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House Jacking



The old gray coach house ain't what it used to be. It's not even where it used to be. Built as a small farmhouse in the 1890s, it was dragged back to the alley to make room for a larger rental property in the 1930s, set in the soil on an uneven concrete foundation, and left pretty much untouched until this year. Crumbling, rat infested, tilted and on the verge of tumbling down, it was about to go on the move again. Only this time it was going straight up.

This Lakeview neighborhood was considered marginal not too long ago, but for the past few years it's been pocked with construction. Whole blocks have been demolished to make way for new developments, town-house villages with their own landscaping and security. The coach house was a pit at any price, and the owner wasn't collecting much rent, but with some renovating it could turn out to be a little gold mine.

Now, after weeks of the destruction before the construction and thousands of dollars spent, the place still listed like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The house would need a new foundation.

Glass shards were strewn amid chunks of concrete and splintered boards in the dirt outside the house, where a gray-haired man in a captain's hat stood squinting into the darkness of the first-floor apartment. "Put that plank there," he commanded. Someone inside responded with loud hammering.

Raising his voice over the racket the captain explained that before the new foundation could be poured the house would have to be raised into the air, and the crew inside was preparing it for the trip. "We're going to jack the place up this afternoon. Right after lunch," he promised. "We've been shoring up the structure for over a week now. Once the place goes up, every board in it is going to straighten out. It's leaned over crooked for such a long time, the whole thing could come straight down." If it did collapse it would be on his head--as well as those of the four other workers. "What goes up must come down," he said. "But not today. I hope."

The captain, a Dane named Finn, said he'd renovated scores of old houses but he'd never raised one. His lifting experience, so far, was confined to vessels. Finn Thomsen had been defying gravity all his life. As a kid he'd gone to sea with the Danish merchant marine, and later he joined his family's salvage business. By the time he landed in Chicago he'd lifted ships all over the world. Still, his last ship lift was over 20 years earlier.

He was confident nevertheless. Finn's a sculptor, a surrealist. He'd once built a Viking ship entirely out of junk. It was 18 feet long and 11 feet wide, and he used it as a bedroom in his downtown loft. The loftboat had enough room for 15. Though he was certain he could raise the house without causing it to collapse, he was taking every precaution. He wasn't about to put the windows on the floor or melt the walls. He was a realist too.

He pointed to the second and third floors. "There's a family living in there, which makes the place top-heavy--similar to a ship. But the house is more top-heavy than any ship. These people have a lot of stuff."

Thomsen stepped over the threshold into the gutted first-floor apartment. The place was like a bunker, stripped down, dark and dirty. It contained a lamp, a chair, a fan, and a tape player, all grouped together near the door. The floorboards had been torn out and about a foot of topsoil removed. He scooped up a handful of grainy dirt. "This is sand under here," he said, "all of it." More than a mile from the lake, he'd found a beach.

"When you lift a ship you wet the sand to slick the way, haul the bastard up on the beach, and jack it up from there. The jacks are much bigger than these I'm using here." Twelve of them sat squat in the sand: four held posts up against the central beam, and the rest were jammed under three walls--the lowest side and the two adjoining it. Colored bright orange, each jack was about a foot tall; they looked like little torpedoes. "We won't finish today," said Thomsen. "If we go up four inches we'll be doing good. When we're done we'll set the jacks and pound in five dead men." "Dead men" are wooden planks; Thomsen had stacks of them lined up in the remains of a yard waiting to fill the gap. "I don't know why they're called that," he said, "they just are."

After a quick inspection, Thomsen called for a lunch break. They'd picked up sandwiches from Arby's earlier, and as the day was warm, all dined alfresco in the carport. Thomsen sat a few feet away in an old blue Land Rover, but left the door open. A lean crewman wearing a bandanna and a ponytail grunted between bites of roast beef. "There must be a thousand leaning buildings in Chicago. I've never jacked one up before--no one here has--but I've worked with Finn. I trust him." Bringing his bottle of Elephant beer, Thomsen rejoined his crew in the yard.

In view behind him two buildings stood side by side, leaning far apart, away from each other. They were bound together by a heavy iron bar secured across the V-shaped gap between them. They tilted at such steep angles that if the bar broke they'd probably pitch over like a couple of drunks. "Tweedledee and Tweedledum," the crew member called them. "Those two are probably beyond saving," Thomsen said.

"This house," he continued, indicating the coach house, "had maybe five more years. Then it would have been too late. It was sitting on good oak beams that were thoroughly rotten." He picked up a piece of wood off a junk pile and wrenched a chunk from it, saying "Here's part of one." He closed his hand over the chunk, squeezed it, and opened his hand again. He'd turned the wood into sawdust. He brushed it to the ground, then took the last swig of his beer. "Well gentlemen," he announced, all business, "let's get to it."

The crew went back into the bunker, and Finn went upstairs to evacuate the family. "They won't go up with the house," he said grimly. A moment later a woman exited with him, her arms full of toddler. "The rent's going to go up too," she told Finn, somewhat bitterly. "It's going to feel strange to have a level floor, though. It's tilted like a fun house in there." Swinging her chin toward the child, she said, "This one learned how to walk on a slope. The first time he got on level ground he started running like a maniac and fell down just as fast. He must have stumbled around for 20 minutes." Clutching the kid she hustled away down the alley.

Each man took his place, hands wrapped around a jack handle. One crouched in each of the two sunken corners, just barely visible in the dark, while one leaned on the far wall and the last hugged a board that had been placed on a jack like a pillar in the center of the house. Finn needed quiet to hear the building's responses to the jacks. The sounds it made would determine the order in which they'd be pumped. "Ready for lift-off," the crewman by the pillar said. Finn nodded. No one counted backwards.

"Two pumps there," he directed, pointing to the man at the northeast corner. The man pumped rapidly. They heard a creak. "Three on that middle one there." Three in the center. Two again in the far corner. Again on either side. They didn't need silence to hear the house groan like a roused pensioner, its boards creaking arthritically as they rubbed against each other. They didn't need to look up to know the ceiling was shaking over their heads, as dust puffed down on their bowed heads and mixed with the sweat on the back of their necks. Each pump of the jack raised a portion of the house about a centimeter. They'd been at it for what seemed like hours when daylight finally started to sneak in under the walls.

"We're up," a crewman said. Thomsen inspected. "Looks good," he said, "let's keep going." He switched on the tape player, and Pachelbel's Canon burst forth as the men leapt from jack to jack. They pumped higher, slower, while the house, freed of its moorings, swayed above them, and Thomsen, his feet firmly planted in the sand, conducted a jack-handle symphony. He paused only to turn over the tape--250 Great Classics. A light breeze stirred the sand, and as the house rose they could see the day waning. The bright sun of the first inch and a quarter sank dimly into twilight as they hit three and a half. By dusk they had reached four inches. The light inside the house had diminished to the darkness of midday when the house was still on the ground, and Thomsen called it a day.

The crew headed back out to the carport, one of them joking, "This has been a truly uplifting experience." Thomsen was already rooting around in the back of the Land Rover. "Anyone feel like an Elephant?" he asked, grabbing a few bottles out of a cooler. "We had that place doing jumping jacks," another crewman bragged. Thomsen said "We reached our goal today, but we go higher tomorrow." Then he added, smiling, "I hope you're feeling strong." When they reached eight inches they'd be done, and another crew would come in to pour the new foundation. They left the house in darkness that night, standing straight and solid on 12 jacks and five dead men.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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