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Restoring the Shawnee: A quixotic artist and his masterpiece

She is 96 years old, all bones and little skin. Her ribs are split and rotted in places and stained by rust. Nonetheless, she is a slightly fearsome presence, commanding her surroundings like a T. rex in a natural history museum.

When the Shawnee first hit the water in 1916, she was a striking beauty — a 72-foot sailboat made of old-growth oak and Douglas fir, African mahogany, naturally curved hackmatack and gleaming teak. Her hull had the seductive curve of a wineglass. Her keel was 37,000 pounds of lead capped by a single slab of carved oak stretching stem to stern.

Now the Shawnee sits partially dismantled in Newport Beach, where master shipwright Dennis Holland is working to restore the boat to her original glory. It's a project six years in the making, with no end in sight.

"I'm a slave to her," says Holland, 66.

Some of his neighbors feel they are too.

That's because the Shawnee is dry docked in Holland's side yard, between his home and a workshop, its bow jutting out toward the street, its stern overlooking a neighbor's pool. It's a fantastic hallucination in this tidy, affluent neighborhood.

Holland has walked this gangplank before. In 1970, he began work on an exact replica of a 118-foot-long Revolutionary War sailing vessel in his yard in Costa Mesa, not far from where he lives today.

Building the Pilgrim of Newport was an epic undertaking. Holland was 24 when he started, 37 when he finished. His wife, Betty, had three girls in the time it took him to birth the boat. The family rented out their home and lived aboard the boat for seven of those years, cooking on a wood stove and using oil lamps for light. Holland made custom furniture and cabinets to support his family and his passion.

The Pilgrim turned Holland into a local celebrity. When it was launched in Newport Harbor, 2,500 onlookers cheered the quixotic artist and his masterpiece.

If only restoring the Shawnee were that simple.

Dennis Holland was 8 when he first glimpsed the Shawnee. It was 1953, and her picture was in a yachting magazine he found in an alley in San Francisco, where his family lived. She happened to be docked at a local yacht club, and Holland's parents took him down to see.

"It was love at first sight," he says.

Holland's parents had recently bought him an 8-foot wooden sailboat. The majestic Shawnee stoked his budding interest in boats. Her story fanned the flames.

The Shawnee was commissioned as a honeymoon yacht by a San Francisco banking executive and built by George Lawley & Son in Boston, among the nation's most prominent shipyards. The Lawleys built everything from opulent yachts and Navy warships to defenders of the America's Cup race.

The Shawnee, Holland learned, had placed third in the 1925 Transpacific Race from San Francisco to Tahiti — covering 3,687 nautical miles in 28 days, 9 hours and 29 minutes. During World War II, she was enlisted to patrol the California coast.

The graceful lines of the tall ships that lined San Francisco's waterfront in those days captivated Holland. They were more than boats, he thought. They were works of art. When he was 10, he took on his first project — an 18-foot Malibu outrigger, a popular backyard project of the time that could be launched from the surf. It took two years to complete.

The family moved to Long Beach. After high school, Holland began a six-year apprenticeship at a Newport Beach shipyard that no longer exists.

"Most of the guys were over 50 and they said to me: 'You're wasting your time. It's a dying business,' " Holland said.

When the oldtimers retired, Holland asked if he could keep their tools — specialized chisels, saws, planes and mallets. He still uses them.

"I could have done a lot better in life building houses," said Holland, whose grandfather worked as a Mississippi River boat pilot. "But wooden boats have this romance thing going on.... And when it hits the water, it comes alive."

As he built the Pilgrim, Holland kept tabs on the Shawnee. Allan Adler, a renowned silversmith who made works for Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, had bought her not long after Holland saw her in San Francisco as a boy. Adler eventually moved her to Newport, where she graced the harbor.

Adler spent considerable time and money maintaining the Shawnee through the years. But the ocean's corrosiveness eventually got the upper hand, and after his death in 2002 she rapidly fell into disrepair. The once-glamorous vessel was reduced to a rotting, rusting mess so leaky that she sat on the harbor bottom at low tide.

Holland says he made an offer to Adler's heirs, who had been unable to sell the boat: If they gave him the Shawnee, he promised to restore her.

Holland understood the challenge. The Pilgrim was supposed to take three years to build. It took 13. Instead of sailing around the world, he and his wife ran a charter excursion business for a dozen years to pay off $100,000 in debt. Holland eventually sold her.

"It's like I created a monster," he said.

So, at an age when most people are moving toward retirement, Holland wondered whether he had the energy to tackle another multi-year project. He felt great, but went in for a physical, just to be sure.

The diagnosis stunned him: late-stage prostate cancer.

Time's running out, Holland thought.

When the Shawnee arrived on a trailer at Holland's home in 2006, city code enforcement officials were there to oversee her placement in his side yard, according to documents filed last year in a lawsuit.

The suit, which seeks to force Holland to remove the boat, doesn't radiate the romantic glow of historic tall ships sailing to distant lands.

It shines a cold fluorescent light on amendments to Chapter 10.64 of the Newport Beach municipal code that prohibit "large and prolonged construction and maintenance projects" in residential areas.

"The health, safety and welfare of the residents and visitors to the City of Newport Beach is being placed at risk" by the Shawnee's extended stay in Holland's yard, according to the city's complaint.

The City Council unanimously approved the amendments in 2009, after Holland had dismantled much of the boat and found her to be in worse shape than he thought.

Holland countersued in Orange County Superior Court, contending that the code changes unlawfully singled him out. The city denies this and says it took action only after nearly 18 months of extended deadlines and warnings.

"Dennis dares to be different," said Carole Payne, 67, who lives across the street from him. "In Newport of all places, with its maritime history, you'd think they'd embrace what he's doing.... Agreed, it looks like crap now. But something really, really lovely could come of that if he was just left alone for a couple of years."

But others in the neighborhood can't stand what some derisively call "the ark."

"It's an eyesore, not some monument," said Jennifer Miller, 49, who can see the Shawnee from her frontyard. "We don't live in a boat yard. If you had to look at that every day, would you like it?"

Last month a judge ordered Holland to remove the boat by April 30 or face up to $1,000 a day in fines, even jail time.

"He's a good guy. But the city has rules, and all we're asking him to do is abide by those rules," said City Atty. Aaron Harp. "We're not trying to throw him in jail. All we want for him to do is move the boat."

It's not that simple, Holland says. He carefully removed and numbered more than 800 pieces that can be refinished — deck planks and custom cabinetry, door handles and 8-foot-long bronze bolts. The rest he threw out. All that is holding the Shawnee together are her fragile ribs.

To move her now would be prohibitively expensive. After investing tens of thousands of dollars to move the Shawnee to his home, Holland says he can't afford to move her again — let alone rent storage space.

If the only option left is for the Shawnee to be destroyed and hauled away, Holland says the city will have to do it. He doesn't have the heart. She probably saved his life.

"If I hadn't gotten that physical, I wouldn't be here today," he said. After a procedure in which his blood was withdrawn, the cells treated and transfused back into his body, Holland's cancer is in remission.

If the city would only give him four more years, he says....

"Once you're committed to a boat like her, it's like a marriage. If there are obstacles, you don't tear the marriage apart and say 'I just can't make it work,'" he said.

"Some boats you sail to Catalina for the day, and when you come home you tie it up and walk away. The Shawnee has been a long-term romance."

mike.anton@latimes.com

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