Thompson House: Story of a historic home gone up in flames

At left, the Thompson House as it looked earlier this year; at right, flames engulf the historic structure during a fire on May 13. Photo...

At left, the Thompson House as it looked earlier this year; at right, flames engulf the historic structure during a fire on May 13.
Photos courtesy of Google Maps, Murrieta Fire Dept.

A piece of Murrieta's history was lost last week when a historic building once inhabited by one of the area's pioneer families burned to the ground.

The Thompson House stood for more than a century on the east side of Washington Avenue, next to where the Thompson family once farmed land. Built as a wedding gift for Melville Thompson and Blanche Catt in 1914, it had been unoccupied for decades but was still noticeable to motorists heading north in the 24400 block of Washington, just south of Centerpoint Church.

At about 2 a.m. on the morning of May 13, firefighters responded to the report of a structure fire at what they first believed was the church, according to a Murrieta Fire Department news release. Realizing the abandoned house was on fire, they set up fire streams to protect the church and adjacent trees and power lines. Nineteen firefighters took 30 minutes to knock down the fire, but the structure was a total loss. There were no injuries.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. According to fire chief Scott Ferguson, authorities have had to chase away youths from the property several times in recent years.

And just like that, one of the city's oldest structures disappeared. On the other hand, the incident has uncovered some interesting facts about the family that once lived there and the way life changed on that piece of property over the years. A historical document prepared by local history professor Jean Keller in 2004 tells much of the story of a family virtually forgotten to all but the most ardent history buffs.

The story begins with Henry Clay Thompson, born in 1843 in Hancock County, Ohio. According to Keller's research, Clay's wife Sarah died on the family farm in Kansas in 1883, leaving Henry with six children to raise. Henry packed up the family and headed west, eventually settling in the Alamos area, about seven miles east of what is now Old Town Murrieta.

Clay is listed in the 1897-98 Riverside County Director as a farmer, raising barley and wheat with his sons. He became very active in the community and served as the area's second county supervisor from 1895-1899.

Melville Thompson, a grandson of Clay, was born in 1894 to Miles Thompson and Sarah Buchanan on the Alamos property. Soon after, the family moved to the Washington Avenue property and operated what was then called the H.C. Thompson and Sons Ranch between Juniper and B Streets. It was on that land that an additional home was built in 1914 for Melville Thompson and his bride, Blanche Catt, who were married in 1915.

According to Keller's research, there is some disagreement over whether the Catt family or Thompson family built the house for the newlyweds. It was described in a 2004 City of Murrieta Planning Department document as a "rectangular shaped, one and one-half story, wood-framed, end-gabled Crafstmanesque bungalow, with a double window shed roof dormer." It had clapboard siding and a large front porch area surrounded by a low concrete wall.

This description was provided to Murrieta 24/7 by Paul Swancott, senior planner for the City of Murrieta, from a document prepared in connection with the bid by a developer to purchase the surrounding land.

According to Kassen Klein, Murrieta resident, business consultant and former Planning Commissioner, the plan was to build a commercial development on the land and move the historic house more toward the historic district. The plan fell through, however, and the house remained the way it had since the 1980s, when the last owners moved out.

In its glory days, the house reportedly was a hub of activity for the Thompson and Catt families. Like his grandfather, Melville Thompson became very active in the community, as did his wife.
Melville served as Murrieta Constable in the early 1930s, probably in a volunteer role, according to Keller. Blanche was president of the first Murrieta Public Schools PTA.

The couple reportedly lived in the house until Melville's death in 1945. Afterward, Blanche began transferring properties they had acquired to their children. Many homes in the area remained in family ownership for years afterward. Melville and Blanche's home apparently outlived all the others.

Set back from the street, overshadowed by the large church building next door and partially hidden by large trees, the Thompson House nonetheless could easily be seen at the center of a large field across the street from the Murrieta Valley golf driving range. If indeed it was vandals who caused the fire, they surely had no idea about how much history lived in that house.

"I'm surprised it lasted this long," Keller told Murrieta 24/7. "Several years ago when I was writing that report, I went out there. I notified police that there were gasoline cans inside the house."

City of Murrieta officials are studying plans to revitalize Old Town Murrieta and preserve as many historical sites as possible. Unfortunately, it was too late to save the old Thompson House.

The Thompson House as it looked in 1982, shortly after the last occupants moved out.
Photo courtesy of City of Murrieta 


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