Friday, June 30, 2006 | Walt Dewhurst, the man who built the cross on Mount Soledad, left his son George the family construction business. On his death bed, the old man also left his son a secret.

“My dad said, ‘If anybody ever tries to take it down, they’re in for a big surprise,’” George Dewhurst recounted.

George Dewhurst, who watched his father erect the cross and is still involved with maintaining the memorial and carving the names of fallen soldiers onto its granite walls, couldn’t elaborate on what his father meant by that cryptic comment. However, he did say that removing the cross, if and when that day comes, will be no simple task.

When the cross was being lifted into place in 1954, its reinforced concrete snapped in two places and it had to be re-cast and strengthened with a metal plate. Dewhurst said moving the monument would take time, money and planning.

But with a month to go before a court-imposed deadline to remove the cross from city land or start paying $5,000 a day in fines, San Diego officials don’t appear to be doing much planning for that eventuality. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has acknowledged that he isn’t willing to incur the fines, signaling that the 17-year-old legal battle surrounding the cross could be winding down. However, the mayor still seems to be counting on an 11th-hour savior, such as President Bush, or the last-ditch plea to the Supreme Court that he launched last week.

The pastor at the Mount Soledad Presbyterian Church, which previously offered to host the cross, says they haven’t heard anything from the city. Jim McElroy, the attorney has been arguing against the cross in a protracted legal battle, said the city is shirking its responsibilities to plan for a possibility he says is very likely. He said he’s drafted a letter to city leaders that he plans to send this week.

“I’ve sent it to the mayor and Scott Peters saying ‘Guys, let’s do something,’ because I think what’s going to happen is they’re going to have to put it in storage,” McElroy said.

The mayor’s spokesman, Fred Sainz, said the mayor is not commenting on how the city might actually take the cross down.

“It’s not over until it’s over.” Sainz said. “We are hard at work, as are members of our congressional delegation and the White House, trying to exhaust all possible options to retain the integrity of the memorial in its current state.”

Apart from the protestors who have promised to chain themselves to the cross, the media circus that such an event would attract and the difficulties of finding someone to do the dirty work, there are some logistical difficulties involved with taking the monument down.

Dewhurst said the cross would probably need a wooden frame built around it to ensure that it survived the removal process. That wooden frame would hold the cross in place and protect it while the base of the cross was cut through. It could then be lifted away from the memorial and laid flat on the bed of a waiting trailer.

Bill Kellogg, president of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, said reports that the cross is particularly fragile are misleading. He said the fact that the cross has cracked once before and been repaired shows it can be moved easily and safely.

“If it turned out that it did break, it’s not made of some foreign material, you’ve got cement. I am quite certain that we can repair whatever has to be done,” he said.

The last time it looked like the cross would come down, the Mount Soledad Presbyterian Church, which sits merely 1,000 feet from the monument’s current location, agreed to take the cross and erect it on their grounds. However, church leaders later clarified their position by stating that they would only take the cross as a last-ditch effort to preserve the monument.

The Rev. Dave Ricketts, stated-supply pastor at Mount Soledad Presbyterian, said the church has not been asked to resurrect talks with the city over the future of the cross. The church is currently without a full-time pastor, and Ricketts said any decision on whether they will host the cross would be made by church elders and by a vote of the congregation. He declined to comment as to the church’s current policy.

Moving the cross to a church is the action most people seem to support. Council President Scott Peters, who represents La Jolla, said he approves of moving it to the Presbyterian church. Even McElroy is in favor of putting the cross where he thinks it belongs – on the grounds of a private church.

If the cross is removed from the Mount Soledad Memorial, Kellogg said there are a few ideas for what to put in its place. One concept is to hold a competition for architects from around the country to design what Kellogg called a new memorial of a “non-religious nature.”

Or, Kellogg said there’s another possibility.

If the cross does come down, and is moved intact to another location, the marathon Paulson lawsuit is essentially over. At that point, Kellogg said, City Attorney Mike Aguirre has opined that the city might again look into auctioning off the land to the highest bidder.

Peters is cautiously skeptical about that idea. He pointed out that the city needs a two-thirds majority of San Diego voters to authorize the sale of dedicated public parkland. He said that’s a difficult proposition to sell to voters when nobody knows who the top bidder in is likely to be.

“I can’t really see that happening,” he said. “Who’s going to win that? It’s the condo developers.”

Peters said he doesn’t see the City Council supporting a vote that will replace the cross with a condo project.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the selling of designated public park land in the city of San Diego requires the approval of two-thirds of voters. Designated public parkland does not require such a vote, while dedicated public parkland does.

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