Historical Perspective: Fresno's Van Ness Avenue welcome arch

The Fresno BeeJune 2, 2013 

On the edge of Fresno's old warehouse district stands one of the city's most out-of-the-way, yet most recognizable icons: the Van Ness Avenue welcome arch.

The original arch that went up during World War I came down after a fire a few years later. The one still standing today survived a scrap drive and decades of neglect and is facing an uncertain future, thanks to high-speed rail.

The history of American gateway arches is rooted in the late 1880s and took hold with the emergence of automobile travel. A gateway arch announced to travelers that they had arrived at a special destination.

Most arches incorporate a slogan. Some speak to a state of mind -- think Modesto's "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health." Some are mirthful -- Baker City, Ore., for instance, advises: "Baker Greets You; Enter Without Knocking, and Depart Likewise!" Still others proclaim a city's place. For instance, the sign suspended over Clovis Avenue in Old Town Clovis (technically not an arch because it lacks supporting columns) proclaims: "Clovis, Gateway to the Sierras."

The first version of the Fresno arch was a marketing move by merchants and property owners -- the Van Ness Boulevard Improvement Association. They intended to mark their street as the city's gateway when they proposed the arch in late 1915.

Back then, Van Ness intersected Highway 99 (Railroad Avenue today) and was a natural entry to the city for northbound travelers. With bold, block letters on the arch -- "Entrance to Fresno, Van Ness Boulevard" -- there would be no mistaking where the turnoff had taken them. The arch also beckoned to northbound train passengers.

Architects Edward Glass and Charles Butner designed an arch of hardened concrete finished with stucco, 35 feet tall and anchored by a pair of 8-by-14-foot piers with four Doric columns. The overall span was 54 feet. An "eight-day" clock was set to automatically light the arch, making it visible at night from two miles away. A pair of 20-foot flagpoles sat atop the columns. Originally, plans were made to acquire two statues from the New York building of the Panama-Pacific Exposition to flank each column, but those plans did not materialize, as seen in period photographs.

The arch was finished in 1917 at a cost of $3,000, funded by pledges from members of the Van Ness association and subscriptions from other businessmen and citizens. Around 1925, it was damaged in a fire and torn down.

Today's arch, built around 1929, has a pair of Greek Ionic columns supporting the massive arching steel truss, with Art Deco styling and a simple message: "Fresno, Van Ness Ave."

Time took its toll, though. The new state Highway 99 bypassed the arch, and it fell into neglect. Glass globes that once topped the columns broke and weren't repaired, allowing rain to rust the standards. In 1952, the Chamber of Commerce launched a scrap drive, and Fresno County responded by giving permission for the arch to be torn down for the steel.

Preservationists saved it from the scrap heap, but there was no movement to save it from the elements until the late Frank Caglia, owner of the Electric Motor Shop and some property near the arch, stepped forward. Caglia also restored Warnors Theatre in downtown Fresno.

Caglia got a permit from the county to restore and maintain the arch and started work in November 1979. On Feb. 26, 1980, he turned the arch lights back on.

Along with new paint, Caglia added soft-hued neon lights of red, white and blue and his own words: "The Best Little City in the U.S.A." He didn't neglect the reverse side, which now read: "You Are Now Leaving the Best Little City in the U.S.A." The effort helped place the arch on the Local Register of Historic Places.

In a Fresno Bee story covering the relighting, the Italian-born Caglia answered why he put his own money into refurbishing county property: "I'm an import at birth, and this city has been real good to me. I'm just real happy to be here, and if I had stayed in my little town in Italy, I would never have had what I have now. I just thought it should be done."

The arch faces a new threat today: The proposed route of the state's high-speed rail line through Fresno would cause Van Ness to become a dead end at the archway.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has money set aside for relocating historic monuments. The Caglia family retains the permit to maintain the Van Ness arch, and Sally Caglia -- Frank's daughter -- says she knows a perfect place for it: "The head of the 'opened to traffic' Fulton Mall at Tuolumne Street directly across from Warnors Theatre: two Fresno icons saved and cared for by my dad."

Of course, Fulton Mall isn't open to autos now, but that's Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin's hope.

Caglia says moving the arch makes sense even without the spur of high-speed rail: "Most Fresno folks don't even know it exists or where it is located. ... Moving it to a place of prominence downtown would enhance pride and ownership of Fresno and a sense of 'the heart' of the city."

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