When you tour the downtown Modesto gem that is the McHenry Mansion, any one of the docents can tell you its story, its history and all about the lifestyles of the rich and locally famous McHenry family.
They can detail every one of the property’s owners, from the king of Spain right up to the present, the city of Modesto.
Elaine Crabtree Greydanus, though, takes you to another level, and one that isn’t on the tour. She can describe firsthand what it was like to live in the mansion, and specifically in the mansion’s third-floor apartment that is now used as storage and is not part of the tour.
No, it’s nothing scary like, say, the organ loft in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” But the top floor certainly has a history of its own and left her with some great memories, including the family’s own private fire escape, which we’ll get to momentarily.
Built in 1883 by Robert and Matilda McHenry, the home stayed in the McHenry family until 1936. By that time, it had been converted from a huge, daunting mansion into a 14-unit apartment house.
Greydanus’ grandparents, Luther and Vera Crabtree, were the last private owners of the property before Julio and Aileen Gallo bought it for $150,000 on April 26, 1976 – 40 years ago this month – and donated it to the city that same day. Greydanus lived there with her parents, Derald and Dorothy, and her sister, Juni, from about 1958 until 1964, the same year Greydanus walked as a member of Grace Davis High’s first graduating class. Her dad ran the family-owned Town House motel next door.
Living in the mansion came with its ups and downs that transcended the staircase and its 63 steps from the basement to the top. And it also came with inquiring minds. Their apartment had three small bedrooms (Greydanus overlooked what is now McClatchy Square park), a kitchen, a sky-lit bathroom and the cupola that still crowns the mansion.
“When we invited people to come for dinner,” she said, standing in the remnant of the small kitchen, “everybody came. Nobody ever turned us down because everybody was so curious to see what this apartment, this penthouse, looked like.”
The mansion lacked sprinklers and other fire-safety devices, and some tenants no doubt smoked.
“We were so terrified of fire,” she said, revisiting the “penthouse” last week. “Dad had made a long rope with knots. We were ready to throw it over the balcony (and scale down). One time, my sister and I were going to do it. But it was so far down. ... We were terrified and could not do it.”
She remembers exactly where the rope sat coiled on the floor in the apartment, and they thought for sure they would have to use it one afternoon when smoke wafted throughout the building. The cause? A second-floor tenant barbecuing in his apartment. No kidding.
The building didn’t need flames to make the heat unbearable during the summers, though. It rose through the building and collected in their apartment, which had no air conditioning except for the water cooler her dad installed in the cupola. There were balconies on both sides that, during the 1980s restoration, were covered to hide the plumbing for fire sprinklers and other code upgrades.
“It was always so hot up here,” she said. “But there was a sleeping porch on the second floor, and we’d go down there and sleep. It was quite nice.”
The mirror that adorns the wall today in the mansion’s front parlor came from their apartment.
“I can still see my mother standing in front of it,” Greydanus said. “We practiced our modern dance routines in front of that mirror with friends.”
Other tenants came and went, including a librarian, a woman who worked for a clothing store, a church secretary and others. In fact, every tenant who lived in the mansion when it was an apartment building is listed in Colleen Stanley Bare’s 1985 book, “The McHenry Mansion: Modesto’s Heritage” (McHenry Mansion Foundation Press).
Like most, Greydanus lived there when Modesto’s original downtown still thrived with stores and shops and theaters and diners. Vintage Faire Mall drew the major department stores out north in the 1970s. Montgomery Ward moved near Briggsmore and McHenry avenues.
Her family moved out in 1964, and she eventually married and started a family. Now, she volunteers at the mansion. And like the other docents, she can tell visitors all about the place – the history, all of the previous owners and how Robert McHenry had artists paint the Douglas fir wood used throughout to look like oak – as you tour the first two floors. They can tell you stories of what it might have been like to live in the mansion in the late 1800s. They can tell you about the restoration, and how the building was stripped down to the studs and brought back to its early-day grandeur. And they can tell you how the mansion survived a 2011 fire, rebounded with another restoration and continues to be the gem of the city.
Greydanus’ memories, however, go to another level.