The removal of a century-plus-old cypress tree next to a historic Monterey adobe earlier this month has stirred up the legend of a little boy's ghost haunting the house.
The tree was taken down to its stump Aug. 11.
According to legend, it was planted as a sapling by Manuel Soto on the grave of his 3-year-old son in the front yard of the Lara-Soto Adobe at 460 Pierce St.
Gary Munsinger, who conducts "Ghost Walk of Old Monterey" tours of the city's historic adobes, said the one-story home was built by Soto and his wife, Doña Feliciana Lara, in the 1830s.
"They soon started their family with the birth of a baby boy," he said. "The baby was taken down to the San Carlos Cathedral, baptized as a Catholic, and returned home to live with his parents."
Legend has it that the child was malformed or suffered some sort of disability, and neighbors thought he might be a demon, Munsinger said.
When the toddler died, rather than bury the child in San Carlos Cemetery, Soto buried him in the front yard and planted the tree, Munsinger said.
"The action of burying the child in the front yard led to many rumors of the child's death and put a curse on the home which the Spanish/Mexican people knew as 'malpaso,' an evil path," he said.
"Because of the malpaso, the Lara-Soto Adobe was left abandoned and unkept. Drunks, squatters and outlaws used the adobe for short periods of time," Munsinger said.
Dennis Copeland, city historian and museum, arts and archives manager, has heard a slightly different version of the story. "I have heard a story of a child of either the Sotos or Laras who didn't survive," he said.
He said he plans to research the baptismal records of San Carlos Cathedral. He said Lara had a nephew named Manual Soto.
Munsinger said tax records show no tax had been paid on the adobe property until 1940, when artist Josephine Blanche, curator at the old Del Monte Hotel, bought the adobe and renovated it.
Four years later, author John Steinbeck bought the adobe from Blanche, had a priest exorcise the building, and then moved in.
Munsinger said that while living there, Steinbeck wrote "The Pearl," a story about a Mexican couple losing their young son over a huge, apparently accursed pearl.
"He literally used the legend of the tree" for the story, Munsinger said.
The next owner, he said, was Dr. Harry Lusignan, who used the adobe as his office. But after having weird experiences at night — sounds of footsteps, voices and laughter — he ceased seeing patients there after dark.
"I have had at least three old-timers stop me in town," Munsinger said, "telling me that Dr. Lusignan told them, 'If you get sick, I'll come to your house.'"
The Lara-Soto Adobe is currently owned by Monterey Institute of International Studies and is used as the school's admissions office.
Admissions assistant Laurel Hogan said she has encountered no ghosts while working in the building during the day. "But it's the last place I want to be at night," she said.
The tree roots heaved up part of the brick walkway in front of the adobe in 2009. Munsinger said he was told by a security guard that the bones of a child were found by workmen pulling up the buckled bricks, and then reburied. The sidewalk remains unrepaired.
Another security guard told of going into the adobe at night to use the restroom and hearing laughter, voices and a sound like a copying machine coming from "a pitch-dark room," Munsinger said.
MIIS spokesman Jason Warburg said the institute obtained a city permit to remove the tree three years ago because its age and condition posed a risk of the tree or its branches falling on adjacent buildings, vehicles or passers-by.
"The tree had obviously been there a very long time," he said, and the city arborist said it was "at least 100 years old."
MIIS sought a second opinion from another arborist, who came and looked at the tree at the beginning of summer and recommended that it come down, Warburg said.
"We were sad to see it go," he said. "It's been a significant landmark on campus for a long time. We're trying to use the tree as sustainably as we can."
Smaller branches were chipped for mulch to be used around campus, Warburg said, and bigger pieces of cypress wood were salvaged to make benches, tables and other landscaping features. Some large chunks are preserved and stored in the institute's organic garden on Van Buren Street.