Victor Campos was smiling as he cleaned up piles of plaster ripped from the facade of the Security Trust building in downtown Bakersfield. He was thrilled, he said, to be involved in a project that may help save a long-forgotten piece of the city's history.
"I had no idea this was here," he said, marveling at the neoclassical architecture he helped uncover at the corner of Chester Avenue and 18th Street.
As each section of the facade was removed this week, another piece of the century-old bank building was revealed. By Friday, most of the stucco skin had been peeled away, uncovering tall concrete columns, 18-foot-tall windows and ornate details.
It's a monumental discovery, said local architectural historian John Edward Powell. In a city with a reputation for bulldozing or "modernizing" unique old buildings to make way for cookie-cutter development, being given a rare chance to preserve such a find is a gift that must not be squandered.
"This is the biggest event to happen in historical preservation in Bakersfield for decades," Powell said. "I hope people understand that."
AVOIDING THE WRECKING BALL
Despite what historians and preservationists are saying about the significance of the building -- and they agree it is a local treasure -- the 104-year-old landmark came close to suffering the fate of so many other historic structures throughout Bakersfield's history.
"We did have an order for demolition," said Phil Burns, director of the city of Bakersfield's building department.
The building languished for years without a roof following a fire in 2002. Sam Abed, the new owner who has taken on the daunting task of restoring the bank-turned-restaurant-turned-ruin, said pigeon droppings were thick on the floor when he first inspected the interior.
"This building was on the chopping block," Abed said. "The city wanted it torn down. We decided it was worth saving."
The decision to demolish the building came at the end of 2011. The demolition order went through a hearing and was signed May 11, 2012.
ARCHITECT OF NOTE
Built in 1910 as the Security Trust bank, the structure was designed by prominent San Francisco architect Frederick H. Meyer. A prolific designer and fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Meyer was "responsible for many of the public, commercial and industrial buildings designed in the San Francisco area after the 1906 earthquake and fire," according to the website for UC Berkeley's Environmental Design Archives, which includes a comprehensive list of Meyer's projects in its prestigious collection.
The very fact that Meyer was chosen to be included in the collection is additional evidence that the Bakersfield building is of significant historical and cultural value, Powell said.
The Environmental Design archivists don't choose just any architect to be represented in what is considered Northern California's premiere collection of historic architecture records.
"It's incredibly selective," Powell said of the collection.
The curator of the Archives did not return a call for comment.
A CULTURE OF PRESERVATION
Richard Jerrett, president of the Kern County Historical Society, was excited to learn that Abed intended to bring the old building back from the brink. The longtime advocate for preservation was not at all surprised that the building had been approved for demolition.
Bakersfield's culture of historic preservation, he said, has never been its strong suit.
"Maybe we need some sort of committee to look behind the stucco before the wrecking ball is approved," Jerrett said.
Stephen Montgomery, a longtime advocate for the protection and restoration of Bakersfield's historic buildings, argued that local city and county government could do more to encourage preservation.
"Make tax credits available," he said. "That's something that is sorely lacking here."
Abed, who is looking at substantial costs to rehabilitate the building, said so far, local government has provided little incentive to restore the site.
But there may be some help available at the state and federal level.
Jay Correia, a historian at the California Office of Historic Preservation, said his office has no jurisdiction over local governments and no authority over privately owned buildings.
However the bank building may be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, he said.
Better yet, the person restoring the historic building may be eligible for a 20 percent federal tax credit if the building meets certain criteria.
SAVING WHAT'S LEFT
Now that the bones of the old Security Trust building have been exposed for all to see, it seems unthinkable the structure might have been demolished had Abed not stepped in.
But little stands in the way of such actions.
Susan Stussy, a longtime appointee to the city of Bakersfield's Historic Preservation Commission, said the commission was not involved in reviewing the order to demolish the building. It was not designed to be a powerful player in determining the fate of historic structures.
However, it can help educate residents by publishing guides to restoring historic buildings, as it did a few years ago. And it can designate cultural resources, such as a plan now in place to create a walking tour of Bakersfield's surviving historical treasures.
"It's just astounding that this beautiful building has been uncovered," she said of the old bank. "We as citizens will be watching its progress of rehabilitation."
It's not too late for local government to change its approach.
Powell, the architectural historian, said there's much the city and the county can do to make the restoration of the old bank financially feasible.
First, the city could take on the considerable work needed to get the building added to the national register, Powell said. Second, the city could shoulder the cost of making sure public utilities are available to connect the building to the power grid when it's ready.
And the county of Kern, Powell noted, could defer property taxes for a number of years to encourage the completion and success of the project. After all, the county has provided tax incentives in the past to encourage businesses to build or develop here.
"We'd like to give this building a fighting chance," Powell said.