Collecting Buildings

In one of my classes we spent some time talking about the history of historic preservation and the ways which it has evolved over centuries, internationally and nationally. Part of preservation’s history, particularly in the United States, lies in a phase of collection. People interested in the past collected items and sometimes began their own miniature museums. If you have been to Monticello, think of the walls in Thomas Jefferson’s house- my what conversation that must have sparked among guests. Yes, people have always collected objects.

Think ahead to those people and places that have collected buildings in one way or another – Henry Ford (Greenfield Village, MI), Electra Havermeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, VT), Historic Deerfield, Storrowton Village, Old Sturbridge Village, and even Colonial Williamsburg.

Collecting and moving historic buildings can be a controversial topic. On one hand, the buildings will be “saved” when moved and shared with the public, but on the other hand, once a building is moved from its setting, its historic integrity is lost. It is like finding an arrowhead in a plowed field – without the stratigraphy, it means nothing because there is no context to tell the story.

However, it is important to understand that not every “old” building has historic integrity. How do you judge historic integrity? As always, refer to the National Register of Historic Places criteria. There are four basic criteria, but there are also considerations for exceptions. Basically, the property is significant if it can be argued (on the nomination form) that it has been associated with a signficant event in history, is associated with a significant historical figure, it embodies characteristics of a certain period or a high style or work of a master, or it yields or could yield important information about the past. (But read the link above for the exact wording.)

I started thinking about building integrity when I was reading an article in the New York Times titled “The House Collectors” (September 16, 2009 by Sarah Maslin Nir). A couple who lives on a large piece of property (10,000 acres)  in Texas fills their time by buying “wooden country houses” (as the article calls them). They move the houses to their property, fix them up, and decorate them in period style. Most of the houses they buy are in delapidated condition and falling down in pastures, hidden by brush. On the property, the Elicks have three ranches where guests come to stay for a weekend or so. They stay in one of the houses, for a fee of course, and can participate in the working farm activties. The Elicks rent out the ranches for special events, corporate events, for film locations, and to everyday people just wanting to spend some time in the Texas countryside.

Back to the houses… they are moved and restored to a certain time period (the article did not explain how Mrs. Elick decides on the period). The houses, when purchased, are in terrible condition and are just sitting out on the prairie. Did they have no use on their past property? What is their history? How much is lost by moving them? How much is gained? These houses are not for museums, but for a business.

How do you feel about this? Not every old house should be a museum and not every house has historic integrity. However, every house has history and a setting. When is it okay to move a building? It’s a difficult question to answer.