Historic buildings: location

A moving story

24 June 2011

A building’s location and context are important - but what if its future is at risk? Trudy Woolf explores the factors affecting whether or not to move historic buildings


The decision on whether or not to move an historic building is a contentious one. We are surrounded by buildings that are in a poor state of repair, but how often do we question the reasons for this deterioration and whether alternatives have been investigated? In the UK, we have a history of recycling and reusing our historic buildings; for example, churches are often utilised as cafés. Some may disagree with this approach, but at least it is providing some ‘use and income’ to a building that would otherwise become redundant, or worse derelict. Historic buildings are an important part of our past, and to allow them to deteriorate is neglectful; however, sympathetic alterations permit these buildings to still stand today. Indeed, PPS5 actively encourages the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

Finding an appropriate use to prevent a building from falling into decay or destruction is, though, one of the hardest problems in conservation. But if the building has outlived its use in its current place, is it a natural progression to move it elsewhere to save it? These buildings can still provide ‘value’ and ‘a sense of community’, which surely should not be overlooked? One of the key questions in this whole debate is ‘are buildings site-specific?’

Ultimately, escalating costs of keeping the buildings in situ, pressure for new development, rapidly changing modern uses, new infrastructures and transportation links all contribute to the length of a building’s potential life in a location.

The Essex Arms, Widemarsh Street, Hereford

The original Essex Arms (the building on the left with dormers) as a toll house in the 1800s (Kind permission: Derek Foxton)

The Essex Arms today

The Essex Arms today

The Essex Arms public house was a listed, half-timber building built in the 17th century as a single-storey part-thatched building. It was located on the outskirts of Hereford forming part of the Widemarsh Turnpike where tolls were collected until abolished in the 1870s. It later changed into a public house until closure in 1969. The grounds and inn became a storage warehouse for a timber merchant and then lay boarded up and dormant for many years.

The building gradually became dangerous to the public but planning approval and listed building consent were finally obtained for its demolition – providing it was re-erected on a new site. Piece by piece the building was dismantled, numbered and moved under the close watch of the city’s archaeology committee which kept a record of its design and appearance. Their comments at the time were “We can do good drawings which will give evidence of the detail and methods of construction, it will be better recorded than any other comparable timber-framed building in the city.”

The Essex Arms is now situated at a country park between Hereford and Leominster, eight miles from its original location. It is almost unrecognisable to its original building, and there is no reference to its primary use or original location.

The Essex Arms enhanced and contributed to the character of its original location and its removal has had a negative impact on the surroundings and the conservation area as a whole. One could argue that the building is in its original form and still standing today, albeit at a different location. But when one reflects and considers what has been lost, and that there are no reminders of its history at either location, one can only feel sadness. But what could have been done differently today? Is this a good example of the relocation of a listed building?

Open-air museums

These are an alternative for some buildings, providing an educational insight about their history and materials. These museums are often criticised by conservation professionals: the argument is that even if the fabric of the building is not lost in the move, there is a much higher price to pay – that the buildings are robbed of their setting and context.

Open-air museums are a last resort for some buildings and I’d suggest that the word ‘conserve’ takes another meaning; perhaps ‘preserve’ would be more appropriate as the shape, materials and building techniques are saved for future generations. Predominately timberframed buildings are often on display at open-air museums as they can be dismantled and re-erected easily elsewhere. When rebuilt, they have lost their relationship with the original site, but their fundamental integrity and uniqueness as a building are still available for us to all view.

There are good and bad examples of relocated buildings: the Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove has a selection of buildings, including a toll house and an ice house, which are all fascinating but are all out of context; however, they still exist. Blists Hill Victorian town at Ironbridge goes one step further, telling the story of buildings using costumed guides who demonstrate historic working methods in the context of Ironbridge Gorge blast furnaces, tile works, etc. Surely, if a building was to be demolished, any form of preservation in an open-air museum saves its fabric, if not its social or spiritual meaning.

High Town House, Hereford

High Town House in its heyday (Kind permission: Derek Foxton)

The remains of High Town House today

The remains of High Town House today

High Town House is a 17th century black and white house in the centre of Hereford and was once part of the Marchants Grocers. Due to demand for modern shops it was at risk and a campaign was launched to save the house from demolition. In 1965, a decision was taken to move the building from its original location.

Over one weekend, the 40-tonne building was jacked up and pulled along by rollers into the centre of town and wrapped in polythene sheeting*. It then sat for 18 months awaiting relocation. The architect at the time for the project said “No decision has yet been taken on whether the old house can be put to any practical use as part of the new store, but ways would be looked at of finding some use for it.” It is doubtful whether this method of moving buildings would be allowed today.

The building is now only accessible with the aid of a ladder to the front of the building and it therefore is for ‘show’ purposes only. Was there really any point in saving it? Surrounded by 1960s architecture, has the building lost its meaning or value? Does it still hold some relationship to its original location?

Green considerations

There is a lack of information available on the environmental issues of moving historic buildings – the focus is generally in respect of their repair and maintenance, not the environmental impact of removal and re-erection, e.g. they contain embodied energy which is lost when they are destroyed or rebuilt.

Environmental issues must be assessed if considering moving a building with the least damaging option likely to be keeping it in situ and improving its energy performance rather than rebuilding elsewhere.

Good examples of buildings that have been moved include Clavell Tower in Dorset and Belle Toute Lighthouse in East Sussex, which were at risk due to coastal erosion. But surely, even though they were moved for different reasons, The Essex Arms and High Town House still exist today and therefore have some value – however far they have been moved and are out of context.

Not every historic building can be saved but, wherever it is, the building must have a valid use, have a purpose in the community and be ‘financially viable’ to fund its own maintenance and repair. The fabric of the building, decorations, plasterwork and mortars may not withstand a move, but each building is unique and should be recognised on its individual merits, location and context – the difficulty is striking a balance between these factors. Our historic buildings are precious and irreplaceable assets, we should learn from previous mistakes to ensure that they are not lost in the future.

Trudy Woolf BSc (Hons) AssocRICS is a Residential Surveyor for Colleys Surveyors. Her degree dissertation was on the subject of this article

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