Published Benicia Herald January 15, 2009

Phil Joy’s house move enters the home stretch

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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June 23, 2010 - Confessions of a Lighting Junky

Archive:
2010
May 25, 2010 - A Day in the Life of the Architecture Student
May 4, 2010 - Job Site Tips I Learned the Hard Way
March 25, 2010 - More Than Just a Pretty Picture
February 18, 2010 - A Benicia Sense of Place
January 27, 2010 - Aging in place

2009
December 24, 2009 - Why we travel: the hidden Puerto Vallarta is there for the taking
December 1, 2009 - Paradise stolen: greed and redemption on the Mayan Riviera
October 25, 2009 - The new rules for downtown
September 20, 2009 - Ongoing adventures in city life
August 23, 2009 - How to almost miss out on architecture school
August 2, 2009 - Visiting Italy in the movies
June 26, 2009 - Secret weapons of design
May 24, 2009 - Germany, the war, and why we like life in Benicia
April 23, 2009 - A hundred and sixty years in Benicia
March 12, 2009 - On dream houses in Mexico and life lessons
February 15, 2009 - Building a House in Mexico - the Reality

January 15, 2009 - Phil Joy's house move enters the home stretch

2008
December 26, 2008 - Fireplaces: New Rules
November 27, 2008 - A Benician in L.A.
October 22, 2008 - Why I'm Doing My Addition Now
September 17, 2008 - Why We Travel
August 20, 2008 - Americans in Paris
July 30, 2008 - Front Porch City
May 30, 2008 - On turning fifty, crescent moons, and Frank Lloyd Wright
April 22, 2008 - Building green, getting real
March 27, 2008 - Benicia versus the country club
February 27, 2008 - Stone arches totally rock
January 23, 2008 - These are a few of your favorite things
January 6, 2008 - Another vintage house is delivered to Benicia


2007
December 16, 2007 - How First Street keeps us together
November 22, 2007 - You, the tile shop, the decision
October 23, 2007 - A Benician in New York
September 19, 2007 - Figuring out how much your building project will cost
August 21, 2007 - Why we travel: The city of Prague is a marvel – who knew?
July 22, 2007 - The “it” moment with my new house
June 20, 2007 - Dreamhouse for rent
May 20, 2007 - Artist Open Studios Reveal Creative Undercurrent Alive in Benicia
March 2, 2007 - Haiku Moments and Performance Art in the Comfort of Your Own Home
April 22, 2007 - Once in a Lifetime Adventure: Say Yes
January 28, 2007 - Countertops: We Live in a Stone Age

2006
December 31, 2006 - The Day the Thompson-Joy House Came to Town
December 3, 2006 - The Revenge of Unpaid Carpenters (And Other True Stories)
October 29, 2006 - A House Move for the Ages
September 24, 2006 - My Best Five Seconds at Design School
August 17, 2006 - Getting Bids: "The Rules"
July 23, 2006 - Benicia's Growth Rings
June 18, 2006 - The Well-considered Window Seat
May 14, 2006 - Hearst Castle - Residential Design Mind Blower
April 16, 2006 - San Francisco April 1906: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times
March 17, 2006 - Dog Handling at the Ititarod

February 12, 2006 - Your House's Defense Against Rising Energy Costs
January 8 , 2006 - Not Your Father's Living Room

2005
December 12, 2005 - The Best Design Book Ever
September 23, 2005 - Further Adventures in the Eternal city
August 28, 2005 - Lessons from Rome
July 31, 2005 - Roadside at the Tour de France
June 9, 2005 - My Accidental Getaway Room
May 8, 2005 - Lighting Basics: It's the layers
April 10, 2005 - Architecture School: The Reality
March 13, 2005 - Southampton Concrete Slab Floors: What's to Know
Jan. 30, 2005 - Some Basics to Know Before You Build

2004
Dec. 26, 2004 - News Flash: Good builders earn their money
Nov. 14, 2004 - The Wonderful Failure That is Benicia
Sept. 26, 2004 - Energy Laws and Your Building Project
August 14, 2004 - Architecture Goes to the Movies
July 11, 2004 - What's Really Up with a 2nd Floor Addition
May 30, 2004 - Home Design in Earthquake Country
May 2, 2004 - Sightlines Make a Huge Impact
April 11, 2004 - Meeting of the Minds in Your Design
March 21, 2004 - Welcome to the New Column