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Whitmore Mansion purchase gets a thumbs up for city
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If everything goes as planned, the city of Ceres becomes the new proud owner of the Clinton Whitmore Mansion on Dec. 14.

It is a Christmas dream come true, given how long the community has been licking its chops to get its hands on the historic home of a historical Ceres figure.

At 8,000 square feet, this is a real estate bargain. The home was built in 1903 by Clinton Whitmore, son of Ceres founder Daniel C. Whitmore. Clinton Whitmore was a shrewd businessman who made his money in farming and real estate development. He was one of the key visionaries who founded the Turlock Irrigation District to bring water to Ceres farmland. Indeed, he may have been the most influential figure in Ceres' history, doing more than anyone in the development of Ceres as a vibrant town and thriving agricultural base.

From this mansion he ran his farming empire. Orchards were right outside off to the east. Back then Ceres didn't expand beyond the mansion.

When Mr. Whitmore died in 1912, the house went to his widow, Maria, who remained there until her death in 1939. The mansion then was inherited by Jennie J. Whitmore Caswell, one of their eight children. The house, with its wide wraparound porch, was commonly used by social circles. When Jennie died in 1966, the mansion went to her brother, Charles Whitmore. He died in 1980 and the mansion then went to Charles' son, Robert Whitmore. When Robert and Edna lived there, the mansion was in a sad state of decline; it was neglected and weather-beaten and looked as inviting as a haunted house. Repeated requests made by me for Mr. Whitmore to show me the inside of the house for a Courier article were turned down. When word came that the house was falling into bankruptcy after internal Whitmore family squabbles, local historians like Homer and Ruth Jorgensen and Caryl Fowler made a gallant attempt to generate $325,000 in cash to buy it. The group felt that the mansion needed historical protection since anyone could have acquired it and leveled it for apartments. Homer Jorgensen's effort fell far too short and the city under then Mayor Barbara Hinton was not interested in going into debt for it.

In 2005 - at the pinnacle of real estate prices - Cary and Nancy Pope paid $1.2 million for the mansion.

Since they took ownership, the mansion has been refurbished to its present glory. It is a true gem of downtown and the Popes deserve the credit. They worked very hard to restore the mansion and grounds. Their effort was also enhanced through the efforts of the 2007 Community Hospice Interior Design Showcase.

Nobody at City Hall really suspected that the city's short sale offer of $375,000 would be ultimately accepted by Bank of America. It seemed like a long shot, at best. Not only did two junior lienholders sign off on the plan, but the bank agreed to sell it to the city for a fraction of what Cary and Nancy Pope paid for it in 2005.

What a sweet deal. The city gets the mansion, the property - including the undeveloped land to the south - to turn it into a park, all paid for by park funds.

But the impending sale has caught the city by surprise, in a sense. Nobody really knows right now what it means to take over ownership of a mansion which has been operated in the red as an event center by the Popes who have been unable to pay the mortgage.

The city has several options. The first option would be to treat the 8,000 square foot mansion as a mere museum piece, much like the city treats the Daniel Whitmore home.

That really wouldn't make sense, seeing how the mansion begs to be used for weddings, community functions, corporate parties and gatherings. It truly is a gem and downtown asset that draws people to Ceres from miles beyond.

It would be a mistake to say - as one lady did to me last week - that allowing the Popes to help run the mansion is a mistake. The truth is that the Popes do well at running the mansion but the economy has taken its toll on bookings. (If you ask me, the going rate of the mansion is a bit steep and could be reduced to make it more competitive.) But it appears that the Whitmore Mansion Foundation is willing to help operate the mansion by itself or through a vendor. Ultimately the city, the foundation and possibly the Popes will best determine how to best put the mansion to use. But if it's anything like the Ceres Community Center, don't look to the city to turn the facility into a money maker.

For sure, the mansion will cost somebody something. Maintenance runs about $18,000 a year, which includes electricity, gas and grounds maintenance. Improvements need to be made to the kitchen, plumbing and electrical system, sprinklers, and exterior restrooms. It's not going to be cheap but then again it costs the city to run parks and the Ceres Community Center. The city needs to consider it all good that the mansion is now protected forever from the prospects of a wrecking ball will ever hit one plank of such a historical asset.