MODESTO — Whenever a piece of history burns or otherwise is destroyed, it's gone.
Yes, you can replicate it, but the authenticity is lost. That feeling you're really stepping into the days of yore disappears.
Damaged severely by fire on Monday, the Columbia House certainly wasn't Columbia State Historic Park's oldest building. Rebuilt or renovated using wood sometime in the 1930s, it was a recent addition when compared to the brick buildings that still dominate the Gold Rush-era town. Still, it became an integral part of the community the only restaurant regularly operating on the town's main street.
Authorities arrested a 21-year-old man on a variety of charges including arson while the Columbia House still smoldered.
If you've ever been to Bodie, the weathered and listing ghost town on the windswept slopes of the eastern Sierra, the allure is a walk back into history. Wooden buildings that survived the 1932 fire are propped up to prevent them from further decay. You're left to imagine the whining of the mining machinery, the hustle and bustle of the streets, the Chinatown, the din of the saloons and even the gunfights on the main street all because the buildings are original. Life, harsher than most visitors today can envision, really happened there.
Same goes at Columbia, except that there's nothing bleak and desolate about it. It's alive a place where people go to work in period dress. The exhibits themselves are the stores, shops, saloons, livery stable and stagecoach that depict life in the Gold Rush era because, it, too, really happened there.
Now, the state and Columbia House proprietors Steve and Doreen Kwasnicki will sift through the process of rebuilding the restaurant.
Greg Martin, the park superintendent, said he hopes they can reopen next door in Angelo's Hall, the part of the building that survived the blaze.
"It's a possibility in the interim," Martin said, assuming the kitchen can be quickly brought up to code.
Soon, an engineer will inspect the Columbia House to determine what, if anything, is salvageable. And the rebuilding could include materials salvaged from other buildings of that era.
"There are cultural considerations," he said. "It's in a state park and it's in a national historical landmark district. We have to consider the history look."
It's too important not to be rebuilt, said Claudia Carlson, owner of the Columbia Mercantile store.
"But it won't be the same," she said. "It's devastated all of us. It has so many memories for the people growing up here."
Memories of the dinners, dances in Angelo's Hall, the street dances and pit barbecues with the building as the centerpiece. Folks who simply sat out front on the covered porch to escape the sun, rain or snow.
The last thing a living history park like Columbia needs is an empty space where a historic building once stood.
In 1970, fire destroyed a livery stable in the middle of downtown Sonora. The building had been converted to an auto dealership in 1916, as the horseless carriage replaced the horse and buggy.
Now, it's a park with a plaque.
Same with the old Chinatown on Sonora's Stewart Street, flattened and turned into a parking lot in the 1960s. A monument now tells of that era.
In Modesto, last year's fire at the McHenry Mansion threatened the city's greatest historic gem. Curator Wayne Mathes, who oversaw the mansion's first restoration in the mid-1970s, understood the need to keep some of the original parts to use as references when the replicas were fashioned.
While the Columbia House isn't nearly as ornate as the Victorian mansion, replicating it won't be easy, Mathes told me. He's been in the restaurant many times.
"It's not that detailed," he said. "Wooden mouldings, beadboard ceilings. The light fixtures were period-looking, but not original. There were times I went in there when there were a number of antiques. But the last time I was there, I got the feeling there weren't that many."
"They have no clue of what they'll be confronting unless they have state people who are willing to move on it," he said. "I hope they rebuild it. I can't imagine it not being there. It's part of the character of the the place (the state park) part of the whole charm."
Part of the past and part of Columbia's future if they can rebuild it to look like its old self.
Still, it won't be the same. It can't be. It will be a new place in an old setting, and it could take several decades before it exudes that Gold Rush-era atmosphere again.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.