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Houses on the move
Before the mid-20th century, people valued their built houses more,” says Patty Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center.
Attachment to a building was perhaps the best reason that many New Orleans families actually moved their houses with them – or bought a house at one location and moved it to another. For various reasons, houses in New Orleans may not stay put.
The National Trust Guide to New Orleans by Roulhac Toledano, and the volumes in the Friends of the Cabildo series on New Orleans architecture, are filled with examples of houses that were moved.
Some of the most historic homes in town have shifted location. The Pitot House at 1440 Moss St., now owned by the Louisiana Landmarks Society, was built on the banks of Bayou St. John in 1799 – but in the 1960s it was moved a block or so down the Bayou when Cabrini High School was expanded. Not far away at 2275 Bayou Road the 1802 Fleitas-Chauffe house was moved and set on a lowered foundation.
The house at 1721 Coliseum St. was moved from Annunciation Square in 1981, and supposedly was the home where explorer Henry Morton Stanley lived as a youth.
The Swiss Chalet at 3627 Carondelet St. was on St. Charles Avenue when it was constructed in the 1860s, but it relocated to Carondelet Street to make room for what is now the Columns Hotel.
The 1860s-era home at 4001 St. Charles Ave. used to sit far back from the street, but when the Rugby School located there closed in the 1970s the house moved forward on its lot.
One of the largest mass movements of New Orleans houses above Canal Street in recent years was what Patty Gay refers to as the “parade of homes” that the Preservation Research Center organized when buildings located in the area of Felicity, Baronne, Euterpe and Carondelet streets had to be moved to make way for a planned Albertson’s Supermarket that was never built. Mary Ann Miller of the PRC worked on the project.
“We had to time the moves on the same night to bring down the cost,” Miller notes. “ We even had in our project a line item for an arborist for tree pruning along with all the permits.” One of the biggest problems involved utility wires.
“The over-hanging wires could be in an encapsulating tube, or there could be a binder around different types of wire and you don’t always know which companies have wires in the tube – Entergy, Cox Cable, Bellsouth.” Timing for the service people to deal with each wire was crucial. Wires could be elevated, or they could have slack created so the lines could be dropped. In the end, city agencies and the City Council were all involved in the big move. A consortium led by the local firm of Davie Shoring, Inc., along with Brownie House Movers of Florida, got the job done.
There has also been a brisk business in suburban New Orleans on the edge of Jefferson Parish. The 1832 Hurst Plantation House was moved from Tchoupitoulas Street out to No. 3 Garden Lane in 1922.
Nearby, Edgar and Edith Stern decided to build a new house on their property in 1939. According to a registration form from the National Register of Historic Places, “the original house was dismantled, placed on winches and moved using mule power down Garden Lane where it was re-assembled and provided living quarters for the family during the three-year construction of the present day Longue Vue House.”
Greg Abry, of Abry Brothers, Inc., is familiar with that move because his family firm completed it. “They used mules in those days, and rolled the house along,” he explains. Abry Brothers is one of the oldest continuously operating companies in the city. It was begun in 1840 when the first Abry, John, arrived here from Frankfurt, Germany.
“My great-great-grandfather was an experienced house mover and contractor from Germany,” says Greg Abry. “He already had an edge. He just happened to end up in a place that really needed him!” The firm still “uses the same techniques” in shoring up masonry buildings in older parts of town – in recent years the Abry Brothers worked on a foundation problem at Antoine’s Restaurant’s wine cellar. Currently they’re working on the Maison Hospitaliere building on Dauphine Street.
As a young boy, Greg Abry often went along when houses were moved at night (his sister Emily Abry, who also works for the family firm, says that he got to go more often than she did). “They would let me drive the truck,” he adds. His involvement in the family business began when he was about 12, when his mother had jury duty and his father took him with him on the job. “After a week, my uncle said I was doing so good he gave me a raise.” In 1988 he took over the business. And that was about the time the firm gave up moving houses, stymied by the typical New Orleans problems of narrow lots, abundant trees and low hanging wires.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the house-moving business in the city has been revitalized. At Abry Brothers, interest has increased with the firm’s partnering with Jeremy Patterson House Moving, an Iowa firm, in several large-scale projects post-Katrina, including the raising of the Tulane Alumni House on Willow Street.
Patterson is relocating his family here, but perhaps his biggest New Orleans project to date actually took place in Missouri and Illinois. Patterson disassembled and moved the S.S. President, familiar to generations of New Orleanians who danced on its ballroom floor, from the Mississippi River 80 miles to St. Elmo Lake in Illinois where it is slated to become a hotel and restaurant.
As described on his Web site, jeremypattersonhousemoving.com, the Mississippi river location meant he “had to find eco-friendly materials to aid in the move. Bananas were used as lubrication to slide the boat across the beams.”
The President’s move is to be immortalized in an episode of the “Mega Moves” television show on the Discovery Channel this Fall, one of several such shows (“Haulin’ House, “Impossible Moves”, “Monster Moves”) on different cable channels. There are even magazines devoted to the house-moving profession, including the publication of the International Association of Structural Movers.
Greg Abry says that his firm, with Patterson, is poised for renewed house moving interest in the city. “Because of Katrina there are now a lot of lots available, and houses that have to be moved.” And, the planned medical complex along Tulane Avenue will be displacing many older homes.
Houses may not always have to move far. Mary Ann Miller of the PRC notes, “There’s a strong impetus for a Historic District to keep the same number of historic buildings,” even if they’re on different lots. And, moves might even be made within the same square, without crossing a street.
Even if it’s not for a great distance, New Orleans’ people might still like to take their houses with them.