AIA CRAN/VOICES: House Revival

For more than 20 years, I had passed the seemingly abandoned house on my drive to and from work. Boarded up from a past fire with peeling paint and a sagging foundation, the once proud house appeared destined to fall to ruin. Lying close to the road at a busy intersection with a highway entrance and light industry encroaching, the house had stopped serving as a residence long ago. Someone needs to save that house, someone needs to move that house, is the mantra I recited time and time again to my wife. I couldn’t have known then that we would be the ones.

Before photo: Blake Held

The Rochester, New York, area has among the highest level of older housing in the country. According to government statistics, 78 percent of our housing stock was built before 1960 and 5 percent before 1940. This was a deciding factor in my choice to pursue the niche in residential architecture I have: new traditional-style homes, but primarily additions to and renovations of older and historic homes. While I admire the work of many fellow architects creating the crisp contemporary houses that speak so clearly to our modern society, I find little opportunity in this market to pursue that design approach. Furthermore, I must admit, while I can appreciate the thought, theory, and precision of craft behind such work, I have little aptitude for it. Instead, I find greater affinity for the theory of molding—the finely proportioned window, the imperfect beauty of handcrafted work, and the seamlessly integrated, contextual response.

We are taught as architects to make a difference in our environment. One interpretation of that is to make a visual statement, to create a work that is easily identifiable by its difference or even rejection of the context of its surroundings. The interpretation I choose is to seek to fulfill the potential within the context. Sometimes this means being invisible, as in the best tradition of preservation architecture.

Sometimes dismissed as mere mimicry, traditional design in our modern age often takes tremendous discipline and creativity to subtly achieve a workable plan for a modern lifestyle or a seemingly simple detail within a traditional language. Beyond this, the challenge an existing structure poses—forcing one to work within its bounds rather than idealized geometries—is what drives me forward in architecture. I appreciate the puzzle those limits present more than I would a blank canvas. Adversity can be a powerful muse. There is also a stylistic versatility forced on the traditional design architect which I enjoy. Linguistically, I am competent in one language—yet, in my years of practice, I believe I have become fluent in several historic styles, among them: Arts and Crafts, Colonial Revival, Queen Anne, Tudor Revival, Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival.

This last, Greek Revival, is my favorite. I’m sure my youth spent in Charleston, South Carolina, with its wealth of exemplary antebellum architecture, strongly influenced my taste. From my suburban ’70s childhood home, I fantasized about what it would be like to live in one of those structures while paging through my favorite book, Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House,” which, little did I know, would plant the seed for moving a house to save it. Rochester remains rich in Greek Revival structures, having first boomed into a wealthy city with the opening of the Erie Canal during the height of the Greek Revival style. Many structures sadly are now crumbling, and, as was the case for the house of my focus, poorly located given the push of urban sprawl.

Built around 1827, this house was once the pride of a wealthy farming family, founders of the community of Henrietta in which they lived. An early example of the Greek Revival, the house shows characteristics of both Federal and Greek Revival styles. There are finer, more richly detailed examples in the region, but few with the simple, well-proportioned mass and confidence exuded by this home. For me, there is a modernity in its simplicity which is gently offset by elaborately carved, typically broad heavy casings and wood mantels.

So, on the fateful day in 2001, when the nonagenarian owner, Jim, walked into our office offering the home for a dollar to whomever would move and restore it, I leapt at the opportunity.

I spent months preparing a prospectus of sorts for my wife, who was completely content in our present, recently restored Arts and Crafts home. I reviewed finances, house movers, contractors, time frame, etc. I capped it all off with a photoshopped image of the house in a restored state with our two smiling children in the foreground. This was enough to convince her to at least take a look. On a bitterly cold February morning, Jim handed us each a lantern and let us in. We meandered through aisles formed of stacked, charred papers three and four feet high to view smoke-stained walls of crumbling plaster and bubbling trim paint. “Isn’t it amazing?!” I asked. I can’t say she agreed, but perhaps out of a misguided faith in my abilities, she relented.

The new site was 14 miles away, a rural setting befitting the home’s farming roots. There was a crane at the original site to lift the sections onto the trailer and, months later, at the new site to replace them. The house moved in five pieces, taking five hours for each section, and two weeks in preparation between sections. At least six separate permits, two escort vehicles, three off-duty state troopers, and a crew walking along the route to remove and replace obstacles (mailboxes, etc.) and lift electrical lines were required for each move. It was many months of foundation work, restoration, new electric, plumbing, heating, roofing, insulation, and finally drywall. We put some sweat equity into the house where we could, stripping and repainting trim. By the summer of 2004, we had a 4,000-square-foot home with 9½-foot-high ceilings, elaborate casings and wood trim, wide-plank flooring, 8-foot-by-8-foot pocket doors separating the twin parlors, and so much more for far less than it would cost us to create this character anew.

Above and below: Blake and his family put sweat equity into stripping and repainting the trim on the old house, and salvaging its wide-plank flooring and 8-foot-by-8-foot pocket doors. Before photos: Blake Held
After photos: Bauer Photography

“Was it worth it?” I am often asked. It was. We spent 15 years in the home. As my wife said, it was my third child, my lovingly adopted child. If good architecture is defined by making a difference, by improving upon the given environment, I believe I succeeded. Not only was a fine work of architecture rescued, but in doing so, many existing materials and examples of craftsmanship were retained. In response to the call to seek more energy-efficient structures, the preservationists remind us of the embodied energy in an existing structure. Despite the diesel expended to move the house, I believe, as I count the board feet of wide-plank flooring and wood siding alone, it was a net save on energy and material costs.

With our human children now moved away, the home was more than the two of us needed. I set out to find a new rescue in which to downsize and “simplify” our lives. “A marriage can only survive one house move,” my wife reminded me. One week ago, we closed the door on that home for the last time. I had found a “new” home to rescue, dating from 1828. We didn’t need to move it, but if the first house adventure was an Odyssey in the Homeric tradition, this one was to be War and Peace, somehow longer and more difficult. More on that later.

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