June 18, 2024
For these Australians, moving home means sawing up a property and driving it hundreds of miles away

For these Australians, moving home means sawing up a property and driving it hundreds of miles away

Workers had spent two days sawing the house’s timber frame into three pieces 30 meters (98 feet) long and 8 meters (26 feet) wide, so it could be moved from Bald Hills, an outer suburb of Brisbane, to a town 170 kilometers (105 miles) away — and reassembled for new owners.

Two bedrooms and the reception room were strapped on to one truck, with the dining room, a third bedroom and the living room on the other. The sun room and kitchen would follow later.

Usually it is homeowners who move, not houses. But in the state of Queensland, at least 500 properties were moved last year, according to estimates from several companies.

Most, like Number 36 — as it was known before the move — are Queenslanders.

Named after the Australian state, these timber properties, typical at the turn of the 20th century, were built on stilts to let the humid summer air flow beneath them.

Queenslanders fell out of fashion in the 1930s, when homeowners started to look to the US and Europe for art deco and Spanish mission-style brick homes. But in recent years, the classic local design with its wide verandas has become highly sought after.

But buyers often can’t — or don’t want to — live in the homes in their original locations, and so are taking the extraordinary step of cutting up and moving them. It’s relatively affordable to move a Queenslander, due to their timber design, and trying to replicate the style in a new build misses the point.

“People who live in one of these won’t build a new house,” said John Wright, who has been relocating Queenslanders for 40 years. “No walls are ever perfectly level and straight, and they certainly have a classic sort of character to them.”

Experts say the trend is both a boon — it is preferable to the properties being demolished — and a loss for conservation: it divorces the properties from their past.

Local historians say each time a Queenslander is moved, leaving behind an empty plot or making way for a new development, the character of a suburb subtly changes.

And, the stories of each home like Number 36 become harder to find.

For sale

Number 36 was advertised for sale earlier this year as “a grand old home” that “boasts character and charm rarely seen in the market.” Images with the listing showed rooms from another era, lined with patterned carpets, embossed wallpaper and antiques.

It was the first time the property had been on the market since the 1960s.

But there was a catch: only the house was for sale — the land it stood on had already been bought by a property developer who planned to clear the site for a new childcare center. If unsold, the house would be demolished.

Diane McClay-MacGeorge, a support worker for people with disabilities, and Chris MacGeorge, a hydrological engineer, had been searching for a new home for four years. The couple, in their early 60s, fell in love with the Queenslander’s painted plaster ceilings, including the gold-trimmed burgundy hallway, which they had suspected was the handiwork of a local artist.

They could see the house had a story and wanted it to be part of theirs. “We had always dreamed of getting a Queenslander, but we didn’t want any Queenslander, we wanted a house with a bit of history,” said McClay-MacGeorge.

The couple had already bought a block of land at Wolvi, a rural area home to fewer than 500 people about two hours’ drive north of Brisbane, the state capital. The house would sit on the banks of a man-made lake, surrounded by dense Australian bush. “From the road you’d be looking down across the water to the property, which will then be backdropped by the trees that surround the natural river and landscape,” said MacGeorge.

The scene was set for the house — they just had to get it there.

Moving a house

Brothers John, Kevin, and Simon Wright have been moving houses since they were barefoot teenagers, starting off working for pocket money at their father’s company. Queensland House Removers is now a third-generation company. Over the decades, the brothers think they’ve moved more than 7,500 homes.

“You’ve got to be a truck driver, you’ve got to be a carpenter, you got to be all sorts of different trades,” said John Wright.

Not all houses can be moved. The wooden frames need to be in decent condition and not damaged by termites or covered with asbestos, the fibrous building material that was popular in Australia before it was banned in 2003 for causing certain types of cancer. “A lot get knocked down because they’re too expensive to move, there’s too much renovation to do,” said John Wright.

For those that pass muster, each move follows a similar process. The interior is cleared of all possessions and anything that could become damaged during transit, such as light fittings and balcony railings. The roof is dismantled to bring the height of the house down to about 5 meters (16 feet), low enough to fit under bridges.

Special hydraulic trailers are reversed under the house to support its weight while workers knock out the stumps from beneath it. The wooden frame is then cut from front to back, along the edges of rooms, so the pieces are as structurally sound as they can be for the journey. Extra beams are sometimes added for support.

At the new site, the house is reconstructed. Timber beams are fixed to the old frame, making the structure even stronger than it was before. The roof is also rebuilt, in the same style as the original.

The longest part of any move is getting local council approval, which can take months. Often roads have to be closed, and every power line along the route must be measured to ensure it is high enough to clear the load. Other hazards, such as traffic islands, can be negotiated with the trailer’s hydraulics.

“Sometimes we’ll have to tilt the house so one side is nearly down on the ground, going over an embankment or something like that. And we’ll tip one side down to go under power lines and keep the other side up so it stays level,” said John Wright. The trailers are made in New Zealand, where some people also relocate wooden homes.

Number 36 isn’t the oldest or the biggest house the Wrights have ever moved, but its painted plaster ceilings required extra protection. “We’ve been assured that they can bring it intact because its four ceilings are just magical, just beautiful,” said McClay-MacGeorge, before the move.

Scaffolding was added so the plaster didn’t crumble during the trip. With a neat, solid load, the trucks can travel up to 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour). For this move, they’d sit on around 55 kph (35 mph).

The forgotten USB

When Alan and Leona Brough bought Number 36 in 1966, the house was surrounded by pastures with grazing dairy cattle, says their son Dean Brough, who grew up there with his brother David. “It was a quiet road in front, just a suburban street,” he said. Before long, the government acquired part of the front yard and widened the road outside to four lanes. More traffic brought more people, and more modern bungalows started appearing in the area.

“The house was too close to a major road (but) my parents loved it, it didn’t worry them,” said Dean Brough. When his father died last year, he put his parent’s home on the market. His mother moved in with him, and they started the painful process of selling decades of memories.

“There were thousands and thousands of items,” Dean Brough said. “They’d been there since the 1960s, so they just collected and collected.”

Leona and Alan Brough bought the house in 1966.

As he prepared the house for sale, he gave most of his parent’s prized possession to an auction house — just before the city went into coronavirus lockdown. “They had some online auctions but not many. We didn’t get that much money, but that’s life,” he said.

By the time the MacGeorges bought the house, it had been cleared of its contents. Then, workers who were preparing to move the house found a USB stick in a pile of debris. It contained dozens of images of how the interior had looked two years ago.

The photographs showed a house crammed with memorabilia: vintage arcade machines, jukeboxes, antique wall phones, wooden wheelchairs, a coin-operated punch strength tester, a silver Anker register, bar signs and model boats. The images had been taken by Alan’s grandson as a keepsake for his grandfather.

To the MacGeorges, the photos provided a glimpse of what the house had been like — and what it could become.

Number 36 stood on Strathpine Road for almost 100 years. Before the move, the home’s roof was flattened to comply with height limits. Then it was cut into three pieces and tied to hydraulic trailers for the journey north. Credit: Hilary Whiteman/CNN

Buying and selling

People sell Queenslanders for many reasons. Increasingly, it’s to subdivide older, larger blocks of land to build new, smaller houses to sell at a profit. Removing an unwanted home can subsidize the cost of a new build — instead of paying for its demolition, they can sell it on.

In an ideal scenario, houses are moved straight to their new site. When that’s not possible, the house movers take it to a holding lot, much like a used car yard, until the owner is ready to receive it. One house has been in the Wright’s lot for more than three years. The owner sold her land to developers, Kevin Wright said, but couldn’t bear to part with the house. She pays them weekly rent to store it.

If houses can't move directly to a new block, they sit here in the Queensland House Removers holding yard until their new owners are ready to take them.

House researcher Marianne Taylor is conflicted about the relocation of houses. On one hand, it saves some from demolition. On the other, it severs the house’s connection with the site and erodes their historical value.

“From the heritage perspective, we’re taught in best practice that the context of a building is crucial to its history as well. That’s why relocating houses is only ever supposed to be a last resort when you’re trying to protect a building,” said Taylor.

It’s also much harder to learn the origins of a relocated home — especially if it’s been moved by different owners more than once. Researcher Magnus Eriksson advises talking to neighbors, scanning satellite images and searching newspaper archives for clues. He says that each year, the task is getting easier as more old records are digitized. “Never give up and walk away. Park it for a few years and then go back — you’re going to know more 10 years down the line than you do now,” he said.

Diane McClay and Chris MacGeorge followed the house as it was driven onto their new property at Wolvi, Queensland.

A new beginning

It’s thought Number 36 was built in the 1920s, decades after Scottish European settlers first arrived in Bald Hills in the mid-1800s. They cleared the land for farming, but the area proved better suited for dairy cows that supplied milk to Brisbane city, 21 kilometers (13 miles) away.

Despite its age, there were no restrictions on moving Number 36, to the disappointment of some neighbors who were sad to see it go. “When I saw them starting to board up the leadlight windows, I thought, this is going to be a fairly historic move,” said one local, Scott Benson.

In total, the MacGeorges paid 1 million Australian dollars (about $730,000) for their new home. That breaks down to 130,000 Australian dollars ($95,000) to buy the house, and 140,000 Australian dollars ($102,000) for the move, including raising it on new foundations, with the rest going on the land.

Renovating and extending the home will cost even more. The MacGeorges plan to double the size of the house by building underneath and adding an extension to the back. Eventually, they hope to have enough rooms so their eight children and their families can come and stay.

They’re also planning to provide holiday accommodation.

Some of the Broughs’ memories will live on, however. Having learned that Alan made the hand-beaten copper cabinets, the MacGeorges have incorporated them into their new kitchen design. They’re also renovating an old commercial range cooker they hoped had been part of the original property. Dean Brough confirms his father bought it on a whim while picking up a secondhand jukebox when he was a kid — they never used it.

The house now sits a long way from any main roads. Surrounded by bushland, it'll look out onto a lake, where guests can take a boat to a small island.

The plaster ceilings also survived the four-hour trip on the back of the truck and will be preserved as a feature.

Leona Brough didn’t paint the ceilings, as the MacGeorges suspected. That was Alan, who spent decades touching up the paint. Leona was a landscape painter, whose work can be seen in the photos, hanging in many of the rooms before the home was emptied.

She’s in her 80s and doesn’t paint much now. “I took her out the last time to see the house before it sold. And she was, yes, that’s how it is, we have to sell,” said Dean Brough.

“It’s pleasing that people who bought the house are obviously quite interested in the integrity and the history of the house,” he added. “It’s excellent the house will have a new life with new owners.”