Interview With Phil Joy

House Mover, Auto Racer
Photo by Malcolm Slight

Phil Joy is seeing things.

A restored Victorian welcoming guests to enjoy its Douglas fir finishings and waterfront views.

A boatyard featuring bits of Benicia’s maritime past.

A trail along the shoreline.

“My vision’s so far out in front of me that the rest of me has to catch up,” Phil says with smile and a shake of his head.

He is sitting in a folding chair on the third floor of the Victorian home he is renovating for use as a bed and breakfast. The original framing remains, but the plaster walls are gone as restoration work continues. The old Garske boatyard is below, and the Carquinez Strait is in the distance. The wavy glass in the restored windows makes the scene look like a watercolor painting. On this blustery July morning, wind whips around the home but the restored windows don’t rattle.

He has been working on turning his vision into reality since he first caught sight of the Victorian in Napa. He moved the house to Benicia in late 2006.

“This is how it all started—because I fell in love with a house,” he recalls. “Back in 2000, 2001, I saw this house out in the field. I snuck in—it brought me in. I used to drive by and look at it, then one day I drove up and the door was open. Rain had damaged the wood, but the windows were all original.”         He needed a lot large enough for the home, and he struck a deal with the late Joe Garske for a lot on West D Street, additional property along First Street, and the boatyard along the waterfront.   Since then, Phil has been working to reshape the area between West C and D streets, just off First Street.

His buildings now house Rosanna’s bakery, Plein Air Gallery, Be Chic Boutique and Joyous Spaces gardening shop. Work continues on the living space above the garden shop, one of about 10 projects in Phil’s life at this time. “I’m a preservationist,” he says. “I could have built something new, but it was all about saving these little buildings.”

Unexpected turns delayed progress on the house and boatyard: Phil was in a serious motorcycle accident in 2007, the economy took a nosedive in 2008, and artists and others objected to plans to remove some of the surviving marine equipment in 2012. “I wish more was done,” he says.

His business, Phil Joy Housemoving and Leveling, also keeps him busy.  He continues a metal drive to fund crossing guards for Benicia schools.

In addition, Phil races Legends cars, scaled-down (5/8 scale) versions of NASCAR modified racers based on classic body design and powered by motorcycle engines. He loves the little cars, and he was the 2012 world champion in his class. 

Phil, 60, and his wife, Celeste, live in Sandy Beach in Vallejo.

How did you get started moving houses? It started one day back in the ’70s when I saw a guy moving a house. He was going under an overpass and the shingles were scraping off. So I stopped and guided him.

When we were done, I asked him what his next job would be. He said he was launching a big fishing boat in Fort Bragg.  I was a single guy, so I took my camper and I was barbecuing when he got there.

His name was Ron Trost, and we’d stick houses on these 25-foot lots in San Francisco where the house is 24 feet, 10 inches wide. We moved giant tanks, boats. I never got a paycheck from him, but he’d call me when he had something he thought I could help with.

When did that happen? I was in my early 20s then. I was really into home design and drafting at the time, and I’d started building with this older guy, Jim Leavitt.  I’ve always built stuff since I was a kid.

What does it take to move a house? The easy part is the physical moving of the house. The paperwork is a lot harder.

You have to go in front of your planning commissions. If it’s historic, you have to go in front of your historic commissions. Then you have to get gas, electric, and water lines on the new lot. The height of the building has to be OK. … Once you know the process, you can do it.

There’s always someone who says you can’t move a house, that it’ll fall apart. I take them a video and some microwave popcorn, and they can see it for themselves. They don’t usually have any questions after that.

How often do you move houses? About 25 percent of our business is moving houses, 25 percent is moving specialty things like railroad cars and historic boats, and 50 percent is raising houses for a new foundation or to make a two-story house. You never know what you’re going to move next.

You must have lots of stories … We once moved a house from Fulton Shipyard in Antioch to Vallejo. The house belonged to one of the Fulton daughters and before she died, she asked her husband to save the house. So we loaded it on a barge.

The wind was blowing against us that day. It was like the Atlantic out here.  We got the house to Benicia and had to stop. Then we had to wait two weeks for the tides to be right to move it to Vallejo. So the house is out here (in the boatyard), sitting on a barge, and he’s out here at his house, fishing. He loved it. A couple weeks later, we moved it to Vallejo, unloaded it, raised it up, and he’s loving it now.

How did you get the project at Curry Village in Yosemite? Treeline Construction in Napa got the job and I’d worked with them before. There were two buildings, the registration building and lounge.  We raised them to put in new foundations. They wanted to keep it crooked to keep the character of the building, which is counter to most things you do in building, but that’s what we did.

Last year, we picked up five little log-cabin duplexes in Yosemite. They had the hantavirus outbreak at the time, and mice were everywhere. We had lots of Lysol with us.

How did you end up owning a boatyard? I asked Joe (Garske) if he’d sell me this lot for the house. He said no, that he could have sold the lot 50 times over. But he was in trouble with BCDC (Bay Conservation and Development Commission) about the boatyard at the time, and he said if I wanted the lot, I’d have to take the boatyard, too.

I would walk around the boatyard and it would make me tired. I literally would have to take a nap just looking at all the work that had to be done.

Joe had a little spiral notebook and he walked around and wrote down everything that was here.  He came up with a price and we shook on it. I told him I’ll take this thing and keep the Garske name in good standing in town. I told him that I’d keep the little buildings and make him proud.

It’s been a lot more work than I thought it would be.

What would you like to see happen at the boatyard? This is the last of the boatyards that Benicia once had. I want it to be like Hyde Street pier in San Francisco, where the Alma is tied up. I’ve got a paddlewheel out there.  That’s one of the little shacks that used to be out over the water (pointing to a small gray building).  I do like the idea of keeping the steam engine crane in some way.

We’ve got things here that in other places end up on a painting of what it once looked like. We still have the originals.

I’m trying to figure out a compromise for the cleanup. I understand everyone’s concerns and hope we can come up with a plan.

What is your timeline for finishing the Victorian? I’d like to be done within the next year. It’s going to be a B&B, and I’d like to live on the third floor if I can talk my wife into it. I want to stay here. I’ve had enough adventures.

How is the metal drive going these days? There’s someone here every 20-30 minutes, dropping stuff off. We take all kinds of metal: old stoves, dishwashers, hot water heaters, cat food cans, nails. We’ve raised about $40,000 since 2010. Every time we reach $5,000, I take a check down to Janice (Adams, superintendent of Benicia schools) for the crossing guards. It’s a good thing. Where else are people going to get rid of this stuff?

We take any metal at all.  People can drop it in the bin on West C off First Street.

When did you start racing? I’ve been racing for seven years. This is a young man’s sport (chuckling).

The last time I went out, there were three guys ahead of me and I crashed. …  I got damage to the front and the rear. As I was climbing out, I hear my name, “Phil Joy’s hit the wall.” Then I see a little bit of fire on the grass and I put that out, then another one and I put that one out, and then another one. I must have done that three times.

Then there’s the mandatory ambulance ride where they check you out. I asked if I could ride up front, but they said no. But after that, I jumped out, got in my backup car, still qualified and came in second.

After I won the championship last year, I thought, “I’m not going to race that much this year.” But then the first race comes up and I go and I win, and so …

What are Legends cars? They are scaled-down versions of what they used to race on the beaches in Florida, in Daytona. They look like those modifieds. It looks like back in the day when we all line up for a race. We’re all bumper-to-bumper, pushing and bumping each other.

What was the championship race like? I’d led in points (in the Masters category of the Road Course division)all year. Then I went to Las Vegas for the nationals and my car was lousy. I’d had some work done, and it was sliding on all the turns.

We raced on this flat track in Las Vegas, and there was this guy that I’ve battled for four years there. Through some sort of mistake, I ended up farther back than I should have been. But I just kept picking them off one by one. …

I worked my way up to being three behind him, then I got to two behind him, then he broke his shifter and got stuck in third or fourth gear. I passed him and came in first and screamed so loud in my helmet that I got a headache.

I’m up there in points again this year (No. 1 as of Aug. 1).  This year when anybody beats me, they’re so excited.

What was your best moment in racing? I beat my mentor by three-hundredths of a second. I drafted him all the way and pulled out at just the right time and passed him.

Do you plan to keep racing? I might do a few races next year, but I’ve got work to do here. Time’s a wasting.

What do you do to relax? Racing isn’t relaxing. Moving houses isn’t relaxing. My wife and I go up to Fort Bragg. She likes to paint. Or we go to Point Arena, where cell phones don’t work.

What’s next for you? Finishing the house, getting the Bay Trail done. The Bay Trail work might start this year. We’ve got a real nice plan.

The buildings out in front are almost completed. We’re making a little apartment, maybe a hotel room, above Joyous Spaces. We’ve got 99 pieces of glass in there, all from Mare Island.

I’d love to have it where boats could come in and stay at the B&B. Out there (motioning to the boatyard), we’ve got to have some sort of compromise.  

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