Amid a looming housing crisis, Shacks on Racks turns trash into treasure.
BY CLAIRE CELLA
PHOTOS BY RYAN DORGAN
When Esther Judge-Lennox was 10 years old, she stood on the side of the interstate near Dillon, Montana, watching with wide eyes as a 274-ton, 40-by-90-foot mansion lumbered by on the bed of a semi-trailer. It was the Roe Mansion, built in 1912, and moved from Ted Turner’s ranch south of Bozeman to the University of Montana Western in 1998. The move allowed the mansion, which had lain dormant for years, to be restored and given new life as part of the university’s administrative offices.
Twenty years later, that memory resurfaced as inspiration for Judge-Lennox to start her own venture, a nonprofit moving houses in Jackson, Wyoming. She calls it Shacks on Racks.
In 2018, she and her husband Philip moved their own 1941 craftsman house for $12,000 from downtown Jackson to their current property off U.S. Highway 89. They’ve since fixed it up and now use it as a rental property specifically to house those serving Jackson’s workforce. The craftsman’s move would be the first of many relocations Judge-Lennox would spearhead in attempt to alleviate the town’s growing housing crisis.
The business model for Shacks on Racks is based in service (in fact, Judge-Lennox hasn’t even started charging her clients yet for her time). Judge-Lennox begins by mining a log of the town’s demolition permits—a list that grows longer every day as Jackson lots are bought for redevelopment.
When she sees a demolition permit for a historically significant structure or one that is worthy of relocation, she posts a photo of the structure to her Instagram account, scrawling across the image the word “Free.”
That’s right. Homes up for demolition are free; they just need to be moved to another site. When interested parties commit, she springs into action with a team of professionals to get the shack on the rack and moved.
“Between a house mover, a general contractor, a structural engineer, [and] an architect,” Judge-Lennox says, “I have a really tight team because we have about 90 days to pull off a relocation before it gets demolished.”
“Back in the day, our parents could at least get a chunk of land, there was something tangible. That ability is gone. How are we supposed to empower people to have families and stay in a community where they can positively contribute to it?” – Esther Judge-Lennox
This process accomplishes two things: “It matters to be able to have housing, and to be saving pieces of history that otherwise would have gone to the trash.”
Since she started in 2018, Judge-Lennox has helped move 11 structures and a handful of smaller outbuildings, sheds and the like. She bemoans the fact that still more houses go to the trash than she can save. Approximately 94 percent of demolished buildings in Teton County in 2019 ended up in the landfill, an irony in a valley where, according to Housing Department data, more than half of critical infrastructure workers commute in to work. But she understands saving a house is no easy feat.
“You first have to have land and be willing to pull the trigger like this,” she says, snapping her fingers. “At best we have 90 days. And once you find the house you’re willing to relocate, you’ll start accruing the professional fees from architects, movers and engineers. It’s a cash endeavor and a lot of people don’t have this kind of money.”
But still, these costs are a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly $2.5 million median home price in Jackson according to Realtor.com. And therein lies the motivation.
“I’m not moving homes to be guest houses for rich people,” Judge-Lennox says. “And this stuff really, really, really matters to me. Trying to make a positive impact on this ever-changing community. Back in the day, our parents could at least get a chunk of land, there was something tangible. That ability is gone. How are we supposed to empower people to have families and stay in a community where they can positively contribute to it?”
Two recent projects prove her niche service to be an effective tool in contributing to the kind of community she envisions. In April 2021, Shacks on Racks relocated the Coey garage, built in 1945 on Warm Springs Road in Grand Teton National Park, to the Aska’s Animals Foundation property to help support the nonprofit’s rescue animals.
Another “shack,” a house that had been at 10 E. Simpson Ave. for more than 90 years, was moved to the National Elk Refuge where it’s being renovated to serve as employee housing. The renovation was scheduled for completion by the end of 2021.
The local Jackson Hole News and Guide covered the Simpson house move, opening their piece in this way: “A crowd at the corner of Cache and Simpson gasped Sunday morning as a house wobbled back and forth on a semi-trailer as the truck turned off the property’s curb and onto the street.”
One can only wonder if a wide-eyed 10-year-old girl was in that crowd, becoming inspired.
Claire Cella, a New York state native, never imagined herself living in the West. That was five years ago and now she can’t imagine living anywhere else.