Ask Me

‘Skyscraper’ auditorium restored to original look. Plus, prep football and women’s golf

The ornate 10th-floor auditorium that tops the former San Joaquin Light and Power Co. building in downtown Fresno hosts social events. The ornate room was closed for decades but was renovated to its original look.
The ornate 10th-floor auditorium that tops the former San Joaquin Light and Power Co. building in downtown Fresno hosts social events. The ornate room was closed for decades but was renovated to its original look. Fresno Bee file

Q: We recently attended an event at the Trade Center at Fulton and Tuolumne streets downtown. To our surprise the event was held on the 10th floor. It’s a nice hall with a stage and very ornate. Was this always there?

Luis Stoner Jr., Fresno

A: The 10th-floor auditorium was original to the San Joaquin Light and Power Co. building at 1401 Fulton St. Ground was broken on the Renaissance Revival-style building in September 1922 and it took 18 months to construct at a cost of $1 million.

At the time, The Bee called the electric company’s new headquarters “Fresno’s Champion Skyscraper.” It was built during Fresno’s building boom in the early 1900s.

The ornate auditorium has hardwood floors and stage with an elliptical arch on the southwest end, according to a detailed description written for the building’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The building also is listed on Fresno’s Local Register of Historic Resources.

An elliptical barrel-vaulted ceiling spans the auditorium. Its walls are made of cast stone blocks and ornate decorative plasterwork gives the room an elaborate character. Of note are paintings of “electrical transmission lines” in several plaster medallions around the stage.

detail
Paintings of “electrical transmission lines” in several plaster medallions are around the stage in the 10th-floor auditorium that tops the former San Joaquin Light and Power Co. building. John Walker Fresno Bee file

A library, cafeteria and kitchen were also built on the 10th floor. The walls of the auditorium lobby off the elevator are covered with marble panels. There is a 1,000-square-foot veranda outside the auditorium.

Kelsey Duncanson, venue manager, schedules events in The Grand 1401 ballroom on the ground floor and The Grand on 10 auditorium. The auditorium, closed for decades and used for storage, was in bad shape, but not terrible, Duncanson said. In 2004 the room underwent a two-year renovation.

The original wood floors were refinished. Marble, plasterwork, baseboards and casements around the large picture windows are also all original.

According to the National Register nomination application, the San Joaquin Electric Co. was formed in 1895 when the company built a power plant on the San Joaquin River.

The company declared bankruptcy in 1899 and was purchased by William C. Kerckhoff and A.C. Balch in 1902. They renamed it the San Joaquin Power Co. in 1905 and it became the San Joaquin Light and Power Co. in 1910. “It was to play an important role in supplying electricity to Fresno and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley,” the application said.

During the building’s early years it was “brilliantly illuminated with colored floodlights, making it highly visible throughout the city,” according to the application.

San Joaquin Light and Power had merged with the Great Western Power Co. by 1930. “The San Joaquin Light and Power name and identity finally merged completely into the parent company PG&E in 1939,” the application said. The company’s name sign on the roof changed to PG&E after World War II.

Pacific Gas & Electric moved out of the building in 1987. Today the second through ninth floors are used for office space.

Q: When I attended McLane High School in the mid-1960s I remember a football carnival to start the school year. I remember it being held at Ratcliffe Stadium. Can you find the history of the event?

Leonard Breitling, Kingsburg

A: The Football Carnival began in the 1940s, according to a 1963 story in The Bee that said the 18th annual event would be held on Sept. 16 that year. (However, a story the day after the carnival called it the 23rd annual event.)

The carnival traditionally kicked off the high school football season. The city’s high school football teams played each other for the championship and the schools’ marching bands performed.

“For the first time, six schools will participate in the gridfest because of the addition of the new Hoover High School,” a story said. “Others competing will be Bullard, Edison, Fresno, McLane and Roosevelt.”

Although Roosevelt’s “spectacular Bob Figueroa and Nate Butler drew the raves, McLane High School earned the big prize last night in Ratcliffe Stadium,” The Bee said the day after the carnival. Roosevelt’s two players “electrified 12,000 fans with some brilliant early-season passing in the 23rd annual Fresno Football Carnival.

“Less sensational but hardly less effective, McLane parlayed a promising rookie quarterback, a strong ground game and a rugged defense into its second carnival championship in three years.” Fresno High took second place and Bullard took third.

Admission to the carnival in 1963 was $1 for adults and 50 cents for students. The carnival appears to have continued at least through the late 1960s.

Q: I am a member of the Airways Women’s Golf Club in Fresno and I’m trying to find the history of its founding. Eleven women founded the club on April 28, 1953, but I wonder if that was covered on The Bee’s sports pages and what became of the founders.

Wendy Paul, Clovis

A: A short notice appeared on The Bee’s sports pages on May 1, 1953, announcing a meeting to select officers and draw up rules for the newly formed Airways Women’s Golf Club. The meeting was at 8 p.m. in the Airways cafeteria.

Only one Bee story could be found on any of the 11 founders. A May 24, 1974, story said founding member Maryetta Roberts was retiring after nine years as executive director of the Central California chapter of the March of Dimes, adding that she looked forward to golfing.

Other founding members were Katherine Bates, Mary Belle Black, Eileen Callis, Maria Farinelli, Bernice Houghton, Paula Kaiser, Winifred Lake, Peggy Larabee, Peggy Lauch and Mrs. Bert Stamps.

A Dec. 18, 1953, Bee sports story said club officers were elected for the following year at a Christmas party at the Outpost restaurant. Kaiser succeeded Lake as president. Other new officers were Mrs. Malcolm Davison, Mrs. Alex Eitel, Mrs. Arnold Firani, Mrs. M.K. Firani, Patricia Haverty, Mrs. Bert Williamson and Lake.

Dear Readers: I’ve enjoyed writing the Ask Me column for nearly 11 years, fielding your questions and learning much about local history while searching for the answers.

But I am retiring this month and Sept. 23 will be my last Ask Me column. So, if there’s a question you’ve always wanted to ask, now is the time. Email it, or send it, to the address below.

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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