Unpeeling layers of history of downtown Fresno’s oldest building
For decades, Fresno’s oldest building has also been one of its ugliest.
But one chip at a time, things are changing. And maybe, in time, the rest of downtown Fresno will transform right along with it.
All it takes are vision and commitment.
I’m talking about the Fresno Expositor building, located at 1027/1031 Fulton Street and home to the city’s first newspaper, the Fresno Daily Expositor.
Constructed in 1881 (with a second-floor addition in 1888), the Expositor building originally had a brick exterior. But like almost every building on Fulton Street, those bricks were deemed ugly. So the owner, sometime in the 1950s and ‘60s, covered them with layers of stucco, fiberboard paneling and tile.
Why would anyone do such a thing? I posed that question to Craig Scharton, Fresno’s former downtown revitalization guru who now works as a manufacturing consultant.
“Post-World War II there were new shopping malls and shopping centers opening, so downtowns, which used to be the only game in town and didn’t have to work very hard, suddenly looked very old-fashioned and drab,” Scharton said. “So in an effort to look like the new shopping mall, they hid their oldness.”
That kind of thing didn’t only happen in Fresno – it happened everywhere. But we took it further than most. It’s the same mentality that in 1966 caused Fresno County to topple the historic courthouse and replace it with that architectural monstrosity standing today.
In 2019 we look at things differently. Old buildings, when properly maintained, are considered beautiful, charming and historically significant. Try finding that at a shopping mall.
Which brings us back to the Expositor, owned by Henry Liu of Milpitas. It took some convincing by Scharton and local historian John Rupe, but Liu agreed to restore the building to its original glory, inside and out.
That work will continue for days and perhaps weeks. When I went by Tuesday, a small section of the original brick was visible. It looked to be in pretty rough shape.
When finished, the Expositor will join the Los Panchos and Kress buildings as the only three on Fulton Street to have their original facades restored, Scharton said.
So what’s the big deal? And how can one or two attractive buildings serve as a catalyst for downtown revitalization? Let me (with Scharton’s help) explain.
First of all, those ugly facades also cover up second- and third-story windows. With windows covered, those floors can’t be used as an office, lofts or anything else because they’re just a dark attic.
Remove the facades, replace the windows and – presto – your building suddenly has twice as much usable space and rental potential.
“It’s the biggest return that any of those building owners are going to get, by pulling those facades off,” Scharton said.
The next step requires an entrepreneur, someone with the vision to open Fresno’s coolest bar, restaurant or coffee shop inside the city’s oldest building.
“It has to be something interesting – not mediocre or something that already has 15 other options,” Scharton said. “That’s what we need.”
What happens after that? Fresno’s coolest bar, restaurant or coffee shop opens and people turn out in droves. (Just like they do when a chain restaurant opens.)
Meanwhile, the building owners next door and down the street watch all this with envy. And instead of sitting on their properties and letting them deteriorate, as many have, they make similar investments.
“What is going to make the next property owner do this is if they see the first property owner fix up his place and suddenly he’s renting it to the coolest bar in the Valley,” Scharton said. “Then the next property owner has some assurances that if he restores his building he’ll be able to attract a really cool tenant that’s willing to pay a reasonable rent. That’s what justifies the work.”
When enough building owners join in, it becomes a trend. And if enough of the small buildings on Fulton Street get new life, then the momentum spreads to the larger ones (i.e. Bank of Italy, Gottschalks, J.C. Penney, Helm) that currently sit unoccupied but ooze with potential.
Want a roadmap to downtown Fresno revitalization? Scharton just drew it for you.
“That’s how this whole thing gets going,” he said.