Published Benicia Herald January 15, 2009
The house already felt strange enough with its tilt, not to mention the way my son Wesley and I had needed a ladder to climb onto the levitating back porch in order to enter. Then it all swayed just slightly, forward motion was sensed, and our short and gentle ride began. The motion was slow enough that I needed to look out one of the oversized wood windows to be sure we were moving. On the one side, just a couple of feet away, was the metal roof of the Von Pfister enclosure; on the other side was the expanse of the Carquinez Straits. Beyond the front porch I could see the big backhoe tractor pulling us with a thick steel cable stretched taut.
In just about ten seconds the movement stopped; another five or six feet of progress made by the big three-story Queen Anne house.
Because the house had just been turned onto its final westerly orientation as it neared West D Street, for the first time ever it was possible to see what the view will be like (for decades, perhaps centuries!) out the big side windows that face the water. I believe this house is going to be such a good fit for this lot, both physically and otherwise, that in the coming years it will be hard to believe it was not originally created for this location.
The house’s journey had begun two years previous when house-mover Phil Joy saw a vacant Queen Anne house standing all lonely looking in a Napa field and resolved to save the doomed house from demolition. He found a vacant lot along the water in Benicia at the end of West D Street that seemed like a great place to receive the house, but discovered that to buy this lot would also require purchasing the entire boatyard to which the lot was attached. So, one boatyard purchase later, he had the lot. The house would become a bed and breakfast inn, it was decided. Then came Herculean feats like guiding the two hundred ton house over dry creek beds and then onto a barge for the twenty mile journey down the Napa River under the Carquinez Bridge to Phil’s boatyard.
For many months after its arrival on the Benicia shore the house waited to make the last hundred yards of its journey to its final spot on West D Street while work was finished securing permits and the location for a new elevator was worked out so that it wouldn’t ruin the flow of the floor plan or poke out the top of the sloped roof. Most hard won of all during this time was the approval by BCDC (the bay area agency that oversees all shoreline development) for a design for a public access “Bay Trail” along the water. With the elevator pit constructed just two months ago, the final three hundred feet of house move could finally happen.
The final leg of the move was being done by just three people: Phil in the big backhoe pulling the big strong cable and his two favorite workers on the ground, Leo and Gerardo. It was all remarkably low key without much talking. The house was about seven feet in the air on steel beams and dolly-trailers with their sixty-four wheels and this provided room for the workers to get under there to manipulate things. Between moves, flat metal pads were dragged into place on the muddy ground ahead of the sets of wheels. Various cables running sideways between the dollies were ratcheted tighter to align the direction of the wheels as needed to precisely aim this leviathan of a house to fit in the barely wide enough space between the Von Pfister building and the hundred year old Italianate house that Phil also imported more recently from Napa to a new life on the Benicia shoreline. At the edges of the lot a handful of people watched the curious sight of a house on the move.
Progress was destined to halt for a few days when the house neared the elevator pit because the elevator’s metal shaft had not been inserted yet into the thirty-six foot deep hole, something that must happen before the house covers the hole. This shaft reaches a depth below the water level of the bay and the hole was filling in with mud. There had been a simpler and cheaper way to add an elevator to the house with a cab that runs on tracks and has no need for a deep shaft. Twice I mentioned this option to Phil, and twice he said no because the result would have been a less interesting elevator and Phil loves the old world charm of the ornate metal cage and glass elevators manufactured by Benicia’s own Dream Ride Engineering. So he and his guys get to deal with the challenge of getting mud out of a narrow and deep hole. No big deal, I guess, for house-movers who are accustomed to weird challenges all the time.
To get to ride in the house itself, it helped that I was the project architect, but what made all the difference was bringing my twelve year old son along who then asked Phil if we could ride inside (with no prompting from me. Honest.) The inner twelve year old in Phil is quite alive and well, so Wesley and I were allowed inside where we passed about thirty minutes. I can tell you that for every ten seconds of house motion there were about five minutes of standstill.
Even the McKee family dog Zoe got into the act when Phil carried her up the ladder to join Wesley and me, which allowed us to entertain ourselves during the stationary segments between moves by playing canine hide-and-seek, a McKee family staple which was made extra fun by the empty three story Victorian house with two different sets of stairs and all of it tilted at a slight angle. When the house began moving we would head out to the front porch to watch.
In this fashion we passed a half hour – by riding a house. Maybe not as wild as a carnival ride, but still pretty cool stuff, I thought.
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