in a British radio interview that "when this catches on in California we are going to have to tear down most of Tudor England."

Yet, when news of the overseas venture first circulated in the British press, dozens of folks called in wanting to sell buildings. Currently the firm owns about a dozen old structures.

Durtnell and Howard try to ease any anxiety Britishers may have about their heritage being trundled off to the New World by pointing out that they are taking only a few barns each year. Indeed, they contend they may even be doing a service by preserving a bit of history that otherwise might eventually end up as rubble. Besides shipping a few of the frames overseas, the British firm is renovating some of the structures for home use.One has been turned into a museum , another a visitors' center.

"We're not exporting many," Durtnell says. "And we're certainly not exporting the best. The best properties are what's known as 'listed' . . . they're protected."

"It sounds like we're coming over there to rape their country," Howard notes. "We're not. We're just going to take 10 to 15 barns a year."

Durtnell first jumped into the housing export business about four years ago. Saddled with a sluggish economy, the British government at that time was pressuring businesses to boost exports. After some soul-searching, the Kent-based firm came up with a product with which it was most familiar: history, in the form of a house or barn. Still, the company needed someone who could help set up and design the homes in the US. Enter David Howard in 1979.

The New Hampshire architect himself was no stranger to medieval manors.He once took off from his studies at MIT and job-hopped around Europe for three years, examining the nooks and spires of Old World buildings as he went. He came back with 4,000 pages of drawings and notes and an infatuation with medieval architecture.

"In my opinion," he says, putting on his philosopher's suit, "the first and foremost role of the architect should be the providing of assets for a civilization. We should be doing the same things the Romans have done, the Japanese have done, the Europeans have done."

"The houses we're building in this country," he adds, "are barely worth the terms of the mortgage they're written on. Today we're not building houses -- they're trailers."

Nudging people away from a mobile-home mentality and more toward early "English barn" won't be easy, however. For one thing, the English frames don't come cheap. To have a shell taken down, imported, and reassembled costs anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 or more, depending on the size of the frame. By the time the walls and trimmings are finished, the house usually tops $150, 000. The first frames to be shipped over, two 17th-century barns from rural Kent, were transformed into a four-bedroom house in suburban Toronto. The initial asking price: more than $1 million.

But consider, Howard says, that you're buying "a piece of eternity." "It's a timeless architecture. You can take these old timber-frame houses and the more you abuse them the more elegant they become."

"As long as you breathe wood properly," he adds, "it will never rot.And there is nothing that breathes better than these old barns."

Apparently so. A few of the imported planks have virtually petrified with age, making it tough to cut through them with even a chain saw.

Most of the frames are small -- 18 by 50 feet, for instance --day full-grown house. Which is where Mr. Howard comes in. He erects and then designs the home , or inn, or restaurant --additions and all.

But who can afford such a luxury?

Mostly it's antique buffs with enough money to back up their passion for the old wares. Some, however, are devoted Anglophiles. Others are just people with a yearning for novelty. Howard is focusing his marketing efforts on Florida, suburban New York, and Texas -- where tastes are big and wallets even bigger.

In the past few years, Durtnell and Howard have sold about a dozen of the English frames. Seven of them have been resurrected as homes or village complexes, the remaining five are on their way over. One of those is Milton David's 11th-century, two-story barn. Originally interested in building a small shopping complex modeled after Oxford, England, Dr. David now thinks he will turn his medieval barn into a country inn.

In addition to the barn beams -- some of which are believed to have originaly been timbers from a wrecked ship --Dr. David is having the roof tiles and everything else that is salvageable shipped over. Whatever shape the house finally takes, he plans to furnish it with English antiques.

Susan and Richard Matthews of Morristown, N.J., also plan to fill their 1655 English barn with antiques. The couple is turning the old oak structure into a summer home on Nantucket. Although they will add two bedroom wings onto the house, the Matthewses want to meld the feel of rural England with the scrubby moors of the island off the Massachusetts coast.

"We're going to try to make it blend in with the moors," Susan Matthews says.

but why an English barn frame?

"It is just an old flavor we happen to like," she says, then pauses. "We're crazy, aren't we?"

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