“Death in the Afternoon” is how The Fresno Bee described it.
In the chronicle of Fresno County history, one iconic image has stood out. This was Carl Crawford’s capture of history crashing down on April 7, 1966, the day the Fresno County Courthouse dome crumpled to the ground.
Crawford was a 29-year-old photographer for The Bee when he was dispatched to capture the end of the 92-year-old Fresno County Courthouse dome.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES: An occasional series
He was armed with a 35mm Nikon F camera, mounted with a medium range 135mm lens, and equipped with an early (and unreliable) motor drive. Former Bee photographer Richard Darby said each time the camera/motor drive combination was used, problems occurred, and it was shipped off to Jensen Camera Repair to be fixed. Chief Photographer Lew Hegg, who’d been at The Bee since its early days, looked down upon the 35mm technology that was infiltrating the photo scene at the newspaper, versus the tried-and-true 4x5 Speed Graphic and 120mm format cameras. He called 35mms “tourist cameras.” The 35mm that Crawford used for this monumental event was the only one for the staff, a “pool” camera used for special assignments – and this was one of those for sure.
The said edifice, when completed, is expected to stand the storms of winter and the heat of summer, for the period of 1,000 years or more.
Fresno County District Attorney Claudius Galen Sayle at the courthouse groundbreaking on Oct. 8, 1874. It was demolished on April 7, 1966
Bee reporter Eli Setencich wrote: “The demolition crew arrived early and in a destructive mood.” They bragged that it would take maybe a couple of hours to topple the 50-ton dome. Demolition began on the main structure a few weeks early, using the swinging force of a massive wrecking ball, taking down the outer wings, until only the central part under the dome stood. The cupola that crowned the dome was saved weeks earlier. (It stands today at the Fresno Fairgrounds.) But on this day, taking down the dome was the prize of the crew.
The courthouse, built in dramatic neoclassical style which drew inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman design, had a long life. But it was not even close to what was predicted by Fresno County District Attorney Claudius Galen Sayle, keynote speaker at its groundbreaking on Oct. 8, 1874.
“The said edifice, when completed, is expected to stand the storms of winter and the heat of summer, for the period of 1,000 years or more,” he declared.
Fight in the ’60s
By the early 1960s, officials saw the old courthouse as obsolete, antiquated, cramped and unsafe. A structural survey said it would not withstand a strong earthquake. The Board of Supervisors, viewing restoration as too expensive, voted for demolition and to replace it with the current version, an imposing eight-story structure built in the midcentury modern style.
But preservationists didn’t go down without a fight. Lawsuits were filed, reaching the state Supreme Court twice. But the county prevailed, and construction of the new courthouse began in 1964 in front of the old one.
Friends of the old courthouse had their say during the 1964 elections, organized so effectively that three supervisors who supported demolition were voted out of office.
Early in the morning on April 7, 1966, outside the safety fence, people started gathering on the east side of M Street, lining up as though expecting a parade. (A similar carnival atmosphere – a crowd estimated at 4,000, men, women and children – had gathered at nearly the same place for a real-life death, the hanging of convicted killer Dr. Frank Vincent in Fresno County’s only execution, on Oct. 27, 1893.)
The heavy wrecking ball began by pounding away at the shell of the building. Bricks crumbled and fell and the dome barely “twitched,” said Setencich. The main holdup: probably the strongest part of the building, the steel elevator shaft. The ball was removed, and a dragline hook attached to the heavy machinery. A crane and bulldozer were used.
The tugging and shaking went on for hours, with cables, one after another, snapping. The dome was described as being like an empty cup on a saucer, rattling, but holding fast. The dome would not go down without a fight. The ball was put back in play, slamming into the elevator shaft, but the dome stayed put.
Setencich reported the death of the dome:
Finally, about 4:30, a two-pronged attack was made, with two cables attached, one to a bulldozer pulling low, the crane cable pulling high on the elevator shaft.
The machines under the pressure grunting and spewing smoke, yanked and strained. The dome tilted, and the high cable snapped. “Give up?” someone in the crowd shouted.
The workmen spliced the cable and went back to their task. Some in the crowd, sensing the kill, moved into position.
At 4:55, the shaking resumed. The dome wobbled back and forth. “Go, Go, Go,” the crowd chanted. A minute later the 50-ton dome slowly tipped eastward, pulled loose from its mounting and, like a giant ship sinking into the ocean, started down.
In about 5 seconds, it slammed explosively to the ground in a cloud of gray-black dust collected over half a century.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 31 years in this business,” said a smiling (crane operator Robert) Ramey. “It’s the first one you could shake and not move. It was tougher than I thought.”
The mass of twisted steel and wood lay on the ground, looking as if it had been ripped by dynamite.
The spectators, now quiet, moved among the ruins, picking up bits of history. They had seen the end of an era.
In the 5 seconds it took for the dome to finally fall, Crawford’s motor drive ploddingly pulled the Tri-X film through the camera, taking 11 shots of the dome’s demise. Frame number 7 was the one used on The Bee’s front page, as well as a full-page spread in Life magazine. (By comparison, today’s digital cameras can capture about 10 frames per second.)
Before rewinding the film and heading back to The Bee, Crawford made what was probably the most poignant photograph of the demolition. After the dust had settled and the echoes faded off the nearby Hall of Records, a small crowd stood looking mournfully at the massive pile of courthouse debris – twisted steel beams, wood and deep mounds of the estimated 800,000 bricks used to build it. A husband with arm around his wife, men with arms folded behind backs, hands in pockets, and curious children exploring the dust-covered ruins. The photograph speaks volumes, if only for its silence.
Carl Crawford worked for The Fresno Bee for 37 years, and retired at age 59. He died at age 70 on Nov. 14, 2006.
In a Bee tribute to Crawford, Jill Moffat, then executive director of the Fresno City and County Historical Society, said his courthouse photographs will last as long as Fresno. “They have been on a little mission, a constant reminder of the importance of saving our built heritage.”
John Walker: 559-441-6197