Ask Me

Architect beat Fresno’s sizzling summers with underground house

This iconic Clovis house built by architect Gene Zellmer and his wife Barbara in 1966 began with a first floor sunk mostly underground. It features slanting walls lined with rocks that the Zellmers placed by hand, as seen here in a Sept. 29, 1974, Fresno Bee story and photos.
This iconic Clovis house built by architect Gene Zellmer and his wife Barbara in 1966 began with a first floor sunk mostly underground. It features slanting walls lined with rocks that the Zellmers placed by hand, as seen here in a Sept. 29, 1974, Fresno Bee story and photos. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Q: I’ve been trying to find information about an underground home build in Fresno but can’t find anything online. I believe it was built and owned by an architect and was really beautiful.

Charlene M. Johnson, Visalia

A: The underground house you’re looking for was built in Clovis in 1966 by Fresno architect Gene Zellmer and his wife, Barbara, who began construction just five months after their wedding.

An Aug. 25, 1966, story in The Fresno Bee noted the attention the unusual design drew.

“Once the gags about ‘human moles’ and ‘the second Mr. Blandings’ are out of the way, (the Zellmers) can tell you about what they call their ‘house-hole,’ ” the story said. “So it is all right if the windows are at ground level and neighbors think they are working on a swimming pool or a bomb shelter.”

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Sept. 29, 1974, Fresno Bee story and photos were about the Zellmer's "underground" house. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Gene Zellmer had “practical arguments for the intriguing house” he designed. “It’s about as inexpensive as we could build,” he said. Also, the underground design would keep the house “cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, because the soil temperature below ground seldom will go below or above a range of 60 to 75 degrees.”

Construction began on June 20, 1966. A tractor was used to dig the hole. The Zellmers worked side by side to place 20 tons of “cobblestones that will serve as wallpaper,” the story said. On July 7, several friends helped lift ceiling beams into place. Most of the other interior work was done by Zellmer’s father, Henry, a Clovis carpenter.

The house was completed in the fall of 1966. A Dec. 13, 1966, story provided a virtual tour: “It provides an abundance of natural light, a feeling of spaciousness and a delightful view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It also is three-and-a-half feet underground. Window glass pokes above ground and extends the entire length of the house on both sides,” the story said. Morning sunlight “moves in a line down one wall of rocks, across the floor and up the other wall of rocks, where it disappears about 10 a.m. At twilight the pattern of sunlight is reversed and Mrs. Zellmer (said she) has ‘a wonderful view of the sunsets’ while preparing supper.”

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This iconic Clovis house built by architect Gene Zellmer and his wife Barbara in 1966 began with a first floor sunk mostly underground. It features slanting walls lined with rocks that the Zellmers placed by hand. After the birth of their two daughters the Zellmers added a second story, seen here in a Sept. 29, 1974, Fresno Bee story and photos. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Above the rock-lined sloping side walls were two tiers of redwood railroad ties. Along one side of the L-shaped living and dining area were the kitchen, bathroom and master bedroom. A cloth screen made by Barbara Zellmer separated the dining area from her husband’s home office.

A second story was added to the house in 1974 to accommodate the needs of their growing family.

When the house was built, the address was 3919 E. Stuart Ave. in Clovis. But street numbers changed over the years and today the home’s address is in the 400 block of West Stuart Avenue.

“We enjoyed the house. We lived there for 10 years,” said Zellmer, who now lives on the Central Coast. “We would have stayed there if it hadn’t become surrounded by apartment buildings.” They last saw the house a few years ago. “It still looks pretty good,” he said. Today the house is hidden from street view behind a small urban forest of lush trees and bushes.

Q: Our church, First Armenian Presbyterian at 430 S. First St., is in the Huntington and Holmes neighborhoods near downtown Fresno. Can you tell me more about the namesakes of this area?

Phil Tavlian, Fresno

A: The Huntington neighborhood surrounds Huntington Boulevard that was named for railroad and real estate magnate Henry Edwards Huntington, one of the owners of the San Joaquin Light and Power Co.

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A bicylist rides past the monument to Huntington Boulevard, at First Street. JOHN WALKER Fresno Bee File Photo

Huntington developed the boulevard between Cedar Avenue and First Street in the early 1900s to increase demand for the electricity that his company sold. More than 120 prestigious homes were built on the large lots. The diverse mix of architectural styles reflects changing tastes in design from 1914, when the first house was built, to the early 1990s.

Kerckhoff Avenue one block north of Huntington and Balch Avenue, one block to the south, are named for Huntington’s San Joaquin Light and Power partners, William G. Kerckhoff and Allen C. Balch.

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Two women board streetcar on Huntington Boulevard in 1919. CLAUDE "POP" LAVAL Special to The Bee

The three men also owned the Fresno Traction Co., which began running trolley cars down the center of Huntington Boulevard in 1917. A monument near First Street tells the history of the trolley service.

Huntington was born in New York state in 1850. He came to San Francisco in 1892 to manage the Southern Pacific Railroad and moved to Los Angeles in 1902. His wealth allowed him to amass an impressive art collection. In 1919 he and his second wife, Arabella, founded the famed Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens on his former estate in San Marino near Pasadena. Huntington’s collection of 18th century British portraits alone was valued at $50 million when it went on public display in 1928, the year after his death.

The Holmes neighborhood around Holmes Playground at First and Inyo streets is named for Marvin P. Holmes.

Holmes, the principal of Hawthorne Grammar School, died from injuries he received while trying to save a group of schoolchildren from being run down by a horse and racing sulky at the Fresno Fairgrounds racetrack.

The children were at the racetrack in May 1908, for an athletic meet, according to a Fresno Morning Republican story. C.A. Walton and other sulky drivers were exercising their horses and were almost done when “the children began to troop out onto the track,” the story said.

“There was a scream from the children and (Holmes) ran forward” to warn Walton and the other drivers. “The shoulder of (Walton’s) horse struck Holmes, throwing him limp and lifeless fully 10 feet,” the story said. “It was an heroic act on the part of the principal. He must have known that there was very little chance for him to escape injury.”

Holmes underwent surgery at the Burnett Sanatorium for a skull fracture. He seemed to be recovering, a Fresno Morning Republican story said, but died of complications at his home in June 1908. He was 32.

More about: After the answer about the weather-forecasting giant G atop the Guarantee building in downtown Fresno was published on April 8, Connie Claes of Fresno wrote to share Phillip E. “Pete” Hauck’s contribution to the sign.

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The giant G on top of the old Guarantee Bank building on the Fulton Mall in Fresno as photographed in 2009. Fresno Bee File Photo

In a question-and-answer column in The Bee on Oct. 28, 1984, Hauck is described as “the guy who, in his own words, ‘dreamed up’ ” the 66-foot neon sign that changed colors to signal changes in the weather. Hauck came to Fresno in 1960. The sign was installed on top of the 12-story Guarantee building in 1965.

“Hauck chuckled as he recalled the furor created when the huge G was lifted into place,” the column said. “We had to bring in this great big crane and the whole thing just sank right into the pavement. That really caused quite a stir.”

Hauck wrote a poem about the changing colors of the G, although the meaning of some of the colors was later changed.

“When the G is red as fire, the temperature is going higher.

“When the G is emerald green, no change in weather is foreseen.

“When the G is white as snow, down the temperature will go.

“When it’s flashing, day or night, precipitation is in sight.”

Green later signaled that the weather would be at least 3 degrees cooler and white meant no change. Red still meant warmer temperatures, by at least 3 degrees, and flashing white remained a warning for rain.

But who decided which color should shine? According to the story, “National Weather Service specialists at the Fresno Air Terminal (now Fresno Yosemite International Airport) control the Weather G by flipping switches hooked by phone lines.”

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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