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History Insider: Old House, New Location


David Gibbs was upset. So, he did what upset islanders often do. He wrote a letter to the editor of The Inquirer and Mirror. Gibbs called himself a Practical Building Mover. He was upset that a crew and equipment was arriving soon from New Bedford, having been hired by the town to move a building for long term illness called a Sanitarium.

“I could move the Sanitarium for 300 dollars less than the New Bedford party and make just as much money as he will make,” read the letter to the editor. “There are no building movers that can move any building cheaper than I can, to pay men’s wages.”

It has been an island tradition to move buildings from one property to another well before Gibbs went into business. There is some thought that the practice dates back to the late 1700s.

A year after the Great Fire of 1846, the newspaper editorialized that there was still plenty of work to be had for able-bodied men. “There are wharves to build, cellars to dig, buildings to frame, and buildings to move,” it read.

A story in 1862, in the Weekly Mirror, mentioned a man who came home drunk, “Supper time came and he came reeling home. He had been helping move a building and thus earned enough money to find himself in rum for several days.”

Moving buildings was prevalent enough that it was used as a metaphor in an editorial about the Civil War, “Don’t thee think we shall soon get a big screw under this rebellion, and pull it from its foundation as thee pulls one of the buildings thee moves?”

The next year a bylaw was passed ordering that “No wooden building more than 10-feet high, shall be moved on any way of this town, without written permission form Selectmen.”

One of the most famous moves happened in 1905. The building was once a Quaker meeting house, then a business producing straw hats called The Atlantic Straw Works, then a roller rink. In 1883, it was taken apart and moved to Brant Point to become part of the Nantucket Hotel.

In 1905 the building was purchased by a social club called the Order of Redmen, who floated it across the water back to downtown.

“The building will be moved up the Brant Point Road and across the flats to Steamboat Wharf, and from the point around the back of Jones’ blacksmith shop to its new location,” read a story in The Inquirer and Mirror. “It is to be brought back to the center of town to be converted into the lodge building.”

Five years later it was leased to show what were then called moving pictures. It was renamed the Dreamland Theatre.

Houses are still moved on Nantucket, sometimes down roads, with a police escort and a crew to lift electrical wires out of the way. Like everything else on this island, the houses have gotten bigger. David Gibbs might no longer be bragging at how cheap he could bring your house to a new address.

“Over-the-road house moving, which historically is what Nantucket was about, is happening less and less,” Kristina Jelleme, general manager of Toscana Corp. said. “Newer, bigger houses need to be cut apart, moved, then put back together. There is more expense to it than just moving it. Over the last 10 years or so a lot of our work has been relocating a house on the same site, and lifting a house up to build a new foundation under it.”

Knowledge and experience of how to move a building is more important that just having a big truck, Jelleme said.

“The guys have to be in synch with each other and the person in charge has to make sure everybody is on the same page,” she said. “It’s not about the machines. It’s about the humans.”

When Toscana moves a building, Mendel Harris is the guy who makes sure everything goes as planned. The title of his job has not changed much since Gibbs was signing his letter to the editor as Practical Building Mover. He is the manager of Building Moving Operations.

“It can be very nerve-wracking, but I was always working on good crews when I was the new guy, and that helped,” he said. “Now my crew is new and it’s my job to watch out for them. Teamwork and trusting your guys are the most important parts.”

When you are working with 20-ton jacks and a huge truck, or more likely when you are watching a crew work like that, it is easy to think it is about muscle. Harris says it is mostly about math, balance, weight-distribution and some tricks of the trade that help when you are trying to settle a house on a foundation that might be off by an inch or two.