Modesto's historic McHenry Mansion damaged by fire

mrowland@modbee.comDecember 6, 2011 

— Fire burned the front of downtown Modesto’s iconic McHenry Mansion on Tuesday night, causing largely cosmetic damage to the 128-year-old landmark.

The Modesto Regional Fire Authority arrived on scene shortly after 7:30 p.m. to find the mansion’s front porch and entryway engulfed.

It took crews about 20 minutes to put out the blaze and an additional hour to make sure no sparks had spread to any other parts of the wooden structure, said Fire Chief Hugo Patino.

Initial damage was estimated at $200,000, he said, and all the damage is “repairable.”

“All in all, considering the building’s age, we’re pretty lucky that there’s no extensive damage inside the building,” Patino said. “It’s still a tragedy what happened, but at the end of the day, we’re lucky it wasn’t worse. This is such a special building for Modesto.”

Patino said there was no known cause for the fire yet, and an investigation is under way.

The mansion was empty at the time, as all its employees had left for the day. No injuries were reported.

Sprinklers went off in the front of the mansion, and the interior escaped fire damage, said Parks and Recreation Director Julie Hannon.

The entry hallway and grand parlor have some water and smoke damage to the flooring and drapery. There was minor flooding in the basement, but no antiques or other valuables are stored there.

The rest of the mansion’s furnishing, artwork and antiques were unharmed, she said.

“We’ll assess the damage in the daylight again,” Hannon said. “A lot of people love the mansion, and I know this will galvanize the community in support. Beyond the financial damage, this could have had been so much more emotionally and historically damaging for the city if it was worse.”

News of the fire spread quickly in downtown Modesto. Crowds gathered to see for themselves as fire crews worked on the Victorian home. Many onlookers took pictures and video and worried aloud for the building’s safety.

Modesto business owner Pierre Noghli, who has owned Pierre’s Hair Studio across from the McHenry Mansion for 11 years, spotted the flames as he was walking his last customer to her car at 7:30 p.m. He called 911 immediately and ran around the building to see if anyone was inside and to see if there was a way to douse the flames.

“All the Christmas decorations on the front were on fire, the front porch and door were on fire,” he said. “It was so sad to see, so sad. I hope they can repair it.”

Patino said it was a two-alarm blaze, and six engines and two trucks were called, with about 32 firefighters and officials on scene. After the initial fire was extinguished, crews pulled off parts of the facade to make sure it had not spread.

The Victorian’s “balloon construction” makes it easy for fire to move quickly between parts of the building, Patino said. A ladder was brought in to reach the balcony above the porch, and axes and chain saws were used on the paneling.

The house, which dates to the city’s earliest days, was decked out in full Christmas lights and decorations when the fire erupted. It hosted its popular annual Dickens Faire last weekend.

Many who came out to watch the crews fight the fire said they wanted to make sure the McHenry Mansion would be all right.

Modesto native Ed Tobler and his wife, Lyn, who live nearby, said they had to see for themselves when they heard about the blaze.

“I’m relieved that it’s not worse. The firefighters did a great job of stopping it. You can’t replace something like this,” said Tobler, a retired firefighter.

Martha Martin, former president of the docent association for the McHenry Museum, said the fire was an additional blow to efforts to preserve Modesto’s history.

“It’s a cultural icon in our community,” Martin said of the McHenry Mansion. “If it suffers any damage, it affects all of us. It’s a treasured possession for the community.”

The McHenry Mansion built by Robert McHenry and his wife Matilda at the edge of Modesto when it was an unincorporated village of 1,700 residents in 1882-83.

The mansion was empty after the last of its resident moved to the Bay Area in 1919-1920.

The Julio R. Gallo Foundation bought the mansion and donated it to the city in 1976.

Restoration began in 1979 and was completed in 1983, when it was opened to the public.

Lou Friedman, a long-time Modestan, was saddened to hear about the fire.

“The mansion is an important cultural asset and what happened is a tragedy,” he said. “I am confident the people of Modesto will rally together to restore the mansion.”

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at (209) 578-2284.

Raw video from fire

Video report from scene

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