One hallmark of attractive livable and progressive communities is policies to infill development in their urban core, mixing new development with legacy assets with historic provenance. In preserving a community’s distinctive examples of its historic heritage, we keep a cultural connection from our past to the present presenting a view to the future.
Having respect for a mixed attractive streetscape of varied styles and periods of architectural design add not only to the quality of the environment, it has a direct and positive effect on property values and gives us all a sense of place. Repurposing old and historic buildings also has the advantage of reducing waste and conserving resources.
Look at our own downtown core. Consider the Padre Hotel. The redevelopment of this property as a boutique hotel was soon followed by redevelopment of nearby properties and an increase in an active nightlife downtown.
Assistant County Assessor Laura Avila points out that it’s hard to assign a direct cause and effect between the renovation of the Padre and improvements of nearby properties. Nevertheless, the Padre Hotel’s renovation and restoration has been in the forefront of infill urban redevelopment resulting in much property improvement in the area. That it has become among the most popular gathering spots downtown along with enjoying high lodging occupancy (pre-pandemic) doesn’t hurt either.
Sadly, much that should have remained part of our community has vanished, often for the most transient of reasons. That is, no serious consideration was given to viable alternatives to demolition. No code or ordinance is there to ensure the Historic Preservation Commission is made aware that a prospectively historic building is about to be erased from the landscape. Members of the Preservation Commission usually learn about threats to historic buildings after they’re gone. The owner may not have even known about the historic provenance of their building or, if so, practical alternatives to demolition or a major remodel.
Former TBC columnist Lois Henry, in a regular column, addressed this. She writes, “But given the city’s ‘damn the facts’ behavior and the distrust it has sown with residents interested in preserving what little architectural history Bakersfield has left, an EIR may be inevitable.”
That related to a discussion about the Clarence Cullimore, FAIA, designed Family Service Laundry building at the corner of Q Street and California Avenue. A Belgian patterned brick building with a number of interesting design features, not the least of which involved surviving the 1952 earthquakes.
Now we have the historic Sinaloa building about to slip from our community without consideration of its historic and cultural value to the community or without study of the alternative of repurposing as some kind of market residential housing. Like the now lost Family Service Laundry, the more than 100-year-old Sinaloa building with its documented provenance should have been assessed for its historic and cultural significance.
Also threatened with demolition is the Richardsonian design Southern Pacific Depot building, Sumner at Baker. Built in 1904, it has much historical provenance. However, owner Union Pacific Railroad is not noted for its cooperation with the communities it serves, and it was reported to me by a manager they are planning demolition.
Saved was the 1910 Beaux-Arts Kern Security & Trust building, designed by distinguished San Francisco architect Frederick Herman Meyer, with four bare walls open to the sky, it appealed only to pigeons. Originally scheduled by the city for demolition for safety reasons, under the advocacy of the late David Gardner Cross, AIA, it was saved and renovated into what has become the popular The 18hundred Restaurant.
This rare save lies in contrast to the loss of the midcentury modern Barber Pontiac building, Clifford Harding, AIA, the unique “Arch-Rib” Bakersfield Dome, the Lyon Brewery and many more, all buildings whose owners may have had no idea what they had or otherwise forced by circumstances to sell to a buyer who prefers a vacant lot.
All had architectural, engineering and cultural provenance, none of which was considered. Fresno has more than 300 properties on its historic registry. In comparison, Bakersfield has less than 20. This may explain why the commission learns of a cultural or architectural loss only after the fact.
Our community, the county and incorporated cities would do well to adopt the provisions offered by the Mills Act, a state tax assessment program that incentivizes owner preservation of historic properties.
Statistics show communities that have adopted the Mills Act provisions see clear economic benefits of conserving resources and encouraging the preservation of historic assets contributes to the revitalizing of older neighborhoods, creating cultural tourism, building civic pride and increasing a sense of place. At present Bakersfield, the ninth largest city in California, is the largest community in the state to not have seen the value of adopting the provisions of the Mills Act. Kern is the largest and wealthiest county to not even have a historic preservation ordinance, yet unincorporated Kern County has several signature works of serious architecture. The most prominent example is the George and Millie Ablin house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
So, what’s the problem? What is it other communities know that we apparently don’t? We can remain sitting on our hands decrying the loss of another significant part of our community’s history, maybe fuming about imagined notions that preservation is a threat to property rights. Or we can get our leaders to adopt codes that encourage and facilitate repurposing and preservation of our built heritage. Despite the many losses, there’s still much to discover and cherish. All we have to do is find and recognize it.
Stephen Montgomery is vice chair of the Bakersfield Historic Preservation Commission. He may be reached at email@example.com