I have always had an affinity for old houses. I love the careful craftsmanship, the high-quality materials, the attention to detail that one doesn’t always find in newer buildings. Walking the tree-lined streets of my northeast Salem neighborhood, I revel in its feeling of permanence, of solidity. The houses here were built in the early years of the last century, mostly out of clear-heart Oregon cedar, which is nearly impervious to rot. Many have wide, welcoming porches, and carefully executed architectural details in an array of styles: Craftsman bungalow, Tudor-style cottage, Queen Anne, saltbox, foursquare.
All the houses have history; they were built with an eye to coming generations — built to last. I imagine the families that lived here: the fathers going off to work, the mothers in their newly-modernized kitchens, the generations that made their way to school along these sidewalks. The homes here exude stability of a kind that seems missing from our modern, mobile fast-paced life.
Except, maybe not so much. There was a time, not so long ago, when many of the solid houses of Salem were not so fixed or stable. In an era that stretched from the Depression to the late 1980s, massive government building projects set off a house-moving boom. All kinds of structures were jacked up, placed on giant dollies, and moved — sometimes around the corner, sometimes for several blocks, and sometimes to or from other towns — to make way for the huge, marble-faced edifices that house Oregon’s state offices.
Oregon’s government buildings are relatively new; the Capitol building was erected in 1936, after fire destroyed its predecessor, and the construction of additional state office buildings began in 1937. The most recent in the Capitol Mall — the North Mall Office Building on Summer Street NE — was completed only in 2003. In the years after World War II, local, state and federal governments began other massive construction projects: the Detroit Dam in 1949; Salem’s second high school, South Salem High, in 1954; Interstate 5’s path through Oregon from 1957 to 1967; and Foster Dam in 1966.
To make way for all of this construction, some existing houses and buildings were demolished, but many were moved to new locations, in a kind of giant recycling program. Why destroy a building when you can pick it up and move it?
There was a time, not so long ago, when many of the solid houses of Salem were not so fixed or stable.
Curious about how moving something as large and solidly-rooted as a house is even possible, I talked to August Koenig and his son-in-law, Mark Hildebrandt. Together, they ran one of the busiest and most successful house-moving companies in Oregon, Rainbow Construction. They relocated hundreds of structures every year.
“Augie” Koenig is a tall, burly man who, at 89, still seems almost capable of picking up a house and moving it with muscle power alone. He began the business in 1952 — with his brothers Virgil, Wilbur and William — “because I needed something to eat,” he says. Rainbow held one of the earliest Builders Board (now the Oregon Construction Contractors Board) licenses in the state: number 1850. “I could have had number one, but at the time I needed to hold on to the $10,” Koenig says with a chuckle, referring to the license fee at the time. “That was a lot of money back then.”
Rainbow Construction always remained a family operation. Hildebrandt, who had worked for Koenig part-time in high school, became a partner when he joined the family in 1974 — he married his junior high school sweetheart Laura Koenig, Augie’s daughter. Laura also helped out with the business by running errands, acting as a lookout and, on one occasion, even driving the truck that pulled a house.
When Rainbow Construction started, moving a house was a cost-effective option for a family whose property had been condemned for public use. Back then, Rainbow charged between $500 and $700 to move a house to a new location, whereas purchasing or building a new home averaged $23,000, according to Koenig. Even factoring in the cost of a new lot, the financial benefits were obvious.
People don’t often choose to move houses these days because the costs have become prohibitive, Hildebrandt says. One of the biggest reasons is the number of wires that need to be disconnected and moved. In the days when a house was connected only to the electrical and telephone grids, and stoplights hung on overhead wires, house movers could easily disconnect the building and, as they were moving it down the streets, raise the stoplight cables with a pole to allow the house to fit underneath. Now, the care needed to disconnect the more-delicate wiring of internet and cable television fiber optics — and the necessity of disassembling “mast arm” stoplights at $1,500 a pop — contribute to making house moving a more-expensive process than it once was.
A Straightforward Process
Although each job offered a unique challenge, the physical process of moving a house was fairly straightforward, as Koenig and Hildebrandt explain it. Crawl under the house and detach it from the foundation. Place jacks in strategic locations and raise the house a little at a time, keeping it as level as possible. Support the house on “cribbing” — a stack of wooden blocks that resemble a child’s building blocks. Place cross beams the width of the house underneath it, move the house dollies (pairs of large, pneumatic, rubber-tired wheels on a steel frame) into place, and lower the house onto the dollies.
If the house has more than one story, and the preferred moving route includes many overhanging branches or low wires, sometimes you have to move the structure in two sections. Stack cribbing inside the house, from the first to the second floor; support the second story on steel beams; and jack it up, prying up the sill plates (the bottom horizontal parts of the wall to which vertical parts are attached) with a crowbar and cutting through studs with a reciprocating saw. Lift the second floor with a crane and then lower it onto dollies. Hook the dollies to a heavy truck, and off you go.
I use the word “go” here in a relative sense. The top speed at which a house can be moved — on a route like Cordon Road, which is relatively free of obstacles — is 25 to 30 mph; many houses must move much slower. Rainbow used trucks with extremely low gears, often going more slowly than a person can walk.
In the early days, Rainbow used screw or pump jacks to lift the buildings. Later they switched to hydraulic jacks, and eventually they were able to invest in a “unified hydraulic jacking system” — in essence, a hydraulic jack and house dolly combined into one machine, capable of raising all corners of the house evenly and simultaneously, and rolling down the road with it.
As Hildebrandt describes the process, he is animated and his eyes shine. It’s easy to see how much both men loved the physical challenge of the task, as well as the mental puzzle — the joy of figuring out how to do a difficult and demanding job.
And there was great satisfaction, too, in the historical preservation aspect of the business. “I hate to see old buildings knocked down,” Koenig says.
Besides the puzzle of how to physically relocate the buildings, the men had to work with numerous city, county and state offices to coordinate each move. Hildebrandt rattles off a list: they applied for numerous permits, including ones that allowed them to cross railroad tracks; contacted utility and telephone (and later cable) companies; gained permission from the local police and public works departments. Rainbow engaged flaggers and sign-holders, hired pilot cars to alert motorists to a “wide load,” contracted for an enormous crane if a building had to be lifted in sections, and consulted with engineers about such things as the weight-bearing capacity of bridges they needed to cross.
I hate to see old buildings knocked down.
They carefully mapped each route, noting trees, signs, bridges — and whenever they could avoid obstacles, they did, even if it meant moving a house by a longer, more circuitous route. “There is a lot more to house moving than people realize,” Hildebrandt says. Koenig adds, “Real early Sunday morning was a good time — fewer people around.”
Even after a house arrived at its new location, the work wasn’t done. Rainbow Construction completed an array of tasks to get the building into shape for its owners. To minimize the possibility of error, they didn’t add the new foundation until after the relocated house was in position; the poured it under the house while the structure stood on cribbing. After they set a house on its foundation, Koenig and Hildebrandt worked to bring the house up to current building codes.
Sometimes they had to replace wiring and plumbing, re-hang doors and windows, and occasionally repair cracks in the plaster. “But it didn’t crack much, if the job was done right,” Koenig says.
Koenig and Hildebrandt still notice when they pass by a house they once moved. Some of the houses relocated to accommodate state buildings now sit in or near the Court Street-Chemeketa Street Historic District and by the corner of Silverton Road NE and Williams Avenue NE. “It’s cool we were able to save them, to recycle them, and to keep them on the tax rolls,” Hildebrandt says.
The two men have hundreds of photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings that they spread out on Hildebrandt’s dining room table to illustrate their stories. And they have a million stories.
There was the time in 1976 when Koenig was moving a turreted Victorian mortuary building in Newport and opened one of the refrigerated drawers to find a dead … cat. And the time his fast thinking saved a house from floating down the Little North Fork River in the flood of 1964. The house, threatened by mud slides, sat atop cribbing in preparation for moving to a safer spot. But as the floodwaters rose, the house began to float away. Koenig grabbed a chainsaw, felled a nearby tree into the water behind the house, hooked cables to either end of the tree, and, using the company’s biggest trucks and the tree as a kind of life-preserver, managed to pull the house to safety.
Only one house ever came to grief during one of Rainbow’s moves, and not because of anything they did. Hired in 1972 to move the 1862 Dalrymple House, which once stood next to Garfield School on Marion Street NE, to a site on Howell Prairie Road, the men began by cutting the two-story structure apart at the ceiling joists. They planned to move the Italianate-style home in two sections. As the crane company engaged by Rainbow swung the second story out to place it on the dolly, the crane slipped and the upper story smashed on the ground. Oregon Statesman photographer John Ericksen captured the spectacular crash on film. Although Rainbow wasn’t responsible, they apologized to the owners of the house.
Hildebrandt says that Rainbow Construction’s safety record was impeccable; no one ever was seriously injured on any of their jobs, and their standards were of the highest caliber.
“I was so fortunate to work with Augie and some of the real old-timers,” he says. “I learned so much. No job was too hard; they just went out and did it, and did it right.”
Koenig and Hildebrandt moved locomotives and rail cars, moved trees from the state construction site to Bush’s Pasture Park, moved buildings by floating them on barges down the Willamette River. They moved several old train depots, relocated the Criterion Schoolhouse from Maupin to the Oregon State Fairgrounds, and moved the ornate Queen Anne Victorian Collins-Downing House from Church Street NE to Chemeketa Street NE. They also relocated four of Salem’s oldest buildings — the Jason Lee House, the Methodist Parsonage, the Boon House and the Condit Church — from their former locations around the Willamette Valley to their current home at the Willamette Heritage Center.
No job was too hard; they just went out and did it, and did it right.
More recently, in 2001, Berg and Sons House Moving of Mt. Angel contacted Rainbow Construction and two other house moving companies — Chris Schoap Building Movers of Eugene and general contractor Steve Hoskins of Salem — to help them save a house of international significance from demolition. With Berg in the lead, the four companies moved the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gordon House from its original site along the Willamette River near Wilsonville to its current location at the Oregon Garden in Silverton. Designed by Wright a few years before his death in 1959, the concrete block, glass and cedar structure was dismantled into three sections, moved over two days, then painstakingly restored by Berg. The house earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
“Together it took 140 years of experience to move that house,” Hildebrandt says with pride.
The Houses Live On
I decide to go on a field trip to see if I can spot some of these peripatetic buildings. Like so many others, I have visited the Willamette Heritage Center and the Gordon House, appreciated their beauty and felt the envelopment of history, but I wanted to see some of the more ordinary buildings, houses in which people have lived their daily lives.
In the pouring rain, I set out to the corner of Williams Avenue and Silverton Road, where a number of the houses moved for the state office project were relocated. I don’t have street numbers, but I’m pretty sure I spot them. I see several Tudor-style houses, one of which has been thoughtlessly modernized with aluminum siding, vinyl windows and a glaring second-story addition. The gem of the group is a Craftsman bungalow with its wide welcoming porch, sheltering roof and paneled front door. It could use a new roof, but it is a beautiful example of its kind, and hasn’t been “remuddled” at all. I hope someone who loves it lives there.
Next, I head over to Chemeketa Street NE to find the Collins-Downing House. It takes me a while to find my way to it because sections of the street are blocked to through traffic, but I finally locate the right block. I recognize the house easily from photographs — an ornate Queen Anne Victorian, with gables and a two-story gingerbread porch. The exterior has been painted in shades of brown, cream and pale olive. It’s for sale.
As I look longer, I realize that the house most recently was used as some kind of office building; the backyard is paved for a parking lot. I find this inexpressibly sad. This looks like a home that was meant to house a large family — with multiple generations living and working on all of its three floors. I’m glad the structure was saved from demolition, but I wish it had been rescued for occupants who would live in it, grow in it, love it.
I fantasize the next owners will rip up the asphalt and plant a garden full of flowers and vegetables, that kids will run up and down the front sidewalk, as parents sit and drink a glass of wine on the hospitable porch. I’m sure Hildebrandt and Koenig would agree. As I mentioned, the house is for sale.
Laura Sauter lives in Salem and writes the occasional story for Salem Weekly. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in various obscure literary journals.