Time finally ran out Wednesday for the Mystery House of Harding Way. A monstrous excavator clawed down the long-vacant eyesore, a two-story encyclopedia of construction errors and code violations left unfinished for 23 years.

Demolition took on aspects of a block party. Neighbors gathered as police cordoned off the block. City officials built themselves a shade tent with bottled water and donuts. Neighbor Ava Simpson brought a lawn chair and tea.

“It’s a warm day and this might take a while,” Simpson said, “and I wanted to work on my crossword puzzle.”

Around 10 a.m., an immense 23-ton Cat 318 rumbled off a lo-boy. A crew boss yelled “Good luck!” The roaring Cat gouged giant bites out of the north wall.

Kids whooped as timbers cracked and debris crumbled.

“What we’re going to do is tear the whole house down,” boss Marty Thorpe said. “Make it a big pile of rubble.”

All the fuss was over a one-story house at 745 W. Harding Way that became a two-story house through DIY labor, which city officials say was done wrong.

Construction ground to a halt for years at a time, infuriating neighbors. To top it off, the house fell into a rare legal limbo that confounded code officials for decades.

I’ll skip the legal details except one that illustrates the house’s uncanny mojo: during the lender bankruptcies of the foreclosure crisis, a mortgage company accidentally paid off the liens that code officials had slapped on the property, sparing the home from a tax sale.

The deceased owner’s son, Arturo Cortes, and wife Norma undertook to fix the place. But they never took ownership, so they weren’t legally responsible. Nobody was.

The Corteses sank love, money and family labor into the job. Not enough, neighbors said.

“I’ve lived here for 22 years and I have seen — at the most generous I can be — two months of work in 22 years,” neighbor Kerry Kruger said.

The family’s bad work left the house unsafe, said Pete Lemos, the city’s head code enforcer.

A concrete garage foundation was not laid level. Family carpenters tried to compensate by cutting lumber unevenly, leaving the garage cartoonishly off-plumb. The garage was demolished in February.

They also added a second story, but without removing the first floor roof, Lemos said. Nor did they add any load-bearing support for the new upper story, he said.

Sure enough, as the Cat exposed the house’s innards, the first-floor roof became visible halfway up the building, asphalt roofing paper and all.

The house’s long vacancy was a problem, too. Officials found burned lumber downstairs, and drug rigs. Squatters were cooking drugs in the place, Stockton Police spokesman Joe Silva said.

“Lucky it didn’t burn down,” he said.

Silva had more: “The structure is actually sinking.”

There’s more, a thick folder of code violations.

Norma Cortes said she got a permit and hired a contractor to fix everything, but the city summarily swung the wrecking ball.

“I had a contractor ready to go,” she said. “What can we say?”

Lemos countered that the city issued a permit but revoked it after five or six weeks of inaction.

The Corteses say they were working on the house all along. They would have gotten the job done if just given more time.

“I feel feel they were unfair,” Cortes said. “But it is what it is, OK?”

Neighbors were in full-on Good Riddance Mode.

“We are elated,” Burr Phillips said. “We’re glad it’s going away.”

“It’ll be nice to see it gone,” Michaelle Spetter said.

“I’m glad it’s coming down,” Denise Jefferson said. “It’s time. They snubbed their nose at the city for years.”

The sentiment was not unanimous, though.

“That’s a woman’s inheritance,” an indignant Steve Gallegos said. “The city, that’s like Gestapo tactics to me.”

Beginning today, trucks will haul off the rubble. The crew hopes to clear the lot by Monday.

The Cortes estate still owns the lot. Heirs could build a new house on it — though before they could obtain a loan they’d probably have to pay off the $7,000 lien for garage demolition and the $28,000 lien for house demolition.

The lot may remain vacant for years.

“To me, it does not matter,” Shirley Robins said. “As long as that house is gone.”

 

Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or michaelf@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog and on Twitter @Stocktonopolis.