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History Ablaze: Historic Hotel in Fremont Burns

by Dennis Rockstroh, SJ Mercury News Staff Writer

Published: Monday, December 21, 1992

Fremont's historic A.A. Cohen Hotel is no more.

It was destroyed early Saturday in a raging fire that shot flames 100 feet into the air.

"Flames were visible from Grimmer Boulevard and Auto Mall Parkway two miles away," fire department spokesman Dennis Satariano said.

The two-alarm fire, reported at 2:49 a.m., destroyed all of the French-style roof and gables, the third floor and most of the second floor, leaving only the charred walls of the first floor. The fire was under control at 4:16 a.m.

Fire investigators said the blaze started near the fireplace and may have been ignited by someone living in the building who was trying to keep warm.

The circa-1850 hotel just off Stanford Avenue in Warm Springs was awaiting demolition to make way for luxury homes. But members of the historical society were hoping to save parts of the building when it was demolished.

''I'm sick about it," said Cecilia Weed, president of the Washington Township Historical Society. When she visited the building recently, Weed said, there was evidence that people were living there. "I wanted to save the whole front, the trim on the windows and the windows. It had beautiful windows."

The three-story, white-with-red-trim hotel -- the only surviving building from a 19th-century spa -- was part of the first hot springs resort on the West Coast. When it opened in the early 1850s, it catered to the elite of the new state of California.

When Frenchman Clement Columbet opened the spa, there were 10 buildings on both sides of Aqua Caliente (Warm Springs) Creek. Springs fed warm soda-, borax- and sulfur-enhanced water into the basement baths of six buildings.

Since the time of the Ohlone, people bathed in the warm springs that gave the area its name. Spanish explorers washed their clothes there.

In its heyday, the spa attracted the likes of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California; Sen. George Hearst of the newspaper empire; Domingo Ghirardelli of the chocolate family; and Adolph Sutro, mayor of San Francisco and owner of a competing bath at the Cliff House.

The spa's life was cut short in 1868 when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake shattered the East Bay along the Hayward Fault.

Later owned by the Stanford family, the ranch once was considered a possible site for Stanford University.

More recently, the ranch was rented out for company and group picnics, and the hotel housed a bar and Mexican restaurant.

In the past five years, there have been sputtering attempts to save the building, but they all failed and the structure was approved for demolition.

In recent weeks, the Fremont Fire Department had conducted drills there but did not set any fires.

Frankel Enterprises plans to build 18 houses on the 23-acre Hidden Valley Ranch.

Because the remains of the building were unstable, city officials Saturday ordered the rest of the building razed immediately.

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