A piece of Alviso history just went up in flames—and some locals wonder if the blaze could’ve been prevented.
The historic H.G. Wade Warehouse in Alviso was destroyed after a fire broke out in late June. For residents struggling to preserve the spirit of a neighborhood that predates the Civil War, the loss of one of their oldest landmarks is a bitter blow, made worse by their unsuccessful efforts to get San Jose to take better care of it.
“It’s been in disarray for years,” said Richard Santos, a director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District whose family has lived in Alviso for more than a century. “I’ve written and called in (about it) numerous times.”
The cause of the fire that destroyed the vacant warehouse on June 25 remains unknown. Erica Ray, spokesperson for the San Jose Fire Department, said the agency’s arson team is investigating the fire.
The warehouse was built in 1860 by H.G. Wade, a merchant who arrived in the South Bay after a journey that reportedly included a harrowing trek through Death Valley. Originally used to store hay and feed, the warehouse later housed stage coaches and trucks, but it fell into disuse in the mid-20th century. In 2003, San Jose granted the Wade Warehouse official status as a historic landmark, making it one of just six buildings in the Alviso neighborhood to receive this designation.
Councilmember David Cohen, whose district includes Alviso, told San José Spotlight that the fire represented a sad loss for the community.
“Our hope is to preserve these historic structures,” Cohen said. “This warehouse was one of the landmark locations of the Alviso neighborhood.”
Alviso is one of the oldest ports on the West Coast, first identified as a favorable site for shipping by non-native settlers in the late 18th century. By the 19th century, it was a major commercial shipping hub for the Santa Clara Valley, and a freight link between San Francisco and the rest of the South Bay. Businesses built warehouses along the waterfront, including the Wade building. In 1968, Alviso lost its status as an independent town after it was annexed and incorporated by San Jose.
Santos and other residents passionate about the historic legacy of Alviso said San Jose has never paid much attention to developing Alviso’s infrastructure or preserving its past. They characterized the destruction of the warehouse as a scandal born out of the city turning a blind eye to the problem.
“It’s a huge loss,” said Russ Robinson, senior commodore for the South Bay Yacht Club, another historic site. Robinson said he complained to the city after he saw people who appeared to be squatting in the warehouse, and a solar panel erected next to the building. He said the city was unresponsive.
“Nothing ever got done,” Robinson said.
Ben Leech, executive director of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, said his organization conducted a walking tour of Alviso just a few days after the fire. The fire gutted the building, but he said the name H.G. Wade is still visible, spelled out on clinker bricks.
“We have long hoped that somebody would look at that site with a little bit more creativity, and sort of be able to revitalize it in ways that Alviso desperately needs,” Leech said.
It’s not clear who was responsible for the upkeep of the Wade Warehouse. Cheryl Wessling, a spokeswoman for the San Jose Planning Department, said in an email that the property is owned by a trustee named Sandra L. Anderson. Public records show that Anderson is a manager or member of Pellegrini Properties LLC, a real estate investment firm located in Discovery Bay, CA.
The loss of a historic building in San Jose is unfortunately not uncommon. Leech said the city loses historic buildings to fires at a consistent rate, noting as an example the fire that heavily damaged the 125-year-old Lawrence Hotel just a few months ago, and the conflagration that destroyed IBM’s historic Building 25 in 2008.
“You can mitigate (fire risk) by not leaving buildings vacant for long periods of time, which is definitely the challenge in Alviso,” Leech said.
Paul Boehm, chair of the San Jose Historic Landmarks Commission, mourned the loss of the Wade Warehouse, which he described as one of the most significant landmarks in Alviso. Other historic structures in Alviso have been preserved, but Boehm said they’re not always maintained.
“This fire is just an example of what can happen if buildings are not protected,” Boehm said.
People who own historic landmarks may not be aware of resources to fix up their properties. In California, local governments can offer financial incentives to property owners to restore and preserve historic buildings through the Mills Act Program, Boehm said.
But if a property owner declines to maintain a property, there’s little San Jose can do about it.
“If a property owner has made a decision that they don’t want to take care of something or they can’t… and they don’t want to apply for financial incentives, the city has a limited ability to coerce them,” Boehm said.
Leech said he hoped that whoever bears responsibility for the building will decide to restore what’s left of it.
“In a perfect world… we’d be looking at are there ways we can keep what is there,” Leech said. “Even after a fire, it’s not necessarily a total loss unless a legitimate engineer says otherwise.”