January 15, 2010

Serendipity moved – but not all the way to its new home


Jim Matyiko moved Serendipity off the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, Jan. 15, but not as far as he wanted to, and not as far as project general manager Mike Price kept telling onlookers the house would go.

Through a long day of what appeared to be challenges for the crew charged with saving the iconic beach house, Price kept saying, “It’s going down the road.”

But at 5:10 p.m., with darkness closing in and the house perched on the edge of Highway 12 in north Rodanthe, the crew’s day-long frenetic activity ceased.

 “The law stopped us,” Price said, noting that the 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. moving time for which he had obtained permits had long since expired. Price had received extensions during the day, but he couldn’t extend daylight.

The plan was to move the beach house – which starred, along with Richard Gere and Diane Lane, in the 2008 movie, “Nights in Rodanthe” – about 2,500 feet down Highway 12 to a new lot by the ocean where it would be in less danger of being swept away by the surf.

The crew from Expert House Movers scrambled all day while other crews from Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, Charter Cable, and the Dare County Sheriff’s Office stood by to move power lines and stop traffic for the 45 minutes to an hour the house was expected to be on the road.

There also was that crowd of 60 or more sidewalk superintendents that started forming early in the day and stood in the chilly air, mostly wanting to know, and frequently asking, when, exactly, the house would move from its endangered setting at the very edge of the surf.
 At the end of the day, Price was able to say, “It’s saved now. It’s not going nowhere now.”

By which he meant Serendipity was far enough up the sloping beach that the soaring structure, now cut loose from the 14-feet-deep pilings that have seen it though many a fierce storm, would not be going into the ocean.

It was a conclusion far from locked in when crews showed up at about 8 a.m. for what was planned to be the final move. They had spent the day Thursday putting huge beams under the 85,000-pound house and placing cribbing timbers under it to take its weight while it was lowered to Matyiko’s trailer for the move.

But, even though crews built up a dune around the ocean side of the house before they left Thursday night and Price spent half the night moving sand trying to keep dry beach under the house, the ocean had its way. Daylight showed that the cribbing timbers nearest the beach were leaning crazily, their solid footing of Thursday having been robbed by the relentless surf.

And that meant the crew had to get some new sand under them and to take them down and re-stack them before the house was going anywhere.

“I hope this isn’t the last night in Rodanthe,” Matyiko said this morning.

But then he jumped into a front-end loader and started moving sand from the big pile on the highway side of the house to the ocean side. His crew pitched in as well and launched into a level of activity that would be an object lesson for anybody who is thinking of going into the house moving business for the big bucks.

Matyiko has been called the “Red Adair” of house movers, in a reference to the famous fighter of oil well fires. His company, Expert House Movers, gets called in on the really tough jobs. They moved the 208-feet-high Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999, laying waste the prediction of many skeptics.

And he was all over the job Friday, running the front-end loader, wrestling the 40- to 50-pound wooden cribbing timbers around, shoveling sand by hand, dragging chains. By day’s end his light gray sweatshirt and blue jeans looked like he’d been playing football in the mud. And Matyiko’s not ancient, but he’s not Generation X either.
If his pace for a full nine-hour day without an observed lunch break doesn’t discourage you, though, here’s how you move a house: You slide some really big steel I-beams under it, from end to end. Then you slide some smaller, but still fairly huge, beams in over those, from side to side. Then you put some hydraulic jacks under the beams, and move them upward, building crib work around the jacks by placing short but heavy timbers in a crisscrossed pattern.

The idea is to get the crib work right up under the house, and then jack the building up off whatever it’s sitting on, then add one more level of timbers. Next you let the house down on the timbers and get it good and level. Then you jack it up again, enough to slide a layer of timbers out, and slowly lower it in that manner until it rests on a truck bed followed by several sets of dollies with huge wheels.

In the case of a house like Serendipity, you have to chainsaw the pilings right at the at the top, right under where the house sits on them, to get them out of the way once the house is secure on the cribbing. And also, you have to keep the sand under the oceanside cribbing solid until you can drag the house off the beach.
That’s what Matyiko’s crew did before the eyes of the onlookers yesterday.  But when it came time to drag the house away, all they got was wheels spinning in the sand. They had laid steel plates on the sand in front of the big tractor that was to be the move’s motive force, and it appeared that the plan had been to pull the truck onto the plates with a huge four-wheel drive front end loader.

But when pedal went to metal, the wheels on the tractor, and on the front-end loader, spun in sand. It did move Serendipity enough to send a flock of pigeons into the air off the roof, but they circled and lighted, not to be disturbed again for an hour or so.

The crew scurried to get the iron plates into new position, and ultimately lifted the tractor onto one of them with a large power shovel.  Then the house moved about five feet, and a huge cheer went up from the crowd.
Then there was more positioning of plates and more short moves, until time ran out. Price said the sheriff’s office became worried that there wasn’t enough daylight left to get the house down the busy highway safely. But movers concluded it was far enough off the beach to escape the undermining high tide problems of the previous night. Resumption of the effort was set for 10 a.m. on Monday.

The onlookers, many of whom hung on grimly for the duration, shifting from foot to foot in the chilly air, told each other Serendipity stories and stories about beach houses that have collapsed into the waves. They came from the neighborhood, from up and down the island, and from distant points on the mainland.

Scott and Penny Haynes said they drove seven hours down from Roanoke, Va., though in truth they also planned a short vacation at her parents’ house in Avon. They’ve been taken with the house for a number of years, though it always struck Penny as “spooky.”

“It amazes me all the storms it has come through,” Scott said, “and it’s still standing.”
The Scotts had been down to Buxton for the move of the Hatteras lighthouse, and they were drawn to the Serendipity move by the involvement in it of the company that moved the lighthouse.
Tony Bisantz, who is retired from the army, said he was watching the move as a neighbor who has been following the Serendipity story “every time they close the road.”  It was a reference to the unhappiness of some neighbors with the way tides from heavy storms would wash across the driveways of Serendipity and some of its neighbors and shut off highway access to the northern end of the island.

That and other problems ultimately caused Dare County authorities to order Serendipity’s owners to tear the house down or move it. Instead the owners sold it to Ben Huss and his wife, Debbie, of Newton, N.C., who mingled with the crowd and watched yesterday’s moving activity.

“This was a problem child,” Bisantz said. “If they get it out of here, it will be good.”

Bisantz said he lives a few hundred yards down the highway and behind an office building on the other side. “It’ll be oceanfront about the time my children pay off the mortgage,” he said.

Bunny and Bob Lauder, who live in northern Virginia near Quantico but have a house in nearby Salvo, said they’ve always wanted to rent Serendipity.

“I’ve often thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to sit on the deck and look at the water?’” Bob Lauder said. But he said the couple has watched the beach erode from about 400 feet out from the house to a point where water lapped under the deck even at low tide. They wouldn’t like that, he said.

He noted that they have counted condemnation stickers on 11 houses along the stretch of beach where Serendipity anchored the northern end. Most were for septic tank issues, which have been remedied.
But there was talk in the crowd that the house next to Serendipity, which appears almost as severely threatened, sold recently for the fire sale price of $169,000. And that had Scott Hise, of Smithfield, Va., expressing interest in similar properties to Marsha M. Brown, of Marsha M. Brown & Company, who sold Serendipity to the Husses.

“For that kind of price, I’d snap one up in a heartbeat,” Hise told another onlooker. He said he owns “five or six” properties in the area.

Marsha Brown spent most of the day at the site, as did her daughter, Bonnie Brown Rowe, who will handle rental of the house for the Husses. Bonnie said she already has booked the house for two weeks in May to women from Arizona and West Virginia, both of whom were enchanted by the movie.

She said the West Virginia woman rented it in May for a November anniversary. “She wanted to get into it as soon as she could,” she said. “Her thing was that Ben and Debbie (Huss) had given this house a second chance, just like the second chance in the movie.”
Frank and Pat Clark, who live in Kansas City and have a house in Avon, came to watch the move because, Frank said, “It’s an event. You gotta get all of the events.”

He then pitched Avon’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which Pat Clark said is an all-kazoo event.
Dave Kurtz, who works at a kiteboarding resort not far from the site gave a reason for attending that one suspects would have rung true for most of those there.

“I’m here for a little entertainment,” he said. “There’s not that much high drama here in January.” And, he added, “It’s good to see an ending to the story without the thing falling in the ocean.”

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