Fire razes former Donner home |

Fire razes former Donner home

Jenny Goldsmith
Nevada Appeal News Service
Photo by Craig Allyn Rose/San Jose Fire Dept. Firefighters battle a blaze in July that gutted the Victorian-era home where Eliza Donner of the ill-fated Donner Party lived. The building had been converted into apartments, but in recent months was deserted and boarded up.

SAN JOSE, Calif. – One hundred sixty years after the Donner Party met with unthinkable hardship on their journey to California, fire has consumed the Victoria-era home where a survivor of the ordeal resided in San Jose.

In the early morning hours of July 19, a fire swept through the structure last known as the Allen Apartments, leaving behind only charred remnants of the San Jose city landmark.

The building once housed a San Jose mayor, Sherman Otis Houghton, and his wife, Eliza Donner Houghton.

Eliza was one of five daughters of George and Tamsen Donner, who starved to death when a Sierra Nevada blizzard trapped the California-bound pioneers in 1846-47.

“Eliza Houghton is a significant personage in the history of San Jose, as well as the State of California, as a surviving member of the Donner party,” said San Jose planning official Joseph Horwedel in a city council memorandum.

The historical site, which recently had been boarded up and home to squatters, was completely engulfed in flames when fire crews arrived, according to San Jose Fire Department officials.

City leaders designated the Donner home as a landmark in 2001 because of its architecture and historic significance.

“We’ve suffered a huge loss of early California history,” said Sally Zarnowitz, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer. “The lack of sprinkler systems in these fragile, historical spaces is a real problem.”

After reviewing the structural damage, building inspectors determined the house should be demolished to protect public health and safety.

The demolition process began in early September and was conducted in phases in order to continue fire investigation and for salvage efforts, said city officials.

“As they took it apart, they were able to preserve the side and front facade, but we don’t know at this point whether the owner will relocate the pieces,” said Zarnowitz.

San Jose officials are exploring options to strengthen the city’s preservation efforts and better address the vulnerability of these irreplaceable properties, Horwedel said.