Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Clark Mansion Fire

The Clark Mansion Fire
A Mysterious Tale of Wealth, Decay, and Haints
The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
August 2010

clark mansion-tiltshift

“The beauty of that jewel in the desert, a relic of Clarkdale's youth, fueled creativity and imagination. I always wished I could see inside and wondered what it was like to live there when it was new.” – Clarkdale resident, artist Sandy Boothe.

The Clark Mansion has been a town landmark since the late 1920s, created in Spanish-Revival style in the native colors of the surrounding desert, and flanked by two towering Italian Cypress. Originally built for William A Clark’s grandson, United Verde Copper Company heir, William Clark III, the house has lived many incarnations since young Clark’s unfortunate death in a nearby plane crash in 1932. During the last part of the 20th century, the 7 bedroom 5 bathroom mansion was leased for residential use, and also utilized as an auxiliary clubhouse and restaurant for the Peck’s Lake golf course. It had been used as a movie set several times, though no one can remember the titles of any of the films.

Over the past 15 years, Peck’s Lake has been in a state of decay mirroring that of the mansion. Once a vibrant part of Clarkdale’s company town amenities, Peck’s Lake was regionally famous for its dance pavilion, fireworks, town picnic, golf course, boat races, and other sporting events. The golf course closed in 1991. The dance pavilion burnt down, and the main clubhouse was vandalized (apparently by horny teens, and satan worshippers from the looks of the graffiti), a hollow shell of its former glory.
By the mid-1990s, the mansion was vacant and the windows boarded up. On January 1st 2004, Phelps Dodge closed off all public access to Peck’s Lake, blocking the road with an earthen dam, and wrapping the entire area, including the mansion, in barbed-wire-topped chain link fencing.

clark mansion 1999

Even in its lonely neglected condition, separated from all of us, sealed off and empty, there remained something majestic about the Clark Mansion. It watched over us all from the edge of town. It glowed in the sunset, and fired up our inspiration. I made paintings and took photos of it. I called it My Dream House and imagined how I would fix it up should it ever miraculously be mine.

clark mansion painting, c. 2002

My friend and fellow Clarkdalian Brandi Lee Cooper said it was haunted--that a “haint” lived out there. Maybe it was dangerous to run past it after dark, and tempt the haint’s wickedness. My fear escalated as Brandi Lee told me the plane crash that claimed young Clark’s life took place in front of his wife’s very eyes, as she watched from the mansion in horror.

Snow day in Clarkdale Arizona

During the pre-dawn hours on June 25th 2010 a new horror happened at the Clark Mansion. Something terrible. Just after 4 in the morning, the mansion, haunted by haints and guarded by cypress, inexplicably began to burn. Quickly the fire grew out of control, with flames hundreds of feet high, according to witnesses, brightly visible from as far away as Jerome. Many called to report the blaze, though by the time the fire crews arrived, a power line had fallen onto the metal fence surrounding the mansion, electrifying it. Unable to spray any water until the electricity was cut, crews had to wait 20 helpless minutes for APS to arrive. The roof, interior walls and floors of the mansion collapsed in the fire, leaving just the heavy concrete exterior walls. According to Paul Peck of the Clarkdale Historical Society, the fire burnt so hot it severely damaged and cracked the remaining walls.

clark mansion and garage 6- 25-10

Like many locals, I slept through all of this, blissfully unawares. It wasn’t until I arrived at work a few hours later, the flames finally extinguished and the mansion still smoldering, that someone alerted me about what had happened, “The Clark Mansion burnt.” Immediately I ran outside to see for my own eyes what couldn’t possibly be true. At first I couldn’t even spot it. Without its red clay tile roof and sentinel cypress trees, it had become invisible, blending in with the color of the nearby earth. Then I saw the wisps of smoke still rising. The Italian Cypress had perished in the blaze (witnesses reporter hearing them “explode”). I burst into messy sobs. How could this be? Who could have been so evil to destroy this precious bit of Arizona history? My dream house! Perished!

lonely clark mansion

Marsha Foutz, an artist and educator, has lived in her historic lower Clarkdale bungalow for 29 years. She included her home in Clarkdale’s first Home Tour specifically to highlight and educate about Clark Mansion by sharing her especially great view of it.
“During the many renovations to my home, I have always kept the view open and focused to the mansion. My studio was built to take in the view of the mansion as much as possible,” says Ms. Foutz, “From my house, I view the mansion many times a day. I have recently discovered that I used to ‘greet’ the mansion each time I saw it. I still get stunned and saddened 10 to 12 times a day as when I look up, there is nobody to greet!”

8 18 10 clark mansion side

She’s always had hopes that the building would be restored. At the time of the fire, the mansion and its surrounding property was in the negotiations between current owner Freeport McMoRan, and local developers Verde Exploration.
Verde Exploration (UVX) reps confirm they had plans to eventually restore the mansion for commercial use. According to Clarkdale mayor, Doug Von Gausig, “Freeport-McMoRan was in the process of trading the building and 5 acres, as I recall, around it for some land that Verde Exploration owns adjacent to the Freeport land near Jerome. The deal would have been finalized about 30 days after the fire.”
This compounds the tragedy. Ms. Foutz adds, “Ironic that it was just going to a group that might have restored it… I've always heard that there were proposals to acquire and use it. The UVX trade might have made a difference in a few weeks. Too little too late for our friend.”

clark mansion- front view -horizontal

Mayor Von Gausig dedicated a recent town meeting to discussing the Clark Mansion, and initiated a resolution to encourage its restoration if at all possible. After all, the Old Town Theater, gutted by a 1998 fire, was able to be salvaged, restored and reopened after several years of renovation as the popular Tavern Grille. Perhaps there is also hope the Clark Mansion may be restored to something even better than its former glory.
“Has the fire been confirmed arson?” I ask.
“We don't know the answer yet,” answers Mayor Von Gausig, “The owner has engaged a structural engineer to assess the condition of the remaining parts of the building, but that assessment hasn't been made yet.” Fire inspectors have been unable to adequately access or assess the structure, due to its current instability. Initial inspection was done using Sedona Fire Department ladder trucks to view interior from the outside. The cause of the fire is confirmed to be of a “suspicious” nature.
“What's the next step?”
“Get the structural report. Then it's up to Freeport-McMoRan to decide what to do with the property,” said Mayor Von Gausig. “The town is on record with a resolution asking that they consider every possible alternative to demolition of the building.”

“NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Mayor, Common Council, and citizens of the Town of Clarkdale, Yavapai County, Arizona strongly urge the owners of the Clark Mansion and all other regulatory, public safety, legal and proprietary interests in the property to take no action that may preclude the possibility of restoring, renovating, or rebuilding the Mansion to its historic form and functionality without first exhausting all possible avenues that may preserve the building in as close to its former condition as possible” – from Resolution 1339, passed July 13th 2010.

front of clark mansion- through fence

“Years of indifference piled upon years of neglect and you get what happened,” said Chris Boothe, another long time resident of Clarkdale, “Yet, like the pyramids, we all wanted it to always be there, the icon, the sentinel, the soul of Clarkdale. I attended the Town Council meeting to support restoring what's left of the [Clark Mansion] but left dismayed to hear it's nothing more than a suggestion to Freeport McMoran. The bleak truth is that the company can raze what's left at any time. Perhaps with enough input from the public they will realize the importance of keeping a bit of Clarkdale DNA.”

Gerhard Mayer, is the CEO of MGL Development LLC, a solar system manufacturer and construction company based in Sedona. He’s lived and worked in the Verde Valley for almost 30 years, and used to golf at the Peck’s Lake course. At the July 13th town meeting, Mr. Mayer spoke passionately in favor of any preservation efforts for the remaining structure of the Clark Mansion.
“We are all stewards of our history and need to preserve our heritage respectfully for all future generations to build on. The Clark Mansion’s destiny was predictable, a building, not the most impressive one of all of Clark`s mansions, but a landmark for the Verde Valley, neglected, unoccupied, vandalized, torched by an arsonist and now facing the ultimate sentence, leveled, rubble for a landfill, erased, history wiped out.”
“We all have an obligation, the owner who neglected the mansion for decades, the city and citizens of the Verde Valley to stop this from happening. When I drive up 89A to Jerome and see a building along the highway being brought back to life from a near rubble, crumbling state, then I think this could be possible for this blackened historic jewel as well.” Mr. Mayer acknowledges such an undertaking would be expensive.
“It will not be cheap, but copper has reached $ 3.18 a pound. Freeport just announced that they are activating some of the dormant mines, the shares are traded at $ 66.06… It should be in the best interest of Freeport to have this mansion restored. What a great PR and image enhancing action.”

Perhaps Ms. Foutz speaks for many locals in calling the mansion fire “a death”.
“A senseless murder most likely. I am much more sad for this death than for the death of my father. My father was cared for. This home was abandoned. And so lonely! Its only friends were the cypress trees and now they are gone too. It was so loved and yet was so isolated!”
I was inconsolable for days after the fire. Even now, a full month later, all the air escapes from my lungs whenever I catch a glimpse of the Clark Mansion’s burnt hulk.
A ghost at the edge of town, a haint lingering in its crooked shadows.

triple clarkdale

If you’d like to lend your support by word or deed in favor of saving the Clark Mansion, please contact the Town of Clarkdale for more information.www.clarkdale.az.us

For photos of the Clark Mansion Fire
visit Doug Von Gausig’s Critical Eye photography site at

Ellen Jo Roberts has a keen interest in vintage architecture, because she wakes up in a historic Clarkdale Arizona bungalow every morning. She also likes other assorted old stuff like neon road signs, air-cooled Volkswagens, cassette tapes, and antique cameras. Read all about it at www.ellenjo.com