A creaky staircase from a back alley in Hanford leads to a temple of treasures.
The only light in the Taoist Temple comes from a single window. Elaborate candle lanterns draped with strings of beads hang from the ceiling. Chairs made of marble and mother of pearl rim the musty room built of brick and wood. Delicate dolls, intricate carvings and Chinese calligraphy fill tables and altars.
This is just amazing. It’s like a time capsule.
The Taoist Temple was used by some of Hanford’s first residents, the Chinese, who helped build the railroad line that runs through the city. It was the first stop on a walking tour through the Hanford Carnegie Museum and Tourist Information Center that Hanford native and Bee photographer John Walker and I enjoyed last week.
The beauty is inspiring.
“I am just fascinated by these people, what they were able to do,” said docent Martha Bentley of the Chinese people who decorated the temple. “They were poor, very poor peasant-type people, and yet they surrounded themselves with all this beauty.”
The museum tours started a few months ago, following in the footsteps of women who used to lead tours as a group called “the showoffs.” They were part of an important movement started in the 1970s that saved many of the city’s historic buildings.
Some were lost, like the original stately Hanford High School buildings – bulldozed and rebuilt with brown blocks to look dreary enough to earn the nickname “the prison.” But many were saved, like the city’s regal courthouse and the mini-castle-like museum.
It’s old and interesting and worth saving.
Camille Wing, Taoist Temple docent
Curator and tour guide Patricia Dickerson informs us that Fresno’s “absolutely stunning” Carnegie museum is now a parking lot – a death sentence Hanford’s museum narrowly missed.
“You don’t tear down something that beautiful and that old,” she said with dismay.
I work in Fresno and have lived in the foothills of Coarsegold for most of my life, but last week was my first trip to this beautiful downtown. It’s not very shocking to Dickerson or a pastor we ran into outside the Star Restaurant, which has been in business since 1901.
“Unfortunately when you say Hanford, people always say, ‘Where’s that?’ ” said Pastor James Purser of Living Word Church. “And yet, you have a grassroots movement here in Hanford where people are proud of Hanford, and they tell their friends and family to come to Hanford.”
Regardless of the problems, there is a loyalty to people and family here. That is what has impressed me.
Pastor James Purser
Dickerson and Walker – another local history buff and producer of The Bee’s award-winning Historical Perspectives series – led me to delightful surprises around every corner, including a beautiful auditorium supported by massive columns inspired by ancient Greek architecture, a working artesian well in the lobby of a hotel, an old opera house, and a beautiful but eerie brick building once used as a jail that I imagine would be prime real estate for Frankenstein or Count Dracula.
As Walker took photos of one of its towers, a woman shouted: “It’s haunted! Well, that’s what people say.”
That’s another thing about this city.
“In Hanford,” Dickerson explained, “if you don’t have a ghost in your building, you don’t have a building.”
But if there are ghosts, I think most are friendly. The city seems to have pretty good vibes. I think of something Bentley told me about the Chinese who routinely paid their respects to long-lost relatives at the Taoist Temple: “As long as ancestors are remembered and honored here on earth, their spirits remain alive.”
Approaching Hanford’s majestic white-brick courthouse, I stopped in awe.
“They wanted to tear this building down?” I exclaimed. “That is insane!”
Inside, we all looked longingly up at a beautiful, stained-glass skylight.
“Isn’t it fabulous?” Dickerson said with a dreamy smile.
In the courtyard outside, we admired the scene again.
No two are the same, and it’s absolutely wonderful.
Patricia Dickerson of some downtown buildings
“It’s so beautiful,” she said. “If only the walls could talk.”
I also learned how the places we passed fit into Walker’s childhood, like a shoe store where he purchased “Beatles boots,” the meeting place of the Kings County Camera Club (also in the unique and spooky former jail), eating ice cream at Superior Dairy, and a photo shoot he did with Hanford native Steve Perry before he was the lead singer for the rock band “Journey.”
(Walker added a joke – which I scribbled seriously in my notebook until I spotted his amused smile – about how Perry got the lyrics for his most famous song from Walker’s imaginary parting words: “Don’t stop believing, hang on to that feeling.”)
With each new memory I hear, the more I hope Hanford’s beloved buildings stand forever.
It is the stories we tell about the places we love that will ultimately protect them. The more we can connect to our neighbors and shared history, the more chances we have at creating lasting and beautiful communities we can take pride in.
“Without your history, you can’t have a future,” Dickerson said. “And if we don’t teach our kids what happened in the past, it will just happen again – and some of it was not so good.”