Men and Machines

Redwood City’s historic Lathrop House is on the move! This historic building, which has been operated as a museum by the Redwood City Heritage Association, is being relocated as part of an effort by San Mateo County to clear off the entire block upon which the house stands, making way for the construction of a new county office building. Because of the house’s extreme age — it was built more than 150 years ago — and its rather unique “steamboat gothic” style, rather than tear the house down the County has arranged to have it relocated to a spot just a stone’s throw away, behind the old county courthouse which now serves as the San Mateo County History Museum.

You could almost consider this house to be Redwood City’s original mobile home: this is its third move, to its fourth location, over its lifetime. The house was originally built by Benjamin G. Lathrop and his wife, Mary, who back in 1858 bought the entire block where Redwood City’s Fox Theater stands today. Benjamin Lathrop was San Mateo County’s first county clerk, recorder, and assessor, but his real money likely came from being one of the original investors in the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad. Benjamin and Mary built their house — which they named “Lora Mundi” (“beauty spot of the world”) — on the parcel where the theater now stands, completing it in 1863. The house as built had 11 rooms, plus a kitchen and servants quarters.

In 1870 the Lathrops sold the house and grounds. The property changed hands again in 1894, this time being purchased by the trustees of Redwood City public schools who were buying the land for a new school. At that time the house was moved to the rear of the block, where the creek ran back in those days, and Central Grammar School was constructed on the house’s former location.

(The above picture shows Central Grammar School, which once stood where the Fox Theater is today. The Lathrop house would presumably have been moved to a point off the left edge of this picture. The lower two floors of this school building were for elementary students. The topmost floor was where Sequoia High School began, before moving to its first stand-alone location, which was where the Century Theaters are today. I know that all of this is a bit of a diversion from the main topic of the Lathrop House, but I included it because I suspect not many people know what this incredibly beautiful building looked like. Isn’t it amazing to see what kinds of buildings we once constructed for our schoolchildren?)

In 1905 the Lathrop House, but not the land, was sold to Sheriff Joe Mansfield and his wife, who relocated the house, for the second time, to 627 Hamilton Street. It remained in that spot until just this week, when the house began took the first slow steps towards its new location.

A week or two ago the house was lifted off its foundation, but just this week it was shifted sideways onto the adjacent parking lot. Now the house just has to be moved across Marshall Street and settled onto its new foundation.

I dropped by on Friday to check on the progress, and observed that work crews were busy stripping the wooden forms from the poured concrete foundation:

Presumably the concrete has (or will shortly be) sufficiently cured. The house will be moved over the weekend, but it might not be dropped onto the foundation by Sunday; as long as the house is completely across the street, if the foundation isn’t completely ready I would assume that the house will simply remain on pilings until the concrete has sufficiently hardened. The main task is to get the house over the street, so that Marshall Street can be reopened by Monday morning.

[Correction: thanks to from Dee Eva, it seems that the house will be moved on Sunday and Monday (the 12th and 13th), not Saturday. So take your Mom out to watch the house being moved!]

There was some talk of wheeling the house to its new location, and until recently I hadn’t given much thought to the actual mechanics of the move. Certainly, I’ve seen houses being driven down a street or freeway (often, in pieces, given that most houses are too large to fit within a standard traffic lane). But lately I’ve been wondering about how that would work here. The Lathrop House needs to be moved over the curb, across Marshall Street, and then up over the curb on the other side. After seeing the house today, however, I believe I now know how they’ll do it: they’re not going to wheel the house over to its new location, but instead they’ll slide it. Take a look at the house and all of the stuff underneath it:

[click the image to get a version you can zoom in on]

In the above picture you can see that the house has already been moved from its previous location and onto the next-door parking lot. Note that there are no wheels in sight. And see those long yellow beams laying close to the ground? My guess is that the movers simply slid the house along those beams. I’m thinking that they’ll bolt more beams to the ends of those, making a sort of track (a bit like a railroad track) along which they’ll slowly scooch the house. They can lay the track a section at a time, and use wooden supports to keep it fairly level, even when going over a curb. That would be much easier than dealing with wheels and ramps, I’m guessing. Oh, and they lucked out in that the current orientation of the house matches the orientation it’ll have in its new location: they didn’t have to rotate the house in the process.

However they do it, we’ll know for sure this weekend (May 11 and 12), when the house will be moved across the street. The section of Marshall Street between Winslow Street and Middlefield Road is going to be closed for the entire weekend, giving the house movers free rein to do their thing. Me, I plan to drop by over the weekend and watch the operation in action. If you are interested in this kind of thing, or if you have kids who would enjoy watching a two-story house get moved (especially one that happens to look at lot like the house from the Pixar movie “Up”), consider dropping by and watching. It should be a good show!

Along vaguely similar lines, earlier this week on my way downtown I walked by this house on Hopkins Avenue and ended up standing across the street for quite a while, watching a small city crew do their work:

That yellow machine that the guy is operating has got to be the largest stump grinder I’ve ever seen. Just about a month ago some eight trees, all planted in the parking strips along Hopkins Avenue and along Grand Street (this house sits on the corner), were cut down. The tree roots — Liquidambar trees, I believe — have been tearing up the sidewalks and even destroying the curbs, which I presume was the reason that these trees were removed. Although the trees were cut close to the ground, the stumps remained, until this week.

I’ve seen stump grinders before, but nothing nearly this large. As you can see, the machine itself is just about as tall as the man operating it, and the large circular grinding blade has to be nearly three feet in diameter. I watched an entire stump being ground up to small chips, and was impressed by the thoroughness of the process. The operator began well to the left of the stump, taking out as much of the roots as he could. He thrust the rapidly spinning blade well into the soil, to make sure he got as much of the roots, and later, the stump, as possible. The roots of course came out fairly quickly. The stump, on the other hand, needed to be ground down slowly. It took some 15-20 minutes to take out one stump and its roots, after which the grinder was repositioned at the next one.

I was interested to see that the grinding equipment, and presumably the crew, were from the city as opposed to a private tree removal firm. Redwood City has a “50/50” program in which homeowners needing to repair or replace a section of sidewalk in front of their home can pair up with the city, with the homeowner and the city each paying half of the repair costs. I believe that homeowners are also fully responsible for the parking strip in front of their house, meaning that normally I’d expect the homeowner to have to maintain (or remove, in this case) the trees themselves. But because the trees are damaging the sidewalk so badly, perhaps the city is helping out with the tree removal? Either way, I confess I enjoyed watching this particular machine in operation.

Speaking of machines, for a time we had a number of ice-chest-shaped robots rolling around our downtown. Back in 2016 Redwood City’s Council had approved a nine-month pilot program that enabled Starship Technologies, Inc., the creator and operator of those particular robots, to test them on our downtown sidewalks. In 2017 that pilot was extended for another year, based upon the success of the original pilot: apparently Starship had been making between 30 and 40 deliveries per day using a dozen robots. All told their robots drove roughly 7,000 miles just within Redwood City alone.

In April of 2018 Starship stopped their deliveries in order to “refine their business approach.” They’ve since been looking for a location within Redwood City for a service center, and apparently were looking at establishing an “operations hub” in the vacant building at the corner of El Camino Real and Whipple Avenue. This building:

The above building, which previously was a liquor store, was recently remodeled inside and out. This week I managed to take a peek inside the building (not easy, given that the front windows are almost entirely covered from the inside), and although it is a lot cleaner, and somewhat nicer, than when it was a liquor store, the interior looks as if it could still use some additional work. Given the large “For Lease” signs outside, perhaps Starship isn’t going to be occupying this space after all…

Starship now appears to have a newer version of their robots, ones that can carry the equivalent of three grocery bags, and travel at a maximum speed of four miles per hour within an optimal range of two to four miles. This week the Redwood City Council approved a new two-year pilot program for delivery robots like these, allowing up to three companies with the appropriate city-granted permit to operate a total of 25 robots within city limits. Unsurprisingly, Starship Technologies will apparently be the first of those companies. Starship plans to start a grocery delivery program in partnership with Dehoff’s Key Market (at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Upton Street), and with area restaurants, to deliver food within the Central, Palm Park, Roosevelt, and Woodside Plaza neighborhoods. Beyond that, Starship is hoping to work with the City of Redwood City Library to create a book delivery program. They envision that the library would host between three and eight robots, and that those robots that would transport books between the library and senior and homebound residents in the vicinity of the library’s downtown branch.

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, the magic word was “plastics.” These days, in Redwood City, the magic word seems to be “machines.” Although the Lathrop House was moved twice presumably without the assistance of heavy machinery (just how did they do that?), there is no question that machinery, plus a lot of experience and know-how, makes the job significantly easier. I’ve taken out a small tree or two by hand, and I can personally attest to the amount of physical labor involved. Without a stump grinder, getting those trees out of the parking strip along Hopkins Avenue and along Grand Street would have meant an incredible amount of back-breaking work by a large crew. Finally, we’re all just getting used to the various delivery services that bring everything from books to medicines to food right to our front doors, and up until now it always meant opening the door to a human delivery person. Now, however, don’t be surprised to find an autonomous wheeled ice chest at your front door!

14 thoughts on “Men and Machines

  1. Thank you for the great picture of Central Grammar School, my Dad went there for second grade about 1926. Do you know anything about a RWC school called, Uptown Grammar?That was his school for 1st grade.

  2. Pingback: Where the Action Is | Walking Redwood City

  3. Greg, Can you comment on the old victorian home on Orchard and Woodside. The 3 parcel property was sold last year and the house (sits in the middle parcel) has been lifted so that workers can get underneath the building. Any idea what is planned?

      • It is part of a three-lot subdivision of what was a 15,875-square foot parcel. The planning approvals required relocation of the 112-year old house. The other two lots will be developed with new single-family homes.

      • Interestingly, I went by the site yesterday and the house isn’t being relocated — it is simply getting a new foundation and a completely rebuilt first floor. The house has always been a two-story home, but the first floor was partially below grade (below ground level); the driveway into the garage actually sloped down. Recently the house was lifted up, a completely new foundation was constructed, and then the first floor was rebuilt, apparently following the design of what was there before. So the net result is that the house will look at lot like what was there previously, except that it’ll be safely above ground now, and of course it’ll be in much better shape.

        As for the other two parcels (the large original parcel was indeed split into three), those are currently empty and I saw little sign of any development on them. But perhaps the builder will work on those next. I’ll definitely be keeping a closer eye on this mini-development in the future!

  4. Ha! You only went with what the newspaper wrote. They couldn’t close Marshall and Hamilton on a Saturday, and even didn’t want to close them on Sunday and Monday but there are no “good” times to close any streets so these were the best they could do. Mother’s Day and our wedding anniversary. I’’m bringing my husband down on Monday to watch the last of the move as my anniversary gift to him. After 52 years, it’s not such a crazy gift!

  5. Fascinating history regarding the Lathrop house. I worked for the county for 30 years and never knew the history of the home. I hope it will survive the move!

    • It looks as if the house survived rather well! It is on its new site, although it is still sitting well above the foundation. They expect to lower it in a week or so. But the move seems to have come off with nary a hitch.

      • It seems to come through unscathed. They did discover a lot of termite damage that will need attention but it seems everything else is fine. I don’t know if anyone has been inside yet.

        Just to clear up any confusion, this is the third move of the house and the fourth location. I’m hearing all kinds of numbers. As I understand it, it was first where the Fox Theatre is now and was moved to the back of that same lot to make way for Central School (and Sequoia High School on the top floor), then it was moved to the Hamilton Street site and now to it’s new home.

  6. The dates for the move of the Lathrop House across Marshall Street are Sunday May 12 and Monday May 13. The newspaper had the incorrect dates. When it was moved to its current site over 100 years ago it was rolled on redwood logs and pulled by oxen. It must have been well built to withstand being moved so many times. We are planning on the museum property being its final home. With the addition of a new Carriage House in a few years, this will be one square block of amazing opportunities to learn about San Mateo County and Redwood City History.

    • Rats – you even told me the correct dates last week and I still got them wrong! That’s entirely on me, then. At least I was only off by one day. 😎

      It sure would have been interesting to see them move that house with oxen and logs – that must have been absolutely fascinating. Thanks for the great info!

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