House on Wheels: Yesterday and Today

Gazette Article by: Bill Pierce
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2000

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A modern-day “house on wheels” crosses the Elm Street bridge over the train tracks in Winnetka on its journey from its site south of the current Library parking lot to its current home at 340 Poplar Street. Photo by Hamilton Moses, courtesy of James E. Wolfe, appearied in The Winnetka Talk, 1968

In 1917, Anita Willets-Burnham of Winnetka was the proud owner of a log house that was already nearly 100 years old. Although pleased with her historic home, she decided to move…the house.

To most people, then and today, moving a house would seem an overwhelming undertaking. But not for the resourceful and determined Mrs. Burnham. After all, wasn’t it her husband’s cousin, famed Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, who once said, “make no little plans…?” So in the late fall of that year, Mrs. Burnham’s log house journeyed 2.5 miles from its Indian Hill site to its present location at 1407 Tower Road, “where the forest preserve (the Skokie) would come right up to my door.”

Pulled “oh so slowly” on rollers by a team of horses, the house traveled north while some of its modern-day clapboard timbers were “flying off like snowflakes,” exposing to astonished onlookers its orginal hand-hewn construction.

The house’s relocation was the responsibility of a Mr. Eisenberger of Glencoe. He was paid $100 (four times the purchase price Mrs. Burnham tendered for the house), having guaranteed not to crack any of the interior plaster that had been applied 50 years before by previous owners. Imagine his dismay when upon delivery Mrs. Burnham invited the neighborhood children to join her in noisily whacking off that dirty old superficial plaster! With the plaster dust still flying, Mrs. Burnham mused that the move could have gone faster and been cheaper had she been aware of Mr. Eisenberger’s thoughtful but unnecessary guarantee.

Soon this same historical treasure will once again be moved. The proposed relocation to Crow Island Park will hold equal measures of the kind of excitement and passion always exhibited by Mrs. Burnham. Needless to say, however, it will be carried out in a somewhat different manner.

Throughout history, the concept of house relocation has not changed, but the means by which it is accomplished certainly have. The International Association of Structural Movers refers to the man-powered relocation of objects and structures (aided by rollers and other basics of leverage) as “recycling.” By this definition, Stonehenge and the pyramids are some of the world’s oldest recycled structures.

The earliest record of house relocation dates to 1598 in London, England when the home of John Stow was moved on wooden rollers. Closer to home, Chicago’s Widow Clark House (1836) was first moved in 1871 and then again in 1977 when it was necessary to raise it 27 feet above the local “L” train tracks.

Obviously, man and muscle and horse-drawn power have over time given way to technological advancements. Recent evidence of this can be found as close as our own Winnetka community. In 1991, bridge-strength steel beams, hydraulic jacks and industrial-strength winches were utilized to relocate the 680-ton, 14-room brick Kuppenheimer home at 1130 Laurel Avenue. This landmark residence, a modified Georgian design by David Adler, had a relatively short journey across the street to its current location at 777 Burr. It is still thought to be the largest relocation of a private residence in the history of structural moving.

Before long we will be fortunate to experience the excitement involved in the preparation and relocation of the Schmidt-Burnham log house. It will also give us time to reflect on the poetic and historic symmetry, as Mrs. Burnham’s treasure is once again relocated to a preserve for all to enjoy.

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