Managed Retreat

1991 aerial view of Hatteras Light Station via the National Park Service

Sometimes, moving a building (like a lighthouse) is about preserving historic architecture or cultural heritage. But for one significant structure in Guadalajara, Mexico, the stakes were considerably higher.

Back in 1950, city officials decided to widen a major avenue and a lot of buildings were just demolished to make way. But weighing in at around 1700 tons, the Mexican Telephone and Telegraph Company was critical to the area’s communications infrastructure — knocking it down would have disrupted local telephone service for at least a week.

Jorge Matute Remus, dean of the city’s university and a civil engineer, came forward with a solution. He suggested the entire building be lifted and moved, all while leaving the communications lines wired up and keeping the operators at work inside of the structure.

Naturally, some of the workers were nervous about this idea. Matute Remus was sympathetic to their concerns, and wanted to reassure these operators and make them feel safe. So his wife Esmeralda agreed to also go into the building while it was being moved. She even took along their seven-year-old son, Juan Jorge.

As she recalls in the video above, they couldn’t even feel the motion of the building as it was slowly shifted about 40 feet to its new location. The whole move was done in just five days, with no interruption to phone service, and deemed a big success for the city. It was all accomplished on a budget of around $100,000, a fraction of what it would have cost to demolish the structure and build a replacement.

Statue of Jorge Matute Remus “pushing” back the Telmex building to save it from the widening of Avenida Juarez in Guadalajara by AlejandroLinaresGarcia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Today, nearly 70 years later, the building is still standing, and a sculpture of Matute Remus stands outside one entrance — this life-sized figure of him appears to be pushing the building. Next to it, a plaque on the facade recalls his civil service and engineering genius.

Special thanks to Tamara Solorzano who wrote in from Guadalajara to share this story of a hometown hero’s clever building move.

Credits

Production

Reporter Gordon Katic of the Cited podcast, with production help from Sam Fenn, spoke with local resident and activist Danny Couch; Orrin Pilkey, a retired marine geologist who taught at Duke; local lighthouse historians, photographers and authors Bruce and Cheryl Roberts. Thanks to WRAL-TV for letting us use their documentary, “The Cape Light: Away from the Edge.” Coda on moving the Telmex building in Guadalajara with Kurt Kohlstedt.

Comments (9)

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  1. John B

    The Belle Tout lighthouse on top of the spectacular Beachy Head cliffs in England as moved 3 months before, so while your move was heavier and longer, it wasn’t unprecedented.

  2. Sharon Roney

    There is an apartment building called the Greystone Court in my neighborhood in Columbus Ohio built just after the turn of the last century. It is U-shaped and the ends are along a major street. When the High Street was widened in 1922 the first apartment on each floor was removed and the facade was reattached. It happened so long ago I don’t think anyone really knows about it.

  3. Meaghan

    When resettlement happened in Newfoundland, the communities moved houses from one town to another using sleds and boats. The pictures of it are spectacular.

  4. Petra Almqvist

    In northern Sweden there is a town (Kiruna) beeing moved 3 km so that it doesn’t fall down a mine..

  5. Wow! I wonder how on earth Matute Remus managed to move that telephone exchange while maintaining service?! I’ve worked on structured cabling for buildings for many years and that seems like an absolute nightmare. I would love to know more about how this was accomplished.

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