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A house move for the ages – PART 1

by Steve McKee on October 29, 2006

On a recent Friday evening Melody and I visited Benicia’s next architectural treasure, and we went to the Napa countryside to do it.

Because I wanted to see history in the making, we accepted an invitation from house-mover Phil Joy and his wife Celeste to come visit their latest project in mid-move. After a drive along an obscure access road towards the Napa River we could see it: A three story Victorian house looming out of place in an empty field surrounded by some parked trucks and tractors. It was up on beams on a big flat bed trailer which added eight feet to its height and made the corners of this weighty house seem to levitate.

Among the parked vehicles was also an RV that Phil and Celeste were using to camp alongside things in order to prevent theft or vandalism. This caravan of vehicles was temporarily at rest for a couple weeks until PG&E made good on their agreement to lower some power lines crossing the field. A quarter mile ahead was the Napa River, where a barge would meet the house for its journey down the river and up the Carquinez Straits to its ultimate home on the Benicia shoreline at the end of West D Street. (That’s why I write about this now, so you can be on the lookout for it coming up the straits.)

The current plan is that after much sprucing up, including a new foundation, earthquake upgrades, new plumbing and electrical, a new kitchen and new landscaping, the house then will open as the “Boatyard Inn,” a bed and breakfast, with Phil and Celeste living in the rooms tucked into the attic while guests below enjoy rooms with bay windows and a big porch that will face the water.

To start our tour, we were guided around the outside to the rear where a ten foot ladder led up to the levitating back porch. For the next twenty minutes we toured the various rooms, a bit surreal because of a slight slope caused by the trailer below. Some rooms on the lower floor were darkened with boarded up windows, others above were lit in the glow of the setting sun.

All the rooms were empty, so our attention went to features like the clear fir wainscoting, the corner trim with an acorn shaped top, the nifty curly-cue embossing in the ornate door hinges, and the window-seat benches with lift-up hatches. There were two sets of stairs, a big set with paneling and a smaller service stairway with tight winding steps at the bottom. Two bay windows had glass that went all the way to the floor.

Phil showed us the numerous delicate scratch marks on a door top where a barn owl had perched during the years the house was unoccupied. Cubic yards of owl scat had been removed by Phil’s guys. His workers were currently spending their days cleaning up things and repairing years of neglect while they waited for the power lines to be dropped. Phil said he was going to build some boxes to put in the field for the owls that had lost the use of this home.

Then Phil showed us the raw brick of three different fireplaces where a thief had removed the ornate wood and mirror fireplace mantels. “I was heartsick for two weeks when I found out,” said Phil. That theft had provided the inspiration for camping alongside the house during its move.

Back down the ladder, we followed Phil and Celeste through the field and over a slight hill as they showed us the route the house will take to the nearby Napa River. They had already come a mile, moving the big heavy house (200 tons) across a creek twenty feet wide and eight feet deep and then up a hill that required the pulling power of both the big tractor and the big truck and then across another creek. Now they had a quarter mile to go to the north to miss yet another telephone line and then a hundred yards down to the river, over a double set of railroad tracks.

“Can you imagine what would happen if we accidentally bent a track a few inches out of alignment?” said Phil. “Big derailment. Not good.”

So, he said, they’re going to use wood timbers to build up a path that is level with the top of the rails. They’ll have up to a two day window according to the railroad people. Then will come the transfer to the barge. The tide comes into play, even this far up the river. They’ll use a winch on the far side of the barge to pull the house onto the barge. It will then take anywhere from a half day to two days (depends on tides and river depths) to make the trip by water under the Carquinez Bridge to Benicia where the big house will be hoisted up onto the shore at the downtown boatyard and then moved north along the shore to its new resting place.

I gazed out at the tranquil waters of the Napa River, glowing orange with the setting sun, and pondered this massive effort. It was epic, as far as I was concerned, like something you should hear about in Greek legend. We looked back at the house in the distance, its upper floors visible over the hill in the twilight. It had a presence about it, like it was somehow alive, almost as if the two upper windows were eyes looking at us. All of us agreed that the tilt made the house more dynamic, a house not at rest.

The History Channel show “Mega-Movers” (and others) had actually approached Phil about documenting this house move but, alas, the scheduling needs of TV production and the scheduling reality of moving a large structure could not be reconciled.

Later, as we sat outside the RV at a picnic table with a single candle and a bottle of wine, the house loomed beside us, stars filling the other half of the sky. “Isn’t this move sort of your magnum opus as house movers?” I asked.

Well, they had moved bigger things, heavier things, but this one was the biggest and most involved move they have ever done that involved their own property.

Phil expressed concern that some people will grouse about the appearance of the house before it settles into place and is spruced up. He was the mover six years ago of the Lido, a dilapidated wreck of a building that got hauled up First Street to the corner of West E Street to tower for a few weeks above its site before being lowered onto its new first floor and getting transformed into the jewel that the city now enjoys. Construction sites almost always look really bad for awhile before they start looking good, we agreed. We both knew this to be true, even if people without imagination didn’t.

It was front page news when Phil bought the downtown boatyard from Joe Garske in 2004. As real estate deals go, it was quite a bold stroke, getting all that waterfront property and on First Street to boot. The Monopoly equivalent of buying Park Place. It was during my third glass of wine that I learned that this purchase was inspired mostly by a desire of Phil’s to simply find a site for this particular house.

The house was built in 1895 on land given to a lumber baron named Thompson by General Mariano Vallejo to settle a lumber debt. Phil even found Thompson’s name scratched on the back of a piece of trim that they removed. In the preservation world, saving a house in place is preferred to moving it, but moving is always preferred to demolition.

Since 1996 Phil knew this house was to be demolished because it was in the way of a planned Napa golf course. Houses this big and tall can’t be moved down highways, only along waterways on barges. Thus the need for a waterfront site and Phil’s initial talks with boatyard owner Joe Garske. Phil wanted only the West D Street portion but Joe was only willing to sell the whole property together, including the boatyard. So Phil now owns a boatyard.

Which is a good fit, since the boatyard needed both heavy lifting and major cleaning and Phil and his guys are quite good at moving heavy stuff around and doing whatever it takes to get jobs done. Refreshingly, Phil’s agenda isn’t about maximizing the number of condos for the site. He’s in the midst of restoring two small vintage properties at 307 and 309 First Street that he acquired along with the boatyard. If you count the numerous houses he has lifted for new foundations or moved to new leases on life over the years, this guy has done more than his share of real work for preservation.

A couple years ago Phil and his project manager Steve Monrad hired me to help create some of the drawings for the Boatyard Inn, and I was very happy to be a participant in this project of projects. I had this image that the house would float up the Straits with a party of well-wishers on board whooping it up. My fantasy included fire department boats in the harbor sending up large arcs of water to hail the arrival of this Grande Dame to Benicia’s shore.

Not likely, the party nor the fireboats, but sometime in the next few weeks if you’re lucky you’ll look out on the water and, somewhere out past the kite-boarders, make out the sight of a tugboat towing a Queen Anne house through the whitecaps towards our town. An unlikely sight to be sure, this floating house, but one that deserves at least a few smiles from those of us on shore who watch it come in.

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