Bring 'em Home

The Harris family saved threatened buildings by moving them to the family farm in Alabama

It would make a great movie. Small-town Nebraska girl goes to Juilliard to study music and meets small-town Alabama boy working at Radio City Music Hall. The year is 1935. The boy asks the girl to meet his family, so she travels by train to his hometown in rural Alabama. But there's a problem. The boy, John Thomas Harris III, gets nervous and tells the girl, Eleanor Suess, that he is not ready to be married. She weeps (or doesn't—depending upon who's telling the story), and leaves, disconsolate. 

The next morning, John T. runs to Eleanor, begs her forgiveness and her hand in marriage, and she consents. They marry that evening in the living room of the mansion where she is staying, the 1848 White-Newton House. Cue music, cue credits, fade to black.

And that might have been the end of it, but because this story is true, there is a factual epilogue. The Harrises eventually settled in Nebraska, where they ran a successful department store and raised six sons. Each year, parents and children would make the journey to eastern Alabama to work all summer long on the family farm. And that's where two generations of Harrises became ardent preservationists.

Bill Harris, the second-oldest son, says his father believed passionately in preservation. "He was born and raised in the original house on this farm, and as a result, had a deep love and sense of history." His passion came into play in 1973 when he spoke with Charles Weissinger, a self-described architectural enthusiast who was rescuing endangered properties throughout Alabama by moving them to locations where they might be restored and used. "I'd found a place called the Trammell House out in the middle of nowhere in Chambers County," Weissinger remembers. "It wasn't even habitable."  But it was repairable. With Weissinger's help, John T. Harris relocated the Trammell House to the farm, preserving the 1830s Greek Revival structure and duplicating architectural details that had been lost. 

Advice from an Expert

Charles Weissinger ­estimates that he has moved and restored dozens of houses to save them from destruction. He offers this advice to anyone who considers relocating a historic structure:

Cost:  “Know going in that it is going to be a seriously expensive proposition. You could build a new house for less … but you can’t build character.”

Structural Integrity: Most houses can be moved as long as the basic framing is sound. “Walls can be reconstructed and roofs rebuilt, but if the framing is gone, the house is done.”

Transport: Relocating a house requires transport, and access may be limited by power lines, bridges, and other obstructions. The farthest Weissinger has moved a structure? “Over 100 miles.” 

Permits: Permits may be required from the power company (which often charges an hourly fee), the department of transportation, and city and county governments.

Within a year, John T. heard from Weissinger again about another endangered building. "Dad learned that the Cusseta Methodist Church was going to be dismantled for lumber," says Jim Harris. The c. 1840 clapboard structure, distinguished by king post roof trusses and a prominent arched window, had not been occupied for years. With Weissinger's help, John T. arranged to move the sanctuary within sight of his front porch—another preservation success.

The Harris' farm, owned by the family since the 1840s, was becoming a living museum of Alabama history, with antebellum structures characteristic of the region and rare surviving outbuildings, such as the 170-year-old barn built of chestnut logs. "The structures here seem so distinctive," says Weissinger, whose friendship with the family goes back generations. "They certainly are to our area."

The final building moved to the farm was a gift from the Harris sons to their parents. In 1999, Jim Harris passed the faded, columned house where his parents had married and decided to knock on the front door. "I took a chance and asked if I could bring my parents by," he says. With the owners' permission they walked through the living room as his parents recalled their wedding service 64 years earlier. Before leaving, Jim Harris asked the owners to call if they ever thought about selling the house. And about six months later, he learned they were ready to sell.

The Harris sons conferred and came to a consensus: They would save the house as a tribute to John T. and Eleanor and forestall likely demolition by moving move it to the family property. 

"This would be our lasting tribute to our parents and their marriage," Jim Harris says.

The sons then consulted with local authorities, among them Auburn University professor Gaines Blackwell. He noted that preservationists strongly encourage protecting historic structures in their original locations, but acknowledged extenuating circumstances in this situation. As Blackwell says, "That house was in trouble. It would have been torn down where it was. We saved it by moving it." 

The move did require extensive planning. Crews had to remove the roof and divide the original structure into five pieces, taking particular care with the entrance hall containing the staircase. Each piece was placed on I-beams and lowered onto the back of a flatbed truck for the 15-mile journey from the original site to the Harris farm. Crews began moving the house 65 years to the day that the senior Harrises married. (Reconstruction included the addition of a room at the back of the structure and updating of the kitchen and baths.)

Today the White-Newton House stands at the top of a long gravel path lined by boxwood, within sight of the family farmhouse next door. From the front porch it's easy to make out the Trammell House and the Methodist church through the trees. One Harris son lives on the property. Others are scattered around the country in northern Alabama and Nebraska. All return to the farm often (staying in guest rooms created in the relocated buildings), both to visit their siblings and to see their mother, who turns 99 next year.

Eleanor Harris still enjoys sitting on the front porch of the house where she was married, and sharing stories of her days in New York. And though her sight is not as sharp as it was when she studied at Juilliard, her optimism and resilience remain impressive. When asked about her best day on the farm, her response comes quickly. "This one," she replies. "This one."         

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