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Ask Me: Fresno’s downtown AT&T building was originally Pacific Telephone

Question: How old are the two AT&T buildings at Van Ness and Stanislaus?

— Tom Anderson, Fresno

Answer: The original four-story, brick-facade building at 1455 Van Ness Ave. was built in 1926 for the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. The nine-story addition next to it was built in 1966.

The first telephone lines in Fresno were installed more than four decades before the telephone company office was built. In 1881 — five years after the invention of the telephone — Fresno businessman Frank McDonough installed a phone line between his shop and his warehouse, about two blocks away.

In 1883, S.A. Miller, publisher of the Fresno Morning Republican, installed public telephone lines in the newspaper office on J Street, now Fulton Street. There were 20 subscribers to those public lines, including Fresno County Superior Court and several local businesses. Dr. Chester Rowell, who founded the Republican, installed a line in his home and office. Dr. Lewis Leach also connected to the line, as did the Republican’s rival, the Fresno Daily Evening Expositor.

The Pacific Telephone office was built of reinforced concrete with a brick finish at an approximate cost of $500,000, according to the Fresno Morning Republican. “The main office is finished in soft tan tones with oak furniture and an inlaid floor,” the newspaper said. There were two elevators.

At the dedication on Feb. 1, 1926, Fresno Mayor A.E. Sunderland called the new telephone company building a “monument to Fresno in the business world.”

The new central office built next door has 90,000 square feet and took more than two years to complete at a cost of $4.85 million, according to The Fresno Bee.

“The structure’s buff-colored brick facade, offset by vertical strips of red granite, was designed to tie in with Fresno’s redevelopment program in the downtown area,” The Bee said.

Q: When I was in high school my friends and I went to the Crimson Castle to listen to bands and dance. I actually saw Neil Diamond and his band perform there before his first hit song. How long was the place in business?

— Ray Ramirez, Fresno

A: Details on its history are sketchy, but it appears the Crimson Castle, a “teen dance club” at 2112 Tuolumne St. near Van Ness Avenue, operated from about 1963 to 1973.

According to city directories, the building it occupied was built in about 1934 and was known as the Woodmen of the World Building. The building housed a variety of businesses through 1948 — union and service club offices, dance schools — and was occupied by the American War Mothers and later the Armenian American Citizens Club until 1962.

From 1963 to 1970 the occupant is listed as Mid State Investment Co., but while Crimson Castle is listed as the occupant only from 1971 to 1972, there is evidence that the club operated in the building during the 1960s.

Singer Neil Diamond, an up-and-coming artist in the 1960s, recalled “his anxiety over an appearance at Fresno’s Crimson Castle early in his career,” Bee writer David Hale wrote in 1970 when Diamond and Linda Ronstadt performed in Fresno.

According to Hale, Diamond said of the Crimson Castle gig: “There must have been 200 people there!”

A 1967 Fresno Bee advertisement announced a series of revival meetings at the Crimson Castle.

The Crimson Castle was owned by Gary Kayajanian, who held his own wedding reception there in 1969.

City directories also list the Castle Sound Studio at the address. The building is listed as vacant by 1974.

More about: After the answer to a question about Eleanor Roosevelt’s visits to Fresno ran on Oct. 12, three readers wrote to share memories of seeing Roosevelt here.

Norman J. Fletcher of Fresno wrote, “I graduated from Roosevelt High School in June 1954 and our senior class had the very first baccalaureate service in the newly built auditorium the Sunday before graduation.”

He also recalled a talk Roosevelt gave in the auditorium six years later.

“Here’s my diary entry from that date,” Fletcher wrote. “Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1960, 8 p.m. Heard Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt speak at the Theo. Roosevelt Auditorium. Very impressed about her. Very intelligent, hair too short, British accent attractive if surprising. I like her. Many hundreds turned away, no room, very cold weather. Many had to hear her in a separate room.”

According to a Bee story, 3,000 people filled the auditorium, another 3,000 were turned away, but 300 people listened to the talk piped into the school’s Little Theater.

Jim Porter of Placerville, who graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1961, also recalled Roosevelt’s talk.

“In the early 1960s Eleanor (Roosevelt) did indeed speak at the RHS auditorium.” The former first lady and two others took part in a panel discussion about Russia, Porter recalled.

“After watching the PBS series on the Roosevelts recently, it occurred to me that I could have gone forward after and asked for the privilege of shaking hands with Mrs. Roosevelt,” Porter wrote. “Unfortunately, it did not occur to me at the time and I wish I had approached this great American.”

Porter said he shook hands with former Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson when he campaigned for a second unsuccessful bid for president in Fresno in 1956 and with Vice President Richard M. Nixon during a 1960 presidential campaign trip, “but I went blank” during Roosevelt’s visit, he said.

Elaine Naman of Fresno recalled that one of the other speakers that night was Dorothy Naman, to whom she was related by marriage.

According to The Bee story, Roosevelt was principal speaker at a community forum on “The Country and People of Russia” with Naman, chairman of the McLane High School biology department, and Dr. Walter Ensslin, a Fresno State instructor.