By John M. Corbett, with Bill Gould of William Gould, Architectural Preservation. First published in Period Homes Magazine.
Original materials are the most reliable way to recreate the look, feel and smell of period work at a new site. The veracity and presence of historic finished work is practically impossible to counterfeit in brand new construction. Historic structures are rich with eloquent character, unique craftsmanship and proven, coherent design and they are often available for virtually nothing as developers are under pressure to make a good faith effort to find these important artifacts a decent home. As long as there is real estate development, there will be available a steady supply of sound, historic structures condemned only because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Moving these structures intact, like the original builders' generation often did, has become difficult due to the growth of traffic and overhead wires. To identify issues critical to the successful acquisition and dismantling of a period structure and its reestablishment at a new site, we consult with William Gould of Pomfret Center, Connecticut, a preservationist who specializes in relocating period buildings.
William Gould believes that it is most efficient that the building contractor and dismantler be one and the same. Dismantling a complete structure for rebuilding at a new site is a skill intensive operation integral to the process of both design and construction. Dismantling is a meticulously documented deconstruction of the original for the specific purpose of acquiring sufficient material to meet the needs of the customer for historic veracity. The dismantler will assess the potential of the materials and should understand and share the owner's vision for the new structure. The most reliable way to recreate the work of time and the original artisans is to incorporate as many sound framing, finish and sheathing elements as the structure will yield. Since some elements will be lost to time and attrition, the final yield of the building will not be known until it has been established what undamaged original fabric lies beneath any modern finishes. Dismantling is itself a work of interpretation and discovery of what is essential to the successful recreation of the structure at the new site. The builder is limited to installing what the dismantler furnishes. The final scope of the project will therefore not be established until this inventory is known. In furnishing this documented inventory, the dismantler is reading and transcribing a blueprint furnished by time and the original builder.
Preserving the eloquent character of the original fabric in a new sound construction takes patience, passion and experience. The building contractor is not simply moving the original structure but is reinterpreting it. Much of the original look and feel of historic work derives from the liberties it takes with straight, level and plumb. These deviations have been imposed by time and gravity and may not be consistent with new building construction. The new building will most likely be set on a level foundation resulting in numerous judgment calls as the building takes shape. What, for example, do we do with the door that has been recut many times over the years to accommodate a settling floor and racked door opening? Should the door be rehung or recut again? Should the frame be altered or should a larger attempt be made to simulate the dips and deflections of the walls and floor even though the foundation settlement that caused them has now been corrected? Should damaged framing and sheathing elements be replaced by native lumber or select period salvage? Unless the builder is determined to address all of the elements that contribute to the structure's expression of its history, its story will be lost in the trauma of reconstruction.
It is at the point of purchase, however, that the experienced artisan can make the greatest single contribution to the project. An experienced artisan can confirm that the material necessary will be yielded by the structure, within budget. A period structure introduces a disruptive unpredictability into the construction process that requires skilled management from the outset. Clients who have been seduced by the beauty and vulnerability of a condemned historic structure and who believe that they are getting a bargain by paying little for it may not be fully aware of their peril. They are making a defining decision that will bear heavily on the cost and outcome of the project. Historic materials lie outside the canon of current construction practices. Only an artisan who has had the patience and commitment to develop a nose for them can determine their potential. William Gould believes that to be qualified the contractor must share the client's vision and passion for the historic structure and be experienced enough to furnish reliable costs and schedules.
Only by adhering to the most rigorous standards for documentation and storage can the integrity of dismantled historic fabric be preserved and costs be controlled. Even if purchased for practically nothing, acquiring a period structure is not cheap. William Gould estimates the cost of properly dismantling, labeling and storing a modest two story at $35,000 and upwards. Materials stored for even short intervals can rot or warp if stored improperly or be rendered effectively useless by incoherent labeling systems. He was once hired to redocument and inventory a confused and poorly labeled dismantled structure, at a cost to the client of $9,000. Experience has shown that it doesn't pay to cut corners whether the dismantled material is to be stored for two months or two decades. To make sure that the material stays labeled until it is needed, William Gould affixes a color coded vinyl tag to each piece in an unobtrusive spot. Just like new goods, stored dismantled materials must be carefully stickered, protected from the elements and well ventilated. They can be safely stored outdoors, on bunks and under tarps, but the coverings must be diligently rigged and vigilantly maintained. William Gould has preserved dismantled structures for decades at a time by following these procedures.
William Gould notifies the state archaeologist of every significant historic structure he dismantles. The archaeologist records and documents the original site and develops an archival report. There is no charge to the owner. No building recreation is ever truly successful in bringing the original back, no matter how respectful, loving and sensitive it is to the original. Something is forever lost and William Gould believes that the owners have a social obligation to honor and document that loss just as they are obliged to document the new structure, obtain permits and conform to code.
HISTORIC HOUSE OR BARN NEEDS RESCUE? A dedicated preservationist, William Gould Architectural Preservation, LLC has long worked to save historic houses and barns endangered by change and development. Unfortunately, such structures are being condemned at a faster rate than we can find homes for them. Consequently, while we remain very interested to hear about your antique building, we must be selective so that we can continue to effectively advocate for the buildings that we have. Our online endangered house and barn form will help you to tell us what we need to know in order to advise you on the most effective course of action to save your important historic structure.