As McHenry Mansion cleanup begins, Modesto investigators search for answers

mrowland@modbee.comDecember 7, 2011 

— The McHenry Mansion will remain closed through February as work began to repair damage from a fire that charred its front entrance Tuesday night.

No cause has been determined for the blaze, which did cosmetic exterior damage to the 128-year-old downtown Modesto landmark. The interior also suffered some water and smoke damage, but no furnishings, antiques or paintings were lost.

Battalion Chief Hugo Patino of the Modesto Regional Fire Authority said the investigation is ongoing and it is too soon to know whether it was caused accidentally or intentionally. Patino estimated initial damage to be about $200,000.

The fire started near the mansion's front door in the entranceway about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. (See video below) Fire crews quickly arrived and had the flames extinguished in about 20 minutes. No one was inside the building and there were no injuries.

"I feel that it is all very manageable. We can get it back to the way it was," said mansion director Wayne Mathes. "We're in really good shape."

Cleaning crews were at the mansion throughout the day Wednesday ripping up the carpet and padding on the ground floor. The fire triggered sprinklers in the front parlor and main hall, and water also spread to the reception room and back parlor. Those carpets were removed and fans installed so the wooden flooring underneath could dry out.

The basement, which had flooded slightly Tuesday night, was drained later that same evening. All the furniture and other furnishings from the affected areas have been moved to other rooms in the mansion or to storage.

Fire crews and museum staff were on site until midnight Tuesday securing the scene and moving valuables out of the affected areas.

The second floor had no damage, other than some lingering smoke smell, which was aired out by opening windows Wednesday.

A fence will be installed around the mansion to secure the building while repairs are made.

The mansion is covered by city's property insurance, which covers all of its buildings. City Risk Manager Mary Akin said all the damage will be paid by the insurance, minus a $50,000 deductible.

The mansion, which is a popular holiday destination for events and tours this time of year, has had to cancel or reschedule all its upcoming events.

The annual McHenry Mansion Foundation Old Fashioned Victorian Christmas Celebration, which was scheduled for Saturday, has been moved to Dec. 17 at the McHenry Museum.

The Christmas Candlelight Tours scheduled for Dec. 15 and 17 have been cancelled. Refunds are available by stopping by the McHenry Museum between noon and 4 p.m. today and Friday.

More than half a dozen school tours of the mansion are in the process of being rescheduled or cancelled.

Rick Grey, a past president and current member of the McHenry Mansion Foundation, said the timing of the blaze during the busy holiday season makes things more difficult.

"The first thing I thought of was, 'Oh my goodness, we are trying to raise funds just to keep the mansion going in the first place without a fire,' " Grey said. "We don't have a lot of money. … We've been trying to figure out a way to raise funds with all the city cuts. So this happened and it took our breath away."

Grey said McHenry Mansion Foundation Christmas party could be turned into a fund-raiser to help with repairs and upkeep. Some 400 to 500 people attend the event each year, which is a thank you to paid mansion members.

McHenry Museum worker Ellen LaCoste fielded calls all day Wednesday about the mansion. The outpouring of concern from the public has been heartening, she said, and many people wanted to know how they could help.

"Many people are in tears. They're emotional," she said. "This has been a very tough thing for everyone. They've been so willing to help. It's very satisfying and makes you feel real good about people in the community coming together."

Mansion officials said they will accept donations for the restoration process.

"This is where the city can really come together and show their support for our city gem," Grey said. "We might be able to turn this lemon into lemonade. This is our Modesto history."

Checks should be made payable to the "McHenry Mansion Foundation" and sent to P.O. Box 642, Modesto, 95353. For more information, call (209) 577-5235.

The McHenry Mansion Visitors Center and Gift Shop at 924 15th St. was not affected by the fire and remains open noon to 4 p.m. Sunday to Friday.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284.

Video report from scene

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