Flames devour city history

A fire early Sunday at the former John Muir schoolhouse on East Morris Avenue destroyed about half the historical artifacts owned by the city of Modesto, according to the city cultural services manager.

Ball gowns and wedding dresses dating to the 1800s. A championship-winning bow and arrow set from the 1930s. The entire McClure family furniture collection, from bedroom sets to parlor sets. Cane, camera and medical collections. Branding irons, saddles and paintings. Five pianos, including a nine-foot grand piano that belonged to the Hogan family. A carousel horse. And countless other relics too numerous to list.

"I am in shock," said Wayne A. Mathes, the cultural services manager, who is in charge of the McHenry mansion and museum and the city's Landmark Preservation Commission. "There were things that were just totally irreplaceable. It's all gone. There is just nothing left."

Mathes said he could not hazard a guess about the value of the destroyed items. The building itself, which stood next to T.B. Scott Park at 800 E. Morris Ave., was ruined. The park is about seven blocks east of McHenry Avenue.

Neither fire officials nor James E. Niskanen, the Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods director, could estimate the financial damage to the structure, which was built in 1923.

Though the building's brick walls were standing Sunday, the roof and interior were destroyed.

The Modesto Fire Department received a call about the fire at 1:23 a.m, said Battalion Chief Mark Johansen.

He saw heavy smoke billowing from the building's upper windows. Light flames were visible as well. Firefighters tried to knock back the blaze but were unsuccessful. They decided to take a defensive approach, surrounding the building so the fire would not spread and spraying water on the flames.

The brick construction made the building unstable, Johansen said, so he kept firefighters at a distance after deciding no one was inside. Flames leapt 50 feet in the air, singeing treetops near the roof.

Chrystal Palmer, 18, saw the flames from Bodem Street about 2 a.m. and walked to the park with a friend for a closer look. Sitting on a bench, they saw boarded-up windows burst into flames as the roof collapsed.

"I couldn't believe it," said Palmer on Sunday afternoon, as a firefighter on a ladder more than two stories high sprayed a stream of water into the building's charred remains. "I used to hang out at this park all the time. Now, to see the building's gone, I can't believe it."

Six fire engines, two trucks, 26 firefighters, four chiefs and two safety officers battled the three-alarm fire through the night. Observers saw flames until 11 a.m. By Sunday afternoon, just a few firefighters remained to keep the building wet and watch for flare-ups.

The cause of the fire is unknown, Johansen said. Because of the building's instability, it likely will stay that way; investigators won't be able to get inside to perform a thorough examination.

The building had, however, suffered numerous intrusions from transients and vandals, officials said. The city had boarded up the upper windows and put metal mesh over the windows downstairs for security.

"It's pretty tough to say if it was arson," Johansen said. "We really don't know."

The stately brick building, surrounded by sycamores and pines, was one of the city's few remaining historic structures. It was an elementary school until the 1950s, when it was declared unsafe for students and teachers in case of an earthquake.

Ray Gada, 76, remembers running to school from his home on Castle Street in the 1940s when Castle stopped at Lucern Avenue. The city limit was just across the way and apricots blossomed to the north and east. Where Lucern now runs, horses grazed.

Modesto bought the building in 1953 for $18,000 and turned it into the Community Service Center.

The Girl Scouts and United Way had their headquarters there. The Modesto League of Women Voters was an early renter. Families used the space for events, and nearby voters cast their ballots in the high-ceilinged, musty building.

A consultant for the city estimated in 2000 that it would cost $1.6 million to fix the building, add heat and air conditioning, and make it earthquake-proof. At that time, the city took in $7,700 in rent a year and spent $82,000 for custodial services, utilities and insurance.

In 2003, the city decided to close the building to the public.

Firefighters and police continued to use the building for training, officials said. Police practiced SWAT team exercises, building searches and how to handle barricaded suspects, said Assistant Police Chief Mike Harden. Some exercises took place within the past few months.

The city was in the beginning stages of selling the parcel of land beneath the building, Niskanen said. The agreement specified that the building would be sold "as is," so Niskanen wasn't sure how the fire would affect any sale. City building inspectors will meet today to determine how to proceed with the building's removal. A chain-link fence and 24-hour surveillance will keep the space secure in the meantime, he said.

Cultural Services Manager Mathes said he will work on inventorying the losses for the insurance company. For now, he said, visitors shouldn't expect many surprises in the McHenry exhibits.

"For example, there's the clothing we have on display, but I don't have any way to change," said Mathes, who wasn't thrilled with the idea of finding replacements for what was lost. "Yeah, we can find a replacement piano, but it wouldn't be the one with the local connection."

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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