“The Most Historic Building in San Jose” burns to the ground

By Jennifer Emmer, Fierce Preservationist

Houghton Donner House, in better days

The Houghton-Donner Family, on the front porch of their glorious Victorian, late 1880s. This view is of its original location ~ the corner of Julian and North Third Street, San Jose, CA. It was moved to its present location in 1909.

On July 19th, an irreplaceable piece of San Jose history went up in flames.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA: The 126-year-old Houghton-Donner House, built for a member of the Donner party succumbed to fire, turning centuries worth of California and San Jose history, and at least a decade worth of contentious redevelopment arguments, into ashes.

Personally, I am deeply saddened by the loss of the house, as I was present for many discussions of its fate during Preservation Action Council meetings in San Jose at the Petit Trianon, another downtown beauty.

The Houghton Family, late 1800's

The Houghton Family, late 1800s

By the time firefighters arrived shortly before 4 a.m., the “highly suspicious” blaze had fully engulfed the Houghton-Donner House on North Fourth and East St. John streets. Preservationists and developers later tried to carefully dismantle the 5,000-square-foot home’s charred facade to see if it could be saved and incorporated into other buildings.

The house is considered by some to be “the most historic building in San Jose,” Fire Chief Guerrero said. The investigation into what sparked the blaze is ongoing.

The house was built in 1881 for Eliza Donner – a survivor of the Donner Party, a group of early California settlers caught in a deadly blizzard in 1846 trying to cross the Sierra – and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, San Jose’s fourth mayor, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil War and a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The home embodied the Victorian architecture of the time and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

The Houghton-Donner House, Before

The Houghton-Donner House, Before

Not only was the building a significant piece of California history, it was an aesthetically pleasing part of the urban fabric of downtown. It always looked a little sad, not being used to its full potential. However, the building did receive an attractive “painted lady” paint job, while it languished.

The Houghton-Donner House, After

The Houghton-Donner House, After

San Jose police were the first to arrive on the scene, escorting squatters from the building. While some older downtown homes have been expensively rehabilitated, others are largely vacant except for homeless people who sneak into the buildings at night and apparently set fires for heat and cooking.

Fire Chief Guerrero said he considered the fire to be suspicious, due to the fact that the Victorian was boarded up with no electricity and no gas. Police had received complaints about squatters using the Houghton Donner House after Keith Watt sold it in 2005.

Both Henry Cord, a representative of current owner Tony Baig, and former owner Keith Watt said they had done everything possible to keep unwelcome people out of the home. Although the windows were boarded up, people apparently continued to break in.

Why does San Jose leave its historic homes vacant for so long, turning them into attractive shelters for squatters?

The plan to make the home a “vibrant place where people live” was moving forward, Cord said. Ironically, a meeting about moving the home to the Hensley Historic District had been scheduled for Thursday. [Current owner] Baig wanted to move the home farther north on Fourth, rehabilitate it and turn it into condos.”

I’ve been working for a year and half to two years trying to save the house,” Cord said. Keith Watts and the Preservation Action Council vigorously fought a 2002 city proposal to move the home to the Hensley District to make room for a parking structure on the corner of Fourth and St. John. Although they eventually stopped the plan, the fight drained the money that Watts had planned to use to rehabilitate the home. He ultimately sold it.

[From the Mercury News, 7/20/2007]

The Houghton-Donner House front porch, in better times

The Houghton-Donner House, in better times

Cord spent at least a year and half working with community groups to gain support for the renewed idea of moving the home. The application to do so is currently on file with the city.

“It has been a real hot potato,” Bellue said. But Cord believed he had the city and community support necessary to make the move this time. Baig made concessions to community demands, agreeing to keep the house as a home instead of turning it into commercial real estate. Bellue said the Preservation Action Council has remained opposed to moving the building but had been rethinking its stances in recent years.

For more on what can be done in light of the fire, see: http://www.sanjoseca.gov/planning/Historic/

Historic Route 66 Motels make the “11 Most Endangered Places 2007”

Route 66 Motel

Route 66 Motel

Affectionately called “The Mother Road,” Route 66 is known for quirky roadside attractions and unique mom-and-pop motels, constructed between the late 1920 and late 1950s and often clad in neon. In recent years, Route 66 motels in hot real-estate markets have been torn down at record rates, while in cold real-estate markets, motels languish and are being reclaimed by the forces of nature.


Stretching more than 2,000 miles from Lake Michigan to the Santa Monica Pier and passing through the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Route 66 reflects the 20th century evolution of transportation and tourism in the United States. In its early years, the highway facilitated large-scale settlement of the west, saw the desperate migration of Dust Bowl refugees and World War II troop movements, and played a major role in the advent of car culture and automobile tourism. In the postwar era, Route 66 symbolized unprecedented freedom and mobility for every citizen who could afford to own and operate a car. The development of the interstate highway system brought the glory days of Route 66 to an end, and one by one, communities were bypassed and lost their economic lifeline. The final decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985, coincided with a renewed appreciation for this American icon, and recognition that the remaining significant structures, features, and artifacts associated with the road should be preserved.

Over the past decade, private property owners, nonprofit organizations, and local state, federal and tribal governments have worked together to identify, prioritize, and address Route 66 preservation needs. Included in these efforts through an Act of Congress in 1999, the National Park Service was directed to administer the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program that works with partners in preserving and continuing the use of the most representative and significant historic properties along the route.


Many historic Route 66 motels are threatened by the compound forces of long-term deferred maintenance and obsolescence while others fall to the lure of cash to demolish and convert valuable real estate into upscale developments. Motels in expanding urban areas are subject to development pressures associated with sprawl.


Local governments need to develop policies and financial incentives to support motel properties and businesses. Some historic motels have been successfully rehabilitated and maintained in their original use. The Munger Moss in Lebanon, Missouri, and the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico are examples of motels that cater to a growing base of heritage tourists looking for an authentic Route 66 experience. These motels offer models of “best practices” that others can emulate. Most importantly, the traveling public from the United States and abroad can directly support the heritage of Route 66 by patronizing its historic motels and related roadside attractions.

What you can do

[Reprinted from the National Trust Website, August, 2007]

Grassroots Effort Needed to save the Belleview Biltmore on Florida’s Gulf Coast

[Reprinted from National Trust for Historic Preservation website, July 21, 2006]

The Owners Want to Tear it Down for Condos

BELLEAIR, FLORIDA: High-rise condos overlooking Clearwater Harbor on Florida’s Gulf coast are the type of development you would expect to see in the state. However, when a multi-million-dollar project called for destroying one of the state’s most elegant century-old hotels in Belleair, Fla., locals spoke out against another 600 condos and a new hotel.

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

Built in 1896 by railroad and steamboat baron Henry B. Plant, the Belleview Biltmore Hotel originally had 500 rooms and was built in three sections, each 400 feet long, with broad verandas. During World War II, the U.S. Army moved in 3,000 soldiers for two years and painted over its Tiffany stained-glass windows and brass fixtures. It has hosted Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and to Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

Longtime residents were appalled that the grand hotel that once played host to presidents would be demolished. Last month, their voices were heard when the Belleair town council voted unanimously in early May to delay the demolition as leaders of a citizens group continue to negotiate the purchase of the 21-acre site with owner Belleview Biltmore Resorts, Ltd.

“We now have four commissioners all rowing the boat in the same direction,” says Rae Claire Johnson, president of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, which is the leading the fight to save the Victorian structure.

Even with the demolition postponed for now, others warn that the fight is not yet over. “Delaying the decision on that application is not a flat-out denial,” says Belleair Town Manager Steve Cottrell. “It is deferment of a major development.”

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

With that in mind, the National Trust announced yesterday that the Belleview Biltmore is one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

“Everyone needs to stay involved until we have ensured that the hotel is protected by the full weight of intelligent public policies, strong local ordinances, and other legal tools such as conservation easements,” says Sam Casella, a professional planner who joined the fight to save the property. “The hotel may be given a reprieve, and the next months and years will determine whether we can make the most of it.”

Johnson would like to see the creation of a for-profit company that can take advantage of historic-tax credits for the renovation, which would include taking down two dilapidated four-story buildings with small rooms. They would be rebuilt and sold as condo hotel units so the revenue could be used to purchase and rehabilitate of the property, she says. After five years, it would be turned over to the nonprofit Friends of the Belleview Biltmore.

“We have offered the owners $40 million, and they want $50 million, so we are negotiating right now,” Johnson says. “I think they know now that I’m not just a little housewife with a cause.”

Reaching that point in this tiny town of 4,500 took some doing. Preservationists started fighting to save the thriving hotel that was once known as the “White Queen of the Gulf” last fall. After last summer’s hurricanes, more than 320,000 square feet of the roof of the four-and-a-half story hotel was covered with tarps, and the owners, Belleview Biltmore Resorts Ltd., made no effort to repair it. As Johnson sees it, the owner wanted to let the hotel deteriorate to support their claim that it had to be demolished. “I think it was their intention to run it into the ground,” she says.

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

Coupled with that were reports that the DeBartolo Development of Tampa had a contract to buy the property to tear down the historic property and build a smaller hotel and condominiums on 22 acres.

So this spring, Johnson and two other candidates ran against the commissioners who were up for re-election. According to Johnson, the Belleair Citizens for Truth spent $50,000 “to defeat us,” and she believes most of money came from the developer.

Even though Johnson lost the election, she didn’t back down when owners filed for a demolition permit on April 21. That’s when the National Trust for Historic Preservation was called into the fracas. National Trust President Richard Moe called the owner in an effort to negotiate a deal to save the resort, which includes a pool and golf course.

“There has been an incredible grassroots mobilization,” says Mary Ruffin Hanbury, who oversees Florida’s historic-preservation efforts from the National Trust’s Southern Office. “There’s a lot of people we have not usually heard from in Florida that were just aghast that this could happen. Our regional office has been bombarded about this issue.”

Belleview water view

Belleview water view

A hotel in excellent condition is rarely a candidate for demolition. The Belleview Biltmore’s last rehabilitation was in the 1990s, when Japan-based Mido Development spent $10 million on renovations and added a Chinese restaurant. Residents were shocked when the company installed a Pagoda-like entrance, which they nicknamed “Godzilla.” Upset by the Oriental décor, Johnson and others refuse to use that entrance. “A lot of us only go in the original front porch, which is now the rear of the hotel,” she says.

Many locals still visit the ice cream parlor or have a drink at St. Andrews Pub, and the hotel is still used for social gatherings like weddings and afternoon teas. “This is the largest wood-frame building in the state, and it still maintains a great deal of integrity,” Hanbury says. “It would be a tragedy to lose it. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”