When Horsepower was Literal: Moving Buildings in the 1890s

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. -Winston Churchill

Renovation and repurposing are popular. Proud do-it-yourself folk  will be glad to show you the end tables they salvaged to make a bench, or gloat over their latest acquisition from Odom’s (a wonderful reusable building materials supply store in Grawn). We have all sorts of fun jargon to describe these activities: recycling, upcycling, flea market treasure-hunting. Demolition is violent and ugly, whereas reusing materials makes us proud, like the craftsmen of old who hewed their mortise-and-tenon joints one at a time.

Moving a house in 2007.
Moving a house in 2007.

The most ambitious of these projects must be the restoration of an entire building. The end of some buildings, like those recently demolished in Traverse City’s warehouse district, (where concrete block won out over fine architecture) tends not to pull at the heart strings. But in many cases the intrinsic value of a building merits the effort of removal and renovation.

Even if you can reuse a building on a different site, how do you move it safely? In the modern era with equipment and wide-load trucks (a ubiquitous sight when you are needing to get somewhere quickly and are headed down a narrow road with no shoulders), the task is more than possible. But let’s take a look at “then,” when horsepower wasn’t just an abstract unit of measure.

Southside of State Street, original site of the Episcopal Church, prior to 1891.
Southside of State Street, original site of the Episcopal Church; image taken between 1876 and 1891. Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.

The original structure for Grace Episcopal Church was built on property donated by Hannah, Lay & Company, located in Traverse City on State Street between Cass and Union; dedication took place November 12th, 1876.

After construction, the church enjoyed a thriving congregation due to the draw of well-esteemed clergymen, from 1876 to 1886. In that last year, Rev. Joseph S. Large vacated his office due to ill-health and the church found its congregation numbers in a slump, forcing the doors closed until 1891. A new call was put out that year, and the church building was again put to use.

James Morgan, a partner in Hannah, Lay & Company.
James Morgan, a partner in Hannah, Lay & Company. Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.

For reasons not clear now, the location of the building was a problem, but the members deemed the building’s sacred purpose warranted the effort of preservation. In stepped James Morgan, a Chicago businessman and partner in Hannah, Lay & Company, who encouraged the removal of the building to it’s current location at 341 Washington, across the street from the County Courthouse.

Moving the Episcopal Church, 1891.
Moving the Episcopal Church, 1891. Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

By employing jacks, the church was first lifted off its foundation; heavy beams, greased and with pointed ends, were secured to the underside, which would act like runners on a sled. A temporary wooden track made of flat planks and cross ties (similar to railroad tracks) were laid on the roadway, and the structure was pulled across the track on the greased beams. Once part of the track was cleared, workers would move and install the track at the front of the structure, and the job continued.

Capstan and horse used to pull the Church along, 1891.
Capstan and horse used to pull the Church along, 1891.  Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

A capstan was necessary to apply enough force to move the church, as a lone horse wouldn’t be strong enough on its own. This capstan operated much like the ones seen on ships to raise anchor. In the photograph, you can see the capstan was moored in the roadway with large posts driven into the ground and attached with chains.  The horse would rotate the axle by walking in a circle and would pull the structure along the temporary track. As the picture was taken while the horse was resting, the chains mooring the capstan to the ground are slack.

Wondering how much the Church was set back for this endeavor? We are led to believe that Mr. Morgan footed the bill, at a cost of “nearly one-thousand dollars,” or about $30,000 by today’s dollar value.

Both the painted arch and the stained glass windows were salvaged and given a place of honor in the new Episcopal Church.
Both the painted arch and the stained glass windows were salvaged and given a place of honor in the new Episcopal Church.

Ann Hackett, Parish Administrator of the modern Grace Episcopal Church, gave me a tour of the interior of the remodeled church. As she explained, when it became clear that the previous structure was no longer viable, the congregation made every effort to retain the overall feel of the church by focusing on the details.

Melding the old and the new: This cornice was crafted by copying the original cornices. A modern sound system is nestled with this period piece of architecture.
Melding the old and the new: This cornice was crafted by copying the original cornices. A modern sound system is nestled with this period piece of architecture.

The stained glass windows were salvaged and used in the new structure, as was the original altar and painted archway.  The cornices in the modern building were modeled after the original fixtures, and the interior was surfaced in wood bead board, mimicking the interior of the original.

The new baptismal font, which is situated immediately within the Church’s nave, best illustrates the congregation’s drive for authenticity. The original font was too small to meet the purpose of the growing Church; craftsmen created the new font to have a similar overall shape and use the same font-letter style, as shown here. Grace Episcopal Church is a perfect example of the beauty and pride we share when we salvage the past.

The original, much smaller baptismal font on the left; on the right is the new font, which is large enough to feed a walk-in pool.
The original, much smaller baptismal font on the left; on the right is the new font, which is large enough to feed a walk-in pool.

References
Leach, M.L. “A History of the Grand Traverse Region,” 1883.
Sprague, Elwin. “Sprague’s History of Grand Traverse and Leelanaw Counties, Michigan,” 1903.
“The Value of a Dollar, 1860-2014,” fifth edition.
Thanks to www.shiawaseehistory.com for their description of house moving in the turn of the last century.
Thanks to the Binkley’s for allowing use of their house moving photograph through a Creative Commons license: https://www.flickr.com/photos/binkley27/.
Thanks to Ann Hackett, Parish Administrator, and her staff for their time.

Amy Barritt is a librarian at Traverse Area District Library and co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. She enjoys going out and discovering history, especially when she makes new friends at the same time!

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4 thoughts on “When Horsepower was Literal: Moving Buildings in the 1890s”

  1. Thank you Amy for portraying the history and photos of Grace Church of which I am a member. This magazine is terrific. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, Nancy! It is such a pleasure to hear the GTJ is enjoyed by so many in our community! I had a wonderful time visiting Grace Church, the staff was so courteous and the building is a true gem.

    1. Thanks Amy from Minneapolis, Mn. I have organized an event for tomorrow, May 7th, 2016, to highlight the history of a building at 2019 E. Lake Street that is threatened with demolition. It was the original home and factory of the Burma Shave shaving cream. They made the signs and shaving cream there from 1925 until 1940, but the building was originally Vine Congregational Church. Built in 1882, it was moved to its present site in 1892, so it was of particular interest to read your documentation of how Grace Episcoal was moved that very same year. Thank you so much for your fine article!
      Steve Sandberg
      www. mm preservation.org/burma-shave/
      Fb; The Burma Shave HistoricVine Church Legacy

      1. Thanks for commenting, Steve! We hope your event is successful…preserving buildings is one powerful way for communities to show their pride! And who doesn’t love the history of those iconic Burma Shave signs? Keep up the good work, Steve, and thanks for reading!

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