A Case for Destructive Testing, or What’s Behind That Wall?

May 31, 2022

A fascinating Google alert recently landed in my in-box. When I read the title, “235-Year-Old Home Deconstruction,” the first thought that jumped into my mind was, Who would deconstruct a 235-year old home?

The home in question was originally built in approximately 1787 by Israel and Susannah Grant (a sister of Daniel Boone). Its final owner was, and I guess still is, a trust established by John and Dullia Drake. A grandson of the Drakes decided that since no one had lived in, or maintained, the house for the past seven years, the only way to preserve it would be through deconstruction and rebuilding elsewhere. Ideally, the house would be preserved by a live-in owner; however, neither a Drake descendent nor an outside buyer could be found to assume the task. Fortunately, the contractor hired to do the deconstruction was experienced in historic buildings and took the time to carefully remove and catalog all of the home’s original parts.

Deconstruction is one thing, but cataloging and mapping what went where, and how, is entirely different, and critical. The house had been remodeled repeatedly during its lifetime. The first substantial remodel occurred in the early 20th century, when all structural elements were covered over with contemporary materials. This redo was followed by several smaller changes over the past century to the point that the house ultimately attained the appearance of a Victorian two-story with all the frills.

Thankfully, the Drakes had an inkling what might be found under the one, two and three-plus layers of paint, paneling, drywall and plaster, so for them deconstruction was the obvious choice.

In TRP’s 29 years of deconstruction and salvage, our crews have often encountered older buildings where substantial remodeling concealed something of value. In 2007 we deconstructed a craftsman house in Napa and removed a wall that had been constructed right over a built-in buffet, complete with cabinet hardware and leaded glass doors. Fortunately the owner decided to preserve the buffet as opposed to ripping it out. If he had chosen to demolish rather than deconstruct, that beautiful buffet would have gone to the area’s vast graveyard—the local landfill—along with all of the other materials.

Other fascinating finds include a 1×12 oak subfloor discovered during deconstruction of an 1870s house in West Virginia, a twenty-dollar confederate bill behind a wall cabinet in an 1850 Kansas City house, still operational time-zone clocks behind a false wall in the Cincinnati Union Station, and a hand-drawn confederate civil war battle map drawn on a wall, and later covered over with wall paper, in a Georgia building.

As materials grow more expensive—especially scarce and high quality materials, such as historical elements, old-growth Douglas fir and wormy Chestnut—deconstruction becomes the go-to solution and is becoming competitive with traditional smash-and-dash demolition.

None of the “finds” TRP has experienced equal the revelation of Susannah (Boone) Grant’s home, but they clearly point to the need for a modest amount of deconstructive testing prior to demolition, especially on older buildings.