Natural Home Earth Mover: Lynn Edmundson

Lynn Edmundson preserves historic houses—and keeps their wreckage out of landfills—by moving them.

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Photo by Syd Moen

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Lynn Edmundson is a midwife of sorts. She makes deliveries to proud, expectant families, but instead of babies, she brings old historic houses that are getting a new lease on life—and a new address. Edmundson literally moves historic houses that would otherwise be torn down when their original Houston, Texas, neighborhoods are redeveloped.

“This is preservation of the last resort,” admits the cofounder and acting executive director of Historic Houston, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving local architecture. “Technically, preservation means saving a structure in its location, but Houston has a very weak preservation ordinance, so our choices are letting a home get demolished or picking it up and moving it.”

Since 2002, Edmundson has organized the moving of twenty-one houses, most built from 1910 to 1935. Typically, when old neighborhoods are slated for redevelopment, the new landowners donate homes to Historic Houston, which earmarks those that can be moved and salvages building materials and fixtures from those it doesn’t have the resources to save.

About half the moved houses are deeded to low-income families; the rest are sold to property owners who want an affordable historic home to renovate and live in. It sounds simple, but it’s not: Moving a large house requires cutting it in half and removing the roof, so the best candidates for relocation are bungalows, cottages, or “shotgun” houses small enough to fit through Houston streets on a semi.

Like a lot of midwives, Edmundson works at night—the hours when it’s legal to move a house from one part of the city to another. An independent moving company does the work, but she supervises, pulling all-nighters for the sheer love of old homes (she’s an unpaid volunteer). “It’s incredible watching the truck driver manipulate a house down the middle of the street at two in the morning,” she says. “We check every single utility line, overhanging tree limb, and traffic signal along the route to avoid accidents.”

Houses that can’t be saved in their entirety are stripped of doors, windows, floors, porches, railings, light fixtures, sinks, and bathtubs, which Historic Houston sells to the public from its warehouse. A relocated house in the salvage warehouse’s parking lot serves as the organization’s renovation classroom, where participants learn to redo floors and hang doors and windows. When one house is renovated, it goes to a low-income family and is replaced with another fixer-upper.

Edmundson loves delivering an old house to a new family—many of them proud, first-time homeowners. “These little bungalows are modest by today’s standards, but they’re perfect for an elderly person or small family, and they’re environmentally friendly in a lot of ways,” she says. “They were built to accommodate Houston’s climate before air conditioning.”

Through her home deliveries, Edmundson shares a bond with new homeowners, who often invite her to the house after it’s renovated. “Moving houses is a weird little thing that I do,” she says, “but when I see a beautiful old home redone, I’m happy it got moved so it can be around for another hundred years.”