Fresno is not known for keeping anything old around. Like buildings. They get torn down. Or they did until the last quarter century or so when people got up in arms about all of “old” Fresno that is gone. So now there is a more judicious procedure in place before old buildings and houses are destroyed. Unfortunately, there are a lot of old buildings, especially downtown, that are standing empty, going to ruin, because no one is taking care of them and there is no market for the space. In many cases it would take millions of dollars to bring the building up to code and refurbish it in a manner for people to use. A few have been restored–The PG&E building, the Security Bank building, Warnor’s Theater, the water tower–and are now in use. The top floors of the Security Bank building has been renovated into high-rent lofts.
But, there are those buildings, long gone, that make some of us feel nostalgic for what the downtown once was. This picture, from the early 1900s gives you a feel for what was once there:
It’s all gone now. In the mid 1960s the block on the right still stood with part of the building that had once housed the Farmer’s Bank and Grand Central Hotel:
Recently, on Facebook, a page has been established by an artist who is using discarded signs to replicate these grand old buildings. He has completed the old courthouse:
and the bank/hotel block:
John, the artist, uses material from signage at Big Lots where he works, to make the replicas. He brought these to a downtown coffee shop earlier this week so that I could see them and meet him and find out how and why he is doing this.
He enjoys using what others have tossed out to replicate what others have torn down. The work harks back to a better time for Fresno, when the present was pretty grand and the future looked even grander. Fresno was known in the early 1900s as a cultural and educational center, in the middle of California, half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There were possibilities of even greater things to come. Something happened after World War II, though, and the city lost its way. The grandeur ceased and the possibilities became fewer. Instead of coming to Fresno from other parts of the country to build a life, the bright young men and women were leaving to build their lives elsewhere.
There are people, like John, who want to remember what Fresno once was and make it that kind of city again. There are attempts to stop the brain-drain and to recall those young people who struck out for other cities. John is one of them. He moved to Washington, but has returned to Fresno. And, like many before him, using what is available, he has found a way to make his mark.
John and I discussed the possibility of a public display of his work. He hasn’t found anyone interested so far, but he still has a way to go before he has a large body of work to show. A suggestion I had was to build replicas of some of the old buildings in town that are still in use such as the Meux home or Kearney Mansion or St. John’s Catholic Church. Perhaps one of those entities would like to have the replica, thus building more interest in his work. Long ago, there was a man who built old fashioned mechanical displays for the county fair. They were very popular and each year attendees would be excited to see the new theme and additions. Maybe that would work for John’s art of discarded buildings made from discarded materials.