Moving an antique house board by board? No sweat

Not long ago a Wisconsin couple found the early-American saltbox house of their dreams - a thousand miles away in Trumbull, Conn. Unable to leave their home area, they instead had the house dismantled and moved, every last floorboard, door latch, and beam, to be rebuilt on Wisconsin soil.

Such an undertaking is all in a day's work for the firm from whom the couple bought the house, the 18th Century Company of Durham, Conn.

Specializing in the meticulous restoration of colonial American homes, the company is often called upon to move a house from one area to another as though it were a giant kit.

The owners of the 10-year-old company, William and Marilyn Norton, don't do any work for their clients that they haven't already done for themselves. Their own home -- built about 1730 and a former inn which was moved from Milford, Conn., to Durham -- is a prime example of what their clients can expect.

The owners of the 10-year-old company, William and Marilyn Norton, don't do any work for their clients that they haven't already done for themselves. Their own home, built about 1730 and a former inn, was moved from Milford, Conn., to Durham, as an example, it is a prime example of what their clients can expect.

Blending into the crest of a gentle knoll, the two-story weathered-clapboard house looks as though it has occupied the site for generations rather than just five years. Down the hill is the Nortons' workshop and storage area in which the dismantled and documented parts of other vintage homes wait for a similar reincarnation.

Among the houses currently available for both new owners and sites are the 1710 Cutler House from Lexington, Mass., a couple of mid-18th-century Cape Cod-style cottages, and the 1720 Miner House from Westfield, Conn. For those in the market for an old barn, the 18th Century Company also has the hand-hewn components of two such structures among the inventory.

''Most of the houses and barns that we buy are ones that have to be moved for one reason or another,'' says Marilyn Norton while sitting in her sun-filled dining room with its 24-inch-wide beams overhead.

''Our own house was on land that was about to be rezoned,'' she adds. ''Although there is something sad about taking a house away from its original site, they often face demolition or are altered beyond recognition if they aren't moved.''

Dismantling the Nortons' house took seven of the company's restoration carpenters about three weeks.

''In moving a house such as this, every single piece has to be carefully marked and labeled,'' explains Mrs. Norton. ''Then everything is photographed and a complete set of architectural plans is drawn up so it can all be put back in proper order.''

Little of the Nortons' house was not included in the move. Even the stones from the foundation and cellar were brought along to be used in the same function at the new site.

''About the only thing that you can't save is old plaster,'' says Mrs. Norton. ''That has to be busted out when the frame is moved. Everything except for the chimney stack, which we left whole, was moved here piece by piece.''

Most of the houses moved by the company have been within Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The Wisconsin move was the longest they have done to date. ''That one worked because of long and meticulous planning,'' recalls Mrs. Norton. ''When it was all loaded up on a flat-bed trailer, the dismantled house went to Wisconsin without an extra board to spare in case we had made a mistake.

But when it went up on the new site, every piece fit.''The Nortons maintain that a far better job of insulation and restoration can be done on a dismantled house than on one that has never been moved. Insulation, such as the rigid foam and aluminum R-Max kind the Nortons used in their own house, can be easily built right into the walls before they are plastered.

As for restoration, the dismantling process often reveals early architectural details which were hidden under many layers of wallpaper, false ceilings, and bricked-up fireplaces. ''When it's time to put the house back together, you can decide how much of the later alteration you want to keep,'' declares Mrs. Norton.

While doing restoration work, the 18th Century Company can tap its large inventory of antique doors, latches, mantels, and so on, to use in place of whatever an old house may lack. Most of these materials have come from old houses that the company acquired which were beyond restoration themselves.

''It makes all the difference in the world to use materials that are really old, not just made to look that way,'' says Steve Kearns, who has been a carpenter with the company for three years.

''Even if it's wood that is going to be painted over, the difference in the look and feel is amazingly apparent,'' he reports.

Despite their affection for old houses, the Nortons and most of their clients do not believe in sacrificing contemporary conveniences and comfort. To provide them and yet not alter the structure and appearance of the houses they restore, the company often builds ells or additions onto the back. In their own house, which has never had plumbing installed in its original section, it is the ell that contains such non-colonial features as bathrooms, modern kitchen, and laundry room.

While the weathered barn-board exterior and open beams of the Nortons' ell complement their house, it was not created to look 18th century.

''We don't think you can or should disguise something like a modern kitchen, '' says Mrs. Norton. Gesturing toward the wide stone fireplace in the dining room, she adds: ''That was all a colonial kitchen consisted of - a fireplace which served as the only real 'appliance.' So how can you possibly make a contemporary kitchen look like it is part of the original house?''

The cost of moving and restoring a house, which can easily take more than a year, depends entirely on how much work the customer wants done.

''Some clients prefer to do all of the restoration work themselves and so just pay for the cost of the dismantled house and the architectural plans,'' says Mrs. Norton. ''Right now we have a couple of such houses that would cost about $28,000. Rebuilding them and doing a complete restoration job would probably run an additional $80,000 to $100,000.''

Getting the financing for such a venture is sometimes more difficult than with a new house, she admits.

''Bankers don't often appreciate old houses, which is something my husband and I learned when we showed a couple of them through this one. Visibly bored, they were especially uncomprehending of my husband's enthusiasm for a rare sponge-painted door on an upstairs closet. However, when he casually mentioned that the door was worth about $1,000, they became a lot more attentive.''

That anyone should not share their boundless enthusiasm for old houses is something Mrs. Norton finds difficult to understand.

''It's not paneling and antique hardware that make old houses special,'' she declares. ''It's all the years of love and history that they contain. Even those who have no desire to live this way should at least recognize it as a preservation of our past.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.