Rescuing Antique Houses From Demolition


October 20, 1990|By Karol V. Menzieand Randy Johnson

ASHAWAY, R.I. — Ashaway, R.I.---In a field near Stephen Mack's center-chimney Cape-style cottage lie a series of rectangular mounds, each neatly numbered and covered with tarpaulins.

The mounds are antique houses, rescued from unsuitable sites or certain demolition. They will sleep in the field until new owners come along -- typically someone with a strong desire to live in an old house and a certain artistic commitment to the way they want to live there.

Taking into consideration all of the new owner's lifestyle and design requirements, Mr. Mack will then meticulously restore and renovate the house, in hopes of giving it another 200 years of life.

Mr. Mack has been involved in what he calls "emergency preservation" for some 15 years. He is not merely a house mover. He rescues and restores to museum standards rare post-and-beam dwellings from the 17th, 18th and very early 19th centuries.

"These are all houses that are caught in a situation where for some reason it's impossible for them to survive," he explains. From having once been in the nicest parts of town, they might now be caught between a shopping center

and a car dealership. "The land might be very valuable -- vastly more valuable than it would be with a house on it to live in . . . And somebody wants to develop it, so the house has to go."

He concentrates on 17th and 18th century houses because they are the rarest. "American historical architecture is something you can't decide to build more of later," he says. "With each house that disappears, there is . . . one less house."

Still, he can't save them all. "So what makes one building worthy and another not worthy? It usually has a lot to do with the amount of the original fabric left in the building . . . that is to say, original woodwork inside, windows, doors, paneling, floorboards, hardware. Plus the amount of changes that have been made to the house since the time that it was built. And also the condition of the house. And all those things together, plus my workload . . . bears strongly on whether it's a house I can save or not."

Once he finds and acquires a house, "the first thing we do is go in and remove everything that isn't original to the house." Then the interior is photographed and measured for "as-built" architectural drawings.

"Each part and piece is numbered," Mr. Mack says. "Once it's numbered we transfer those numbers onto the blueprints and then remove the entire interior."

"Then when the interior is gone, we continue numbering the framework, some of which was obscured by the trim . . . another round of photographs . . . then we remove the chimney stack and, after removing everything you possibly can without removing the roof . . . with a great burst of energy from all parties concerned, we begin the actual disassembly of the main house."

While the process of disassembling old houses is fascinating -- each one is different, he says, each has its thrills and disappointments -- it is not what Mr. Mack sees as his primary role. Instead, he sees himself as a designer, carefully replacing each old house in its original context -- the appropriate ambience of its century.

It's a process, Mr. Mack says, of weaving 20th century amenities into the fabric of the old house "in such a way that they don't upstage any original element."

It almost always means adding a wing to the back of the old structure, making the house L-shaped. Then Mr. Mack tucks in modern kitchens, walk-in closets, large baths. No one ever has to compromise comfort or energy efficiency, he says. "I'm not going to put up with the devastation that some of our modern technologies have wrought without taking advantage of them," he says. "Those things are there to help."

It's important for the designer to fulfill all the needs and wishes of the 20th century client, he says. The restored house must be eminently livable because inadequate or improper

updating may induce the next person to make a change that will alter the character of the house.

That's exactly the sort of trouble the house fell into in the first place. The key point, he says, is to make changes "tastefully and thoughtfully" so they will last for a long time.

Getting things right, aesthetically and functionally, is an obsession of Mr. Mack's. He is concerned with proper placement of the old house in its new surroundings ("There's a peace and a beauty in perfect siting") and will even, if clients wish, locate appropriate furnishings.

The buildings he restores don't always have to be moved. His own house, which he dates to the 1790s, sits where it was built. But he has choreographed the landscape around it by placing outbuildings, fences and plantings so that each enhances the other, and no eyecould wish it any other way.

Another on-site restoration he's especially proud of is the recently completed Simon Huntington Tavern, which sits on the green in Norwichtown, Conn.

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