Historical Perspective: Hart's restaurant thrived during tough times

The Fresno BeeJuly 13, 2012 

In the depths of the Great Depression, a pair of restaurateurs and a visionary young architect produced a landmark eatery that lit up downtown Fresno.

In 1935, brothers William and Henry Hart were looking to build a bigger and grander version of the Fulton Street lunchroom they'd opened nearly 20 years earlier. They knew success; they also had restaurants in Sacramento and Stockton, and all did well, even in a gloomy economy.

The Harts wanted to offer the latest in restaurant aesthetics and amenities. For the design, they enlisted Ernest Kump Jr., a 25-year-old draftsman working in the office of Fresno architect Charles Franklin. Kump was a passionate modernist who'd been introduced to the style by German architects at Harvard University.

The new location, at 2030 Tulare Street between the old Fresno Republican and Patterson buildings, was where the turn-of-the-century former Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. building stood.

Construction began in mid-1935 after the old building was demolished. Property owner Milo L. Rowell invested $25,000 for the new building.

Kump's architectural style for Hart's: the bold and flamboyant Streamline Moderne, a sub-type of the popular Art Deco. This lavish style featured clean, aerodynamic pure-line forms. The modernist movement in architecture implied freedom, speed and efficiency.

It was the same sense evoked by automobiles, airplanes, ocean liners and trains of the time, with smooth surfaces, rounded edges and horizontal highlights. In the middle of the Depression, Streamline Moderne presented a positive, forward-looking outlook.

The new two-story building had a facade of terra cotta tile, a sweeping aluminum awning, and a great deal of something else just coming into vogue: neon. Featured prominently was a nearly 9-foot-square art deco clock above the entrance. The blazing display, made by John McKenzie at his Fresno Neon Sign Co., was said to be the largest at the time in the San Joaquin Valley.

The grand opening was April 8, 1936, and more than 4,000 people attended. They were introduced to the latest in restaurant innovations, including a first in the Valley -- a "magic eye" automatic door opener. Among the other amenities: a large water fountain with constantly flowing ice water and carbonated water and a smaller version for children. A 2-ton air conditioning unit gave relief from the summer heat.

Another innovation was the way orders were relayed to the kitchen. There was no shouting orders to the cook; instead servers used a microphone system to keep the noise level down.

The staff of 45 wore sharp yellow and brown uniforms. Up to 350 customers could be seated, with private dining rooms on the second floor.

The main attraction was the food. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Hart's offered cafeteria-style food, as well as a soda fountain with sandwiches, burgers and milkshakes. A bakery, featuring golden-brown glazed donuts, was a favorite through the years.

Sally Caglia remembers eating there as a child with her family after Sunday Mass.

"The meat loaf was to die for," she said. "They were famous for their fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and their yummy biscuits."

A favorite of her mother's was the bread pudding, and they'd order a half-dozen baked apples, one of Sally's favorites, to take home.

Fresh local produce was on the menu daily as well. Breakfast was bountiful, with waffles, pancakes, eggs, bacon and fresh fruit among customer favorites.

The Harts prided themselves on creating a homey atmosphere. Old timers recall spending hours there socializing, eating home-style food, drinking coffee and reading the paper.

Ray Ensher, who sold newspapers in front of Hart's in the '50s as a kid, described it as an exciting, bustling place in the heart of the city. He recalled the "cosmopolitan mix of individuals, a real ethnic mix, of all walks of life, who would frequent the restaurant.

"There was the bag lady and the dressed-up business patrons on a regular basis," Ensher wrote in a letter recently. "You would see groups of patrons meeting every day at Hart's to socialize.

"The cafeteria style provided a daily change of entrees and jellos and puddings. It was a fun place to be in Fresno and everybody knew each other since Fresno was smaller then."

In 1956, the Harts sold out to Joseph F. Desmond, who was the manager for eight years. A kitchen fire in 1959 shut Hart's down for about a month, the first time it had ever been closed. When it closed for good in 1968, it was Fresno's oldest eatery, after 52 years of operation.

The building, along with the old McMahan's furniture building (formerly the site of the Fresno Republican newspaper), was razed in 2004.

Full story and photos

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