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Sunday, April 28, 2002

Saving the Lawler house was not easy

Jerry Bowen

Preserving the past is not always a high priority with most people and as a result, much of our history in the West becomes lost in the shuffle of daily routine.

But occasionally jewels from the past manage to be saved from the wrecker’s ball. A prime example of this was the struggle to save what is known as the Lawler House, now located on Main Street in Suisun.

It is a story of vandalism, bureaucracy, dedication and determined action finally ending in the saving of a beautiful historical object that not only serves to remind us of the past, but also provides a useful function today.

During their development of Dover Terrace South in 1977, the owners of the Hoffman Company offered the century-old Lawler House to the city of Suisun. In addition they offered a small sum of money toward its renovation. Estimates at the time were set at about $70,000 to restore the building. The city failed to respond to the offer, so the company planned to tear the house down.

Once it was known that the building was unoccupied, vandals, souvenir hunters, collectors and some antique hunters began the systematic destruction of the old house. They forced their way past the barriers and plywood coverings to steal and destroy. They weren’t just young folks either. Many adults who should have known better were observed acting like common criminals as they slunk away with their “treasures.”

A request was sent to the Historic Preservation Review Committee in May 1978 by assistant planner Linda Turnquist to discuss the potential renovation of the Lawler House. A field trip to the site also was arranged.

History and environmental assessments of the home were compiled. It was estimated from Lawler oral family history that the house was built in 1857, although my current research may have to revise that date to a few years later.

The ownership of the house in the original report indicated unknown ownership from the 1850s to 1919 when the Vest family bought the ranch. In 1932 they sold to the Field family who owned it until they sold to the Brownells in 1932. In 1947, the Lawlers purchased the ranch and held it until 1976 when they sold the property and house to the Hoffman Company.

My own current research (which is incomplete as of now} indicates the Swan family owned the property from 1869 until they passed it to the Vests in 1919 after living in a house on the property for 10 years. Whether or not it was the Swan family that built the house is yet to be determined.

In 1978, concerned citizens organized to preserve the old home. Named “Preserve All Solano’s Treasures” (PAST), they began attending council meetings and offered to take on the task leading to preservation of the house. In addition, they contacted descendants of the Lawler and Vest families to obtain information, history and photos of the building.

PAST members, Dave and Debbie Woodruff moved their truck and camper onto the property and provided a 24-hour guard to prevent further vandalism. Newspaper coverage of the ongoing battle to save the Lawler home focused public attention to the efforts of PAST. Cleanup crews eliminated much of the trash left behind by the thieves.

It became apparent that in order to save the building, it would have to be moved to a new location. Clarence Richard and Robert Klemmedson picked up the ball and proposed that they buy the house and transport it to property they were developing on Main Street in Suisun. It was an opportunity too good to miss.

As soon as the Suisun Planning Commission gave approval to sell the house for one dollar, they hired their own guard and began preparations to move the structure to the new site. They employed house mover Burt Fisher to move the house onto a barge and transport it to the docks near the home’s new site at 714 Main Street.

But the problems were far from over. First, they had to strip the house of everything, including the plaster walls, to reduce the weight. The house was too large to fit on the barge in one piece, so they had to separate the additions to the house. PG&E’s charges to move power lines had to be negotiated and the route cleared of obstacles. But when it came time to move, rains turned the road to the barge into a muddy morass. Moving the heavy structure at that time was out of the question.

Finally, in June 1979, the house was inched along to the barge. Anxious moments were experienced as the 160,000-pound structure tilted precariously as it was loaded onto the craft. At last it was on the barge and on its way.

PAST members, including local historian Mary Higham, had been recording the entire process of saving the house. When the move began they followed the house all the way, taking photos as it rumbled toward its final resting place. Breathing a sigh of relief, everyone was finally able to relax as the home settled onto its new foundation, success was at hand.

Much work was yet to be done to restore the house to its former glory. It would take another two years to completely renovate the home including additions of appropriate wooden fire escapes. In November 1981 it was finally ready for small businesses to move in. Several enterprises staked their claim to various rooms in the house. It had been a long and hard road, but the Lawler House finally found a permanent home and is a jewel for Main Street in Suisun where the Chamber of Commerce has also taken up residence.

I would like to thank local historian Mary Higham for providing the information for this article. Her album is an excellent record of the entire process of saving the Lawler House in photos, letters, and newspaper articles. In addition, she has donated her album to the Vacaville Heritage Council and it is available for research. The Vacaville Heritage Council, located in the Old Town Hall on East Main Street is open to the public on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.