It was midmorning in Herndon. Police cars sat at Van Buren and Spring streets blocking traffic. Nearby, two diesel trucks carrying one white and one brown Victorian house chugged impatiently, waiting to transport the houses, lock, stock and back porch, to a lot off Nash Street.
The man in charge of the house moving, Bill Patram, directed a three-member crew as they positioned wooden slats under the trucks for traction over the most bumpy and slippery terrain. With a crowd of excited neighborhood children and parents watching, the houses edged across Van Buren to their new lots.
Patram is an expert at moving houses. As owner of William B. Patram Inc., he has relocated more than 2,050 structures. He has picked up mansions, entire apartment buildings, the old Rockville train station and the Mother Seaton shrine of Emmitsburg, Md., then put them down again in a new locale.
"I have had lots of reasons for moving houses," said Patram, 48. "In the old days, houses were moved because of highway construction. I have had to move a house 12 inches. A city said it was eight inches too close to the street and they wouldn't waive the ruling. They said it would set a precedent. Once a man in Central Virginia spent half a million dollars so he could have a better view of the James River."
Moving a house isn't cheap. It cost more than $50,000 to move the two houses after adding the costs of raising and lowering utility wires so the houses could pass. But the move was still less expensive than buying a new house.
The houses Patram moved were two of what were once 14 buildings on a Herndon lot that was rezoned from a residential to a commercial district. The land was sold to the Huntmar Co. and most of the houses were demolished.
The same fate would have befallen the white Victorian house, but its owners, Bob and Nancy Burk didn't want that to happen. The Herndon couple, who rent out the house but live nearby, negotiated with the Huntmar Co. to do everything possible to save the 480 Spring St. house.
"There were a lot of delays, but Huntmar was patient and waited until we found Steve Mitchell to take the house," Nancy Burk said. "It shows that if you want to save an old home, it can be done."
Mitchell owned property at 633 Nash St. and bought the Burks' house and another building once owned by his wife's grandmother that was also in the Burks' neighborhood.
"Both houses were built in the early 1900s, and I figured if I could save them, why not?" Mitchell said. "I feel strongly about preserving the historical integrity of Herndon. I thought it was worth buying the houses and paying for the move. And the City of Herndon and Huntmar really went all the way in helping me with the permits."
After Mitchell received permission to relocate the houses, Patram made sure arrangements were made with power, telephone and cable companies to move their wires. He also secured moving permits that allowed him to move the large loads on the road.
Patram excavated the ground around the houses, exposing walls and knocking holes into the bottom floors of the structures. Steel beams were inserted in a gridlock pattern underneath the houses. "We got the houses up by using hydraulic lifts," Patram said. "After we jacked up the houses, we installed the wheels and the truck right underneath them and drove right out."
Once new foundations have been dug on Mitchell's property, Patram's crew will drive the houses down a ramp and hoist them off the wheels and truck. The structures will become fully secure once Patram adds footings and foundation walls to support them. Mitchell plans to renovate and sell the houses.
"I get a good feeling moving a house," Patram said. "It makes me feel proud, especially when it has some historical value."
Cost aside, Patram pointed out why more people don't move houses.
"In Virginia, the maximum distance you can move a house is three miles," Patram said. "The municipalities don't like them on the roads. Out in the West it's easier; there's a case of one house being moved 700 miles from Texas to Kansas. But here, even if you can get permission to move a house and find a lot to put it on, you have to pay the costs of moving utility wires so structures can pass."
Patram, who lives in Fairfax City, is one of an estimated 2,000 structural movers in the country. In his 35 years in the business, he has never had an accident, although once a house almost tipped over while the truck was negotiating a hill with a steep incline.
"There probably isn't anything that can't be moved if you have the time, the money and the equipment," he said, citing the Cape Hatteras lighthouse as an endangered structure that he would be interested in moving. "I like moving old buildings, especially heavy brick ones. I move them when others won't."