Saturday, October 19, 2019

Old Fresno Courthouse

Years ago I found this neat slide of the old courthouse in Fresno, California. It's undated, but I think it's from the early to mid-1960's. This neo-classical structure was completed in 1875, the building was declared to be "the grandest and noblest edifice that has ever been planned and contemplated in [the San Joaquin] valley," and "when completed, is expected to stand the storms of winter and the heat of summer, for the period of 1,000 years or more.”

Here's a fascinating vintage postcard view; look at all of that gingerbread Victorian architecture! It looks like a seaside resort or amusement park. 

This next postcard is probably from a few years before the first image. 

By the late 1950's, the local government wanted to tear the old courthouse down. It was said to be incapable of withstanding a strong earthquake, and renovation or retrofitting was deemed to be too expensive; and of course, old buildings by the score were destroyed in the 1960's in favor of something modern. Here's an incredible April 1966 photograph by Carl Crawford, showing the dome in mid-collapse. 

The 30-foot tall, 10,000 pound cupola was saved, and can be seen at the Fresno County Fairgrounds today.

Construction for the new 8-story courthouse was completed in 1966. I suppose it has a certain mid-century appeal, but the loss of the old courthouse was a contentious subject for Fresnonians (?!) for many years.


"Lou and Sue" said...

I like the old courthouse-look and all the buildings in the vintage postcard. It would be fun to step into that scene and explore the old stores and neighborhood.

The "new" courthouse resembles a giant clothes hamper.

Interesting post today, Major - thank you!

Nanook said...

Good guess on the date of the first image. As we can see a black/yellow California license plate, we know it can't be any earlier than 1963. Unfortunately, the details necessary for positive ID on the cars, seem to be missing. (Yes, the light blue Falcon on the far-right is most-likely a 1961 model year - that doesn't exactly help us). The 'replacement' court house is a fabulous example of 1960's architecture - wonderful in its own way - but lacking any sort of 'traditional class' of the original structure that made it ...the grandest and noblest edifice that has ever been planned and contemplated in [the San Joaquin] valley. Why mince words-!

Thanks, Major.

TokyoMagic! said...

But...but...1,000 years had NOT passed yet!!!! :-(

Andrew said...

I really like all the old signage up and down the street. By itself, I would agree that the new courthouse looks cool, but it doesn't seem as good as a replacement if you think of it in the context of that street with all those nice storefronts.

stu29573 said...

Sorry, although I like a lot of mid-century stuff, that new courthouse has zero charm. They built a box and tried to make it interesting with textures. Nope. Didn't work. Fail. Sorry.

Melissa said...

It's not just old; it's Fresnold!

That's… a rather unfortunate obstruction there, in front of the Home Title Co. sign. Either way, they have magazines!

"Fresnonians" is fine, but I think I prefer "Fresgnomes."

I really like the newer courthouse. It's solid and airy at the same time, makes good use of negative space, and the honeycomb effect of all that warm concrete grillwork is a clever way to evoke a natural texture. Plus, the whole screens-and-poles motif of the facade kind of riffs on Indian or Southeast Asia influences. That said, the picture of that sublime older building coming down is a real gut puncher! I love that one, too! It's kind of how I still miss If You Had Wings whenever I'm enjoying a ride on Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin.

The street view is super nice. Reminds me of a lot of typical American small cities, and makes me want to climb through the screen and just hang out for a while. I bet there's a great coffee shop right around the corner with a case full of fresh pies.

JC Shannon said...

The old courthouse was a major loss for California. We couldn't build anything like that today, and now it is gone forever. The glass and steel monstrosity that replaced it looks like it belongs in an old Warsaw Pact nation. In an apocalypse, even the zombies would't want in. Thanks Major, I love old California stuff like this.

Major Pepperidge said...

Lou and Sue, I agree, the older photos make Fresno look like a place I’d like to visit (never been there, personally)!

Nanook, I actually don’t dislike the new courthouse (unlike the “new” one in Stockton, that is a real piece of garbage).

TokyoMagic!, maybe they meant 1,000 hamster years?

Penna. Andrew (I might just use “Andrew” from now on?), while I haven’t looked for a modern photo looking up Mariposa Street, my guess is that all of those storefronts are long gone - that seems to be the way of things when looking at old versus new.

stu29573, I have seen plenty of worse examples of mid-century architecture, and I’m sure the people who work there prefer the more modern facilities. But it just’s hard to get very excited about it.

Melissa, I guess that “obstruction” is supposed to be a cigar? Paging Dr. Freud. Like I said, I don’t hate the newer courthouse, but it is heartbreaking when you read about older buildings with things like floors made of marble, gilded bronze chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass windows… probably all smashed to bits. I’ve always wondered if the food at a coffee shop circa 1964 was as wonderful as I would hope? I suppose it depended on the shop, of course.

Jonathan, it seems that the city fathers in the mid-1960’s really wanted to tear down old buildings, the faster the better. Today there is talk in L.A. of possibly tearing down some of the original buildings at the county art museum, and while I don’t think they are beautiful, I will miss them if they go.

"Lou and Sue" said...

Major, I LOVE that Stockton-link post and comments - thanks for including it! :)



Sadly that’s what happens every several decades. There’s a certain window where a previous generation ‘s architecture becomes unwanted and destroyed. I in the 1960’s and 70’s the largest amount of Beaux Arts and Art Deco architecture was destroyed. And despite the current popularity of Mid Century Architecture of the 50’s and 60’s , you would be shocked at the amount of those structures being destroyed and torn down - sadly it’s an alarming amount - especially here in Southern California. Even substantial examples are being lost.

Anonymous said...

This is a sad post for me.

I vividly recall the controversy over demolition of the old Courthouse, and even more vividly recall the acrimony over the wretched new one.

Also at one point in my early career, I worked downtown, only a few blocks from the courthouse park, for several firms, including the one that designed the new building. That architect's work was consistent at least, though not good.

The old downtown shown in the postcards is completely demolished, you would not recognize any of the scenes in street view now. The replacement buildings are consistently mediocre, and now, mostly vacant. On my last visit, about five years ago, not far from this photo, heaps of garbage a block long and taller than my car were crowded with homeless picking through the trash for recycling.

Old Fresno is long since gone, all the prime real estate is ten miles north along the river, and no one goes downtown unless to a ball game. Also, Major, the local paper used the term "Fresnans", although in my era, we youth called one another "Fresnoids".

Thanks for posting this, even though it brought up bad memories.