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Moving the H. Lee House to Its New Home at Civic Center Park—Part I

News from the Oct. 21, 1993, edition of the Lemon Grove Review for a special two-part "The Way We Were."

A look back at Lemon Grove, 19 years ago this week:

This Old House: The Lemon Grove City Council was faced with a question: What to do with the huge H. Lee House standing smack in the middle of the proposed six-mile extension of Route 125? The discussion consumed much of the council meeting on Oct. 19, 1993. Here's the backstory:

In May, 1993 Caltrans had notified the city that a 1928 house on Troy Street was in the way of freeway construction. Under state law, Caltrans must register all structures over age 50 with the National Register of Historic Places and relocate such structures within their home communities.  

Caltrans would pay to purchase and relocate the Tudor Revival house provided it would be used for historical purposes and not remodeled to change its historical characteristics. City Manager Jack Shelver said it could be leased to the Lemon Grove Historical Society for a nominal fee. He cited a possible new location for the house on the corner of Lemon Grove Avenue and Lincoln Street (still a vacant lot today and next to the skateboard park).

Shelver recommended the council give conceptual approval to the deal with Caltrans and suggested that Mayor Brian Cochrane appoint a citizens’ committee to explore relocation possibilities.

The committee was formed in late 1994 and spent a year looking at possible sites, ultimately narrowing the list to five and then to one. Its report, issued in summer 1995, zeroed in on a vacant lot on the northeast corner of Church and Olive Streets.

True, it wasn't a hill with a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside like the one the H. Lee House and its resident Cremer family had once enjoyed, but it had something else—the lot was in the middle of town on land recently purchased by the city.  The lot adjoined City Hall and the Sheriff’s station in one extended campus. The lot was right across the street from one of the city's oldest, surviving historic sites—the Atherton Chapel—and the historical society was already on the march to rehabilitate it as the city's first, permanent museum.

Big Deal on Main Street: It was the perfect storm.  he owners of the Atherton Chapel wanted to give the chapel to the city in exchange for other parcels. The deal flopped when the property owner couldn't finance his development plans for the other parcels. That’s when the city bought the land, the chapel and the 1913 Congregational Church of Lemon Grove and its big Friendship Hall that still stood on Church Street near Main Street  for a fire sale price—less than $500,000. Shortly after, the 1913 church and Friendship Hall were demolished, leaving the land open for—what?    

But Wait, There's More: Simultaneously, the city authorized a Citizens Advisory Committee to help work on the new General Plan. That committee served for two years until the new plan was adopted in October 1996.  The report emphasized building more parks and making local heritage a key to downtown revitalization and neighborhood stability.

Earlier that year, the historical society had presented its rehabilitation plan for Atherton Chapel to the City Council. The society vowed to bear all costs if the city would install a new roof. In the summer of 1997, the new roof went on and the society got to work with teams of volunteers. Mayor Robert Burns, who had famously said, “Just give it to them,” showed up to help sand, strip paint and whatever. 

A Museum is Born and a Fire is Lit: On Sept. 26, 1999, the rehabilitated Atherton Chapel—now named The Parsonage Museum of Lemon Grove—opened its doors at a gala ice cream social. Mary Sessom, Lemon Grove's first popularly elected mayor (1996, 2,579 votes), gave the council's blessing.

Out front, rimming Church Street, were dozens of inscribed bricks, a major fundraiser for the museum project. The vacant lot across the street was still vacant, but, per the General Plan, plans were afoot. The H. Lee House was getting older and, in 1998, had even caught fire when an around-the-clock Caltrans guard set a small campfire to ward off the nighttime chill. The dramatic casement windows in the first floor Great Room were destroyed, but this old house survived.

Early in 2000, Caltrans, via the famous Hansen Family House Movers of Santee, moved the H. Lee House for the first time to a temporary site southeast of the construction path for Route 125. The historical society panicked. How many times would the frail old lady be moved before she found a permanent home?

Ultimately she was moved twice more in the construction area at Palm Street. Historical society board members took to parking by the house at odd hours to help protect it from vandals and brought cookies to the Caltrans guards

Money on the Table: Negotiations continued between the city, Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB). The City Council approved the vacant lot at Church and Olive as the new site for Lady Lee, but Mayor Sessom and the council hung tough.

Would Caltrans pay the city $125,000 for the lot? Yes.

Would Caltrans pay the City another $50,000 to ensure handicapped access to the front door of the Lee? Yes.

Would Caltrans restore the $52,000 hand-cut cedar shingle roof? Yes.

Would Caltrans install modern plumbing and electrical? Yes.

Would Caltrans repair fire and other exterior damage and remove a half-century worth of honey bees? Yes.  

CalTrans had already stored in a big shipping container precious items like the original light fixtures, a large mirror, and the front door with its heraldic knocker. The old lady was intact—but she needed surgery. 

Eager Beavers: In mid-2000 the historical society presented its plan to rehabilitate the interior of the Lee and manage it in perpetuity. The society had proven its rehab and management chops with the Parsonage Museum—yet the city was understandably nervous. Eager beavers, however dedicated, might vanish into the sunset leaving the City with  “the monster” (as Lady Lee was now called at City Hall) and nobody to pay for and run it. What would be its purpose?

The society pushed the concept of a “cultural center,” a “people's building” wherein all manner of free and low cost events could be held and the building offered for rentals. All well and good, but how to get Lady Lee from its temporary spot on Palm Street across the trolley tracks to the vacant lot?

Hold that thought, dear readers.

M. Alvarez October 15, 2012 at 10:25 PM
Wow, it's been that long already???? I live on Palm St. and I remember looking at the house as it was being moved. What a day!!! I hope that the city decides to restore the house and have it as a museum if not already.
Christine Huard (Editor) October 16, 2012 at 12:18 AM
Stay tuned! Next week's column will tell the rest of the story.

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