Question: Why did the heirs of Frank and Nellie Short sue to reclaim their parents' mansion, which the Shorts left to the city in the 1920s for a center for the arts?
-- David Davenport, Fresno
Answer: The Colonial-style mansion at Van Ness Avenue and Calaveras Street was called "one of the most beautiful residences in the San Joaquin Valley" when it was built in 1910 by Frank H. Short, a leading Fresno attorney.
Past two-story white pillars, the massive front doors opened onto a long reception hall paneled with tapestries, with a ceiling of richly colored stained glass panels held in place by heavy wood beams.
Frank Short died in 1920 and his wife, Nellie Short, died in 1925. The Shorts were art collectors. In her will Nellie Short left the house to the city for an art gallery, concert and lecture hall. The double lot around the house would be the Frank Hamilton Short Memorial Park.
Her will specified that the house was never to be sold, remodeled or torn down, but if the property was ever returned to the Shorts' estate, it was to be sold and the proceeds invested.
The Fresno County Historical Society and Fresno Forum had offices in the mansion, and the Fresno Art Association and Fresno Camera Club exhibited works in an upstairs gallery.
But in July 1932, an attorney for the Shorts' heirs -- Sanger-area rancher Frank Short Jr. and Nellie's daughter, Mildred Craycroft Hamlin of Berkeley -- asked the city to return title of the mansion because it was not being used as intended and was "not property appreciated by residents of Fresno."
Over the next few years, the city tried to get the heirs to remove restrictions on the house so a county library branch could be built on the land.
The heirs refused. "If the city is to continue to have the house, we are going to see that the terms of mother's will ... are carried out," Frank Short Jr. said in July 1937.
The stalemate between the city and the heirs continued. In October 1938, the heirs filed suit in Fresno County Superior Court against the city to take back the family home. The suit alleged the city had violated the conditions of Nellie Short's will and let the house fall into disrepair.
On Oct. 14, 1938, Judge H.Z. Austin ruled in favor of the heirs, who had agreed to pay the city $5,000 for title to the house.
In 1944, the property was sold for $25,000 to a Fresno builder, who three months later sold it to the First Southern Baptist Church for $50,000.
The church occupied the mansion until about 1954, when the building was sold to I. Magnin's & Co., a high-end women's clothing chain.
The mansion was extensively remodeled, but not fully demolished. Some outer brick walls of the house remain. The building was sold to Bank of America in 1975.
Massive terra cotta lion heads are gone from the grand fireplace that stood at the end of the reception hall, but the fireplace can still be seen in Arte Americas, which bought the building in 1994. Wood carvings and beams above the former reception hall are hidden above a first-floor ceiling installed during a remodel.
Q: Fresno's first skyscraper was the 10-story Griffith-McKenzie building at Mariposa and J Street (later Fulton Street), but who were Griffith and McKenzie?
-- Rus Stolling, Clovis
A: The Griffith-McKenzie building -- now the Helm Building -- was named for Samuel N. Griffith and (posthumously) William H. McKenzie, one of his business partners.
The steel structure was built for $325,000 in 1914 by Griffith and one of McKenzie's sons, Alfred H. McKenzie. Five years later, Fresno historian Paul Vandor called the building "the largest of its kind in the San Joaquin Valley."
Historian Ben Walker called attorney Griffith a "picturesque promoter and visionary of early Fresno." Griffith built the ornate, three-story Temple Bar building downtown, but lost it due to "financial reversals."
Griffith is credited with naming Van Ness Avenue, a downtown area he developed in the 1880s.
McKenzie, born in 1857, grew up on a ranch near Millerton, the stepson of Judge Charles A. Hart.
Fresno's first cemetery was established in 1873 on McKenzie's land, but was soon abandoned due to frequent flooding.
McKenzie was elected Fresno County assessor in 1879, built a brick commercial building in about 1882 and founded the Fresno County Abstract Co. in 1891. He served as city treasurer for 12 years and was involved in farming, mining and the oil business.
McKenzie and Griffith established the Fresno Electric Railway Co. and sold it in 1903. McKenzie died in 1909.
William Helm bought the Griffith-McKenzie building and in 1934 renamed it for his late father, Frank Helm.
Send questions to Paula Lloyd, The Fresno Bee, Fresno, CA 93786; fax to (559) 441-6436. The columnist can be reached at email@example.com
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