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Part II: Thrills, Chills—But No Spills—As H. Lee House Moves Across Town

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

Last week’s column about how the H. Lee House got to its new home in Civic Center Park was a cliff-hanger. Here’s the exciting conclusion that brings us up to date:

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.

A year later the historical society received a 2001 Governor's Preservation Award for saving the Atherton Chapel and transforming it into the city's museum. Simultaneously, the city was thinking big. Why not tear up the block of Church Street from Olive to Main and turn that city land into a park? Per the General Plan, Lemon Grove needed more green space and there wasn't a park near city center. The city now owned a museum—and soon it might be joined by "the monster." Grants and TransNet money were available for park construction. The park could be a charming framework for two heritage sites, a place to toss a frisbee, have a picnic, walk the dog, read a book, and hold civic events.  

Tension Mounted: Meanwhile, things were tense with MTDB and Caltrans. To get Lady Lee across the trolley tracks, the overhead lines would have to be cut. That costs money. What if there were long-term electrical damage? MTDB demanded Caltrans pay thousands in insurance for 25 years. Caltrans balked. Why not cut the house in half and cross the tracks—that way, no overhead lines would be affected. The historical society, in full panic mode, pleaded with all parties not to cut off Lady Lee's head. Internal and external surgery would add thousands to the restoration bill, if she survived at all.  

Society volunteers began cold-calling corporations and wealthy individuals with this Quixotic pitch: "We need $100,000 to get Lady Lee over the trolley tracks.  If 10 entities each give $10,000, or 20 give $5,000, we're there. We can pay to tow her across the tracks and bring her home, where she will live out her days near the Big Lemon, serving useful purposes in the community. We'll put up a plaque enshrining your name(s) forever."  

Council member Tom Clabby, an ardent proponent of saving Lady Lee, drove around the borders of Lemon Grove, searching for any way to get her to midtown without hitting freeway overpasses or trolley lines. He spoke to a La Mesa City Council Member, who shall be nameless, who suggested laying Lady Lee on her side on a flatbed truck and missing the overhead wires "totally." Another discussion involved three cranes and grappling hooks attached to Lady Lady to swing her over the trolley system catenary poles at Main Street and Lemon Grove Avenue, whereupon two more cranes would catch her and lower her onto a flatbed parked by the modern-day smoke shop. She would then be towed south on Main to her new home in the famous vacant lot and our long, national nightmare would be over.

By now the historical society board was having a group coronary. Grappling hooks? Cranes? Beheading? Who does this? Cut the wires! Bring her home before she's too far gone to save!  

Enter Pete Taraschuck, general manager of the Trolley Division of MTDB; Tom Larwin, general manager of MTDB; and Pedro Orso Delgado, district manager for Caltrans. They had, miracle of miracles, a reasonable discussion. The clock was ticking. Caltrans had to report "mission accomplished" to the Federal Highway Administration and to the State Office of Historic Preservation, not to mentioned the National Register of Historic Places. The City of Lemon Grove was nervous, but on board. The historical society was cautiously optimistic as it held another Lady Lee Bake Sale and Car Wash.

July 12, 2002:  At 8:30 a.m. that morning, the Hansen Family team was finalizing the details. Lady Lee had been sitting on a raised foundation of criss-crossed railroad ties on a hill above Camino de las Palmas.  he Hansens placed their flatbed truck at one end of the foundation. Without uttering a word, their Yosemite Sam beards waving gently in the breeze, the Hansens slowly slid—you had to be there to believe this—Lady Lee onto the flatbed and strapped her securely with huge, canvas straps.  

By 10:45 a.m. the truck began to move down the slope toward Camino de las Palmas. Lady Lee wavered. A gasp went through the assembled crowd. The Hansens, still silent and working in unison, tugged on the straps while the Hansen père at the wheel of the truck calmly waited.  

With the old lady righted, the truck moved slowly down the slope and stopped. The Hansens, like so many border collies protecting a flock, surrounded Lady Lee as the truck began to turn left onto Camino de las Palmas. George Cremer and his daughters, who had resided in the house from 1951 to 1997 when Caltrans bought it, beamed as they got into their car to follow their former home off the hilltop.

At Palm Street, there was another long pause. At a signal, the Hansens gently moved the truck into the center of the street. Police officers had halted traffic moving west on Palm and south on Golden Avenue. As Lady Lee, like a ship in sail, her police escort out front, moved slowly along Palm cars fell into line behind her. Helicopters whirred overhead. Pedestrians ran alongside.  

It was a where-were-you-when-the-Lee-House-moved kind of moment.  

At Lemon Grove Avenue, there was another long pause before the Hansens turned right and proceeded the short distance north to the vacant lot by Aaron Lock & Key at Lemon Grove and Central Avenues. It was high noon.

MTDB's six-man team had been working on the overhead trolley wires all morning. Buses ferried trolley riders from the Massachusetts station to La Mesa. As the afternoon wore on, first one wire was cut and lifted and tied off. Then another. Finally, all was in readiness. A dense crowd packed Central Avenue and Main Street. The helicopters were still whirring overhead. Huge lights were trained on the trolley tracks.  

The Hansens started the truck and slowly moved into position on the east side of the tracks. Then, at 10:40 p.m., in one powerful, surging move, the truck heaved up over the slight slope, the massive wall of Lady Lee showing white and livid in the glare of lights. A great cheer went up. She had crossed the tracks! The truck slowly turned right on Main and proceeded north to Church, left on Church and right to the excavated foundation that would hold this old house securely for the rest of her life.  

Happy Ending: Ten years, three mayors, and $1.5 million dollars later (the dollars came from Caltrans and the FHA), Lady Lee had come home to what would become Civic Center Park. By mid-2003 the park was largely completed. On June 28, 2003 at 10 a.m., the H. Lee House was dedicated in a festive ceremony as Mayor Sessom, Pedro Orso Delgado and Council member Tom Clabby cut the ribbon across the front door. Arleen Moore Dodson, whose family had settled in Lemon Grove in 1912, accepted the symbolic key to the house. Victoria Dietrich, portraying Queen Elizabeth I of the Royal House of Tudor (in honor of the Tudor Revival style of the house), delivered a godspeed, and a bevy of young "Lee House Pages" directed by Page Wrangler Dona Lynn Clabby, assisted the mayor and dignitaries. Mayor Sessom shook hands with every visitor who entered the house and proceeded to the rear courtyard to hear the Good Friends String Quartet and enjoy refreshments.

Today, inside Lady Lee is a framed piece of copper cable cut on the night of July 12, 2002 and presented by Pete Taraschuck to your correspondent. Caltrans has received numerous state and national awards for its feat and the Hansen Family lives on in legend. MTDB, wow.  

Most of all, our city council and city staff showed guts, care, sound planning, vision and—perhaps this can happen only in a small town—trust in its scrappy little historical society. We thank you forever, mayor and council, for helping to save a key part of Lemon Grove's heritage and for letting us manage this old house.

Dona lynn Clabby October 23, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Fabulous story..all true.....and the Clabbys were there. With out Councilman Tom Clabby, Jeff Jondura and yes Craig Lake to vote for saving the Lee House one memorable evening none of Helen's story with her wit and use of the English language would you be reading today. Time has passed....and over the years all of us that love this little city of ours..can look with humble pride to Lady Lee and say "yes" it was a right idea whos time had come. It has been seen and viewed by thousands ( the trolley) and vistors on tours ..teas and weddings brng new awareness and the Lemon Grove Historical Society is the place where the action begins and job gets done!

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