America has a fascination with trains, with history, and with food, not necessarily in that order. Little wonder, then, that literally hundreds of U.S. train stations have been transformed, in whole or in part, into places that celebrate some combination of those things.
At least 226 U.S. cities have either converted former train stations into restaurants, added independent dining components to functioning stations or adapted other railroad iconography to that purpose. That’s according to Denver Todd, who maintains a website he calls the Gregarious Railfan — and his list doesn’t even include one of Central California’s most handsome examples, the Southern Pacific Depot in Visalia, built in 1915 and converted into a restaurant in 1971.
I bring this up now because Bakersfield may have the same opportunity to acquire its own historic train station, the Southern Pacific Depot, now owned by the Union Pacific, at Baker and Sumner streets in Old Town Kern.
Either that, or the station, which dates to 1889, will be leveled in the spirit of Bakersfield’s collective and longstanding lack of commitment to historic preservation.
The opportunity to acquire the depot, renovated many decades ago from its original utilitarian look of the late 19th century into a Spanish Revival style, comes because the Union Pacific is nearing the completion of a more modern (and significantly less attractive) headquarters a quarter-mile down Sumner, east from the old station.
And the railroad company plans to demolish the old building as soon as it leaves.
At least that’s the distinct impression railroad representatives have left with Bakersfield city officials, including Ward 2 Councilman Andrae Gonzales.
“That is absolutely appalling and cannot happen,” Gonzales told me this past week. “... It's a beautiful building, beautiful architecture, and it's something that we must fight to preserve. The city must intervene and do whatever we can.”
Gonzales has many allies in his save-the-depot quest but he needs more — starting, I would suggest, with the mayor, the city attorney, the entire Bakersfield City Council and the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
He already has allies in the historic preservation department.
“In the city’s efforts to clean up Old Town Kern, we view this building as the cultural anchor,” local historian Stephen Montgomery wrote in an email. “… But first the City needs to get on board with acquiring the building … for restoration and repurposing.”
At this point it doesn’t matter what Gonzales, Montgomery or anyone else might have in mind for the building in terms of possible future uses, but options could include a restaurant — obviously, in keeping with Old Town Kern’s best known commercial activity — or, a brewpub, museum or community center. The huge facility — actually a cluster of buildings, square footage not immediately clear — could serve all of those purposes simultaneously and have space left over. The important thing now is that it simply be preserved.
Old Town Kern wouldn’t exist as we know it had the railroad not opted to route its rails a couple of miles east of Bakersfield proper, rather than through the city itself, in the late 1800s. That decision led to the creation of the town of Sumner and a diversification of the area’s ethnic character, most notably Basque sheepherders — and Basque boarding-house operators. Remember to thank those bushy-bearded 19th century train barons before you tear into your next platter of Basque garlic fried chicken.
Would the Union Pacific actually consider knocking down this kind of history for the sake of expediency? You’d think train people would have a greater respect for railroads’ contributions to U.S. history, and a passion for the preservation of that legacy, than the average American, but who knows? Business is business.
The U.P. is sticking with the poker face it wears so well.
"Union Pacific recently met with the City of Bakersfield to discuss potential opportunities for future use of the Depot,” Union Pacific spokesman Tim McMahan wrote in an email to me last week. “Discussions are ongoing and no decision has been made on the future of the Depot at this time.”
The Union Pacific owns both the building and the land and would not part with the latter, given the depot’s close proximity (about 30 feet) to the southernmost train track, but acquisition of the building is another matter. Gonzales said any concerns the Union Pacific might have about liability — and isn’t that really the only issue here? — might be alleviated with a new wrought iron fence, for example, and limits on future use. No day care centers, to name one possible restriction.
Gonzales is right when he draws a correlation between the once-decrepit, vastly underappreciated Padre Hotel and the Southern Pacific Depot as potential saviors of an economically downtrodden area. The Padre’s reclamation started a resurgence of an important section of downtown Bakersfield that continues today. A restored train depot could do the same for east Bakersfield’s main street.
“We've seen a tremendous amount of growth in other businesses — restaurants, boutiques — that have popped up as a result of the Padre bringing so many new faces to that particular neighborhood,” Gonzales said. “We can see the same thing happen here. And there are plenty of examples in other communities where that's occurred. So I think right now is the time to fight to preserve this building.”
The Union Pacific is expected to make the move to its new headquarters in a matter of weeks, so Gonzales is right — now is the time.