A house that had it coming

This 1951 photo shows 745 W. Harding Way when it was a one-story house. Courtesy Bank of Stockton.

I named it the “Mystery House” because it just stood there for decades, vacant and incomplete. What was the deal? And because of its perverse staying power in the face of city efforts to force its completion or abatement.

The house with its unfinished, DIY additions. One neighbor called it "a sad behemoth." Photo by Cliff Oto/The Record.

As best as can be determined – officials still aren’t clear on some aspects — the owner died intestate, or left the house to a developmentally disabled daughter, who died intestate. No competent adult accepted ownership. Probably this was because code enforcers slapped huge liens on the house, and nobody wanted to pay them.

There followed a curious situation called a “deceased owner:” The city could, and did, slap liens against the property for the code violations and stalled work, but could not file liens against any person.

The liens may actually have worked as a disincentive for anyone to accept ownership of the house.

The demolition crew unloads a Cat excavator that will tear down the house.

Normally unpaid liens would send a house into a tax sale. But in the helter-skelter, under-regulated run-up to the foreclosure crash, a lender accidentally paid off the liens. That gave the house a reprieve. It got another when the people who pledged to repair the house, the Corteses, found a willing lender (who took a bath).

The Cat gets to work.

The Corteses, and a knot of their friends who were at the scene of the demolition on Wednesday, bitterly objected that the city had issued a permit to fix the house, then arbitrarily rescinded it.

That is not true, say city officials.

The Corteses got a permit to repair (or install) a kitchen. the permit did not address all the other issues in the house. They never did any work, so the fed-up city yanked the permit and went to a judge.

Now let’s go inside.

As this photo of the unfinished interior shows, the house was just a shell. Photo courtesy; Stockton Police.

City officials say the Corteses had been abusing the system. Permits come with six months to get the job done; the Corteses would get the permits just to buy time and then do nothing, officials said. A stalling tactic they used for years.

Thieves stripped wiring inside the Mystery House, leaving frayed wiring exposed. Courtesy Stockton Police.

A judge okayed a warrant to go in and inspect. An engineer found all the weird problems mentioned in the column. Some became visible as the Cat tore the walls off. Like the second story. The rooms were framed up but no drywall had been installed. There were no walls to slow the spread of a fire, officials said.

And the possibility of fire was all too real. Inspectors found evidence, such as the board below, that squatters were burning wood. Presence of drug paraphernalia suggests they were cooking narcotics inside, police said.

Squatters burned wood in several interior spots, a fire hazard. Presence of drug paraphernalia suggests they were cooking narcotics, police said. Photo Courtesy Stockton Police.

And so …

On Thursday all that remained of the Harding Way Mystery House was a pile of rubble which the Cat was picking up and swinging into high-side trucks for disposal.

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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