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Homes readied to set sail

Workers struggle to transport to Santa Catalina Island two 48-ton residences for scientists at a USC research facility.

August 03, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Loading two 48-ton houses onto a barge in the Port of Los Angeles and sailing them across 22 miles of ocean was supposed to have been the easy part of creating cozy new lodgings for superstar scientists on Santa Catalina Island.

Their destination: the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on a remote island hilltop.

The real challenge of the operation, USC project managers had predicted, would come when 1,200-square-foot Tuscan-style homes with red tile roofs would be pulled up the steep hill by a tractor weighed down with 25,000 pounds of concrete to keep its tires from spinning under the strain.

But as things turned out, the easy part wasn't so easy.

By Thursday the project was running a day behind schedule, and its financial donors, who had gathered on the island earlier to welcome the cheery cottages with champagne toasts, had gone home.

The goal was to slide the houses along two thick steel beams and onto the barge by 2 p.m. Wednesday. By that time Thursday, Ted Hollinger, head of Master Housemovers, was still trying to overcome a series of unexpected complications, which were made even more difficult by rising and falling tides.

Hollinger, whose company has moved more than 5,000 houses, used toots of a metal whistle that dangled from a cord around his neck to be heard over clanging hammers and the roaring engines of tractor rigs with 64 forward gears and engines built for torque, not horsepower.

One toot meant "Go!" Two toots meant "Stop!" Various combinations of toots, often delivered in rapid succession, were getting on some crew members' nerves.

"Would you stop with the whistle already and use words I can understand?" one of them pleaded.

All the while, the old-school crewmen without hard hats, gloves or safety vests scurried beneath the houses, connecting heavy cables, chains and compressor hoses, ratcheting up hydraulic jacks and removing heavy wooden blocks as the structure inched its way off the wharf and onto the barge.

These houses, in fact, were designed to be transported. "They're built like blocks of concrete," Hollinger said. "They've got plywood shear panel inside and out, metal frames and metal floors."

But that didn't make the job any easier. At two stories tall and relatively narrow, the houses had unusual centers of gravity, which required extra care when moving them.

During a lunch break in a shady spot a few yards from the stalled work, Hollinger's son, Harry Hollinger, 49, said university officials had been overly optimistic from the start.

"I don't know where they got the idea this was a three- or four-hour project. It isn't," Hollinger said. "When you're working against 5 1/2 -foot-high tides, four or five contractors and university officials, it's going to be an all-day operation. Know what I mean?"

One of the many unforeseen problems emerged shortly after work began Wednesday. A foot-long metal mooring prevented the barge from resting flush against the wharf.

Lowered by truck hoist to a notch between the barge and the wharf, Hollinger tried to break off the mooring with a hammer. No luck.

He tried a saw, but the blade broke. Then he tried an acetylene torch.

No sooner had he completed the job than someone yelled, "Look out, Harry! There's a wake from a tugboat headed this way!"

Other workers began yelling too. They feared that the wake would push the barge forward, crushing Hollinger between the barge and wharf. There was no time to escape, but the wake washed past without incident.

Late Wednesday night, a chain snapped, throwing a 30-pound pulley wheel into a wall of one of the houses, leaving a 12-inch gash in the stucco.

By Thursday afternoon, both houses were finally lashed into place on the barge, which was expected to set sail about 1 a.m. today and arrive at the Wrigley Institute about six hours later. Then, the work crew should have about four hours of optimal tidal conditions in which to dock the barge and move the houses onto land.

If everything goes according to plan, older prominent scientists and corporate executives who tended not to want to rough it in the Wrigley center's spartan dormitories will soon be settling into the cottages painted "ceremonial gold," "tiger's eye," "bungalow gray" and "spicy hue." The houses will overlook an aquamarine bay surrounded by cliffs resembling stony cathedrals.

"Our hard mattresses and noisy students were not the level of comfort their old bones could handle," said Tony Michaels, director of the institute. "So, we're creating a cluster of 20 to 25 rooms of reasonably high quality -- not five-star, but what we like to call island elegance -- which will allow us to bring these superstars together to solve society's hardest problems."

Peter Warren, spokesman for the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said, "Without the Hollingers' kind of expertise to move these houses, we probably couldn't do a project like this.

"They're unique," he said. "They're out here crawling on the ground and working with tides, hashing out problems at the top of their lungs and getting the job done."

And even if the houses reach their Catalina hilltop, the job's not done.

There are four more houses waiting to make the trip.

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