Lewis Griswold

Hanford seeks new life for former jail now known as the Bastille

In the center of town next to Civic Center Park is a distinctive building called the Bastille.

It’s the former Kings County Jail.

Opened in 1897, the red brick front has a Romanesque tower with a jagged top like an old castle, while the rear walls – where the cells were – are made of solid granite blocks.

Today, the Bastille stands unused, but the city hopes to breathe new life into it.

On the city’s website is a request for proposals from anyone who wants to make something special happen there.

“The building is currently vacant and is in need of a sizable investment to ensure the building stands for at least the next 100 years,” the request for proposals states.

Ideally, the Bastille will one day have a tenant – perhaps a microbrewery? – that will draw people to downtown Hanford, Mayor Justin Mendes said.

“Maybe someone in the restaurant business or brewery business wants to use it? Great,” he said.

The City Council has committed funds toward necessary seismic upgrades and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The city owns the Bastille, having acquired it from the county two years ago for $1.

Randy Shaw, city building superintendent, keeps a file on the history of the building.

In 1897, the county paid $15,580 for it. It was built after Kings County broke away from Tulare County as its own jurisdiction.

“It’s unique,” Shaw said. “The design is like something you’d see in a movie set.”

The granite was quarried in the hills near Exeter and hauled to the site by horse-drawn wagon. Some blocks weigh 2 tons.

“You can see the hand tooling on the blocks,” he said. The hinges for the jail doors – some doors are still in place – were attached to the granite with an awesome precision, he said.

Remarkably, similar jails were built in Merced and Madera counties, but only the Hanford building remains, he said.

The jail closed in 1964.

Some people believe the Bastille is haunted by the ghosts of former prisoners.

Five years ago, Salo Stanley of Fresno visited the outside of the old jail with friends from the Central California Paranormal Investigators and recorded ghosts answering questions. She posted a YouTube video about it.

The Bastille wasn’t always called that, Shaw said.

In 1965, the Kings County Art League opened an art gallery in the space and called it The Bastille Galleries.

In the 1970s, developer Max Walden remodeled it into Bastille Restaurant and Bar. For several years it was a bar, restaurant and nightclub under various ownerships.

A curiosity is the floor of pennies, reportedly 230,000 of them, installed after the structure became a nightclub, Shaw said.

The last nightclub to occupy the space closed several years ago.

It’s time to change that, said City Manager Darrel Pyle: “Let’s make it phenomenal again.”

Lewis Griswold covers the news of the South Valley for The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com, @fb_LewGriswold