My love for local history and historic buildings began when I was a young teenager. The County determined that its quarters in the old county courthouse (circa 1896) were too small and antiquated. Plans were made to move to a new courthouse, and the old courthouse, known for its unique architectural style, was to be torn down. Immediately after this was announced, citizens rallied, and a “Save the Courthouse” committee was born. Mom served on this committee. Around the same time, perhaps a bit earlier, Uncle Richard and a group of local businessmen became concerned in a very focused way about the condition and preservation of China Alley’s Taoist Temple, and the Taoist Temple Preservation Society was born. Soon thereafter, Mom was serving on that board as well.
The courthouse was saved, and I fell in love with Hanford’s history and the importance of preserving its history and the places that represent and reflect it. Certain buildings are essential threads the warp and woof of the historic fabric of downtown Hanford. Along with the old courthouse being saved, over time the Taoist Temple was restored, and in the 1980s opened to the public, preserving some of the history of the early Chinese settlers in Hanford for future generations. So during this formative time of my life, I recognized the bright colored threads of a downtown landmark and a building of cultural heritage stretching into the future while vividly weaving the past into what was present day Hanford life.
I grew into my adulthood watching old buildings being saved from destruction and participated in the Taoist Temple restoration projects, many of which I worked on side by side with Mom. My deep love for our extraordinary China Alley and all of its history is no secret. Each building is a part of the rich history of our city within a city that should be shared and not forgotten, as are the historical buildings of our broader community, the town of Hanford.
So I wasn’t surprised by Mom’s comment the other night when I told her that the city was going to tear down the old firehouse located on Lacey Boulevard and replace it with a parking lot.
“I wish they weren’t going to do that,” she said. “It has historic significance for this town. It’s a WPA building.”
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration, was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency. The New Deal, a group of government programs established under President Roosevelt in the 1930s, was conceived and designed to improve the harsh living conditions people suffered during the Great Depression.
Millions of jobless men and women were given employment by the WPA, the specific purpose was to put our citizens in need to work so the could earn their own livelihoods and maintain their self-respect. The agency built highways, roads, bridges, parks, public buildings, airport landing strips, and numerous other projects all over the country. The old firehouse was built in 1939 by the construction firm of Trewitt, Shields and Fisher under a grant from the WPA in the amount of $38,635.
Mom left the room to answer a phone call, and I was left ruminating on old buildings. I thought of the building that houses the Tea Room. Constructed in 1938 (one year before the firehouse), it is the baby of all the buildings located on China Alley as most were constructed during the 1880s and the early 1900s. Like the firehouse, the Tea Room building was built in the style of architecture known as Art Deco. While the two structures do not look alike, they share the sleek, linear appearances with stylized, often geometric, ornamentation characteristic of Art Deco buildings.
I remembered the hard physical labor, the costs, and the time that went into restoring the Taoist Temple and transforming it into a museum. But it was well worth it. I thought of the other China Alley projects the Taoist Temple Preservation Society is working on restoring, and the labor, costs and time that come with these efforts.
The building that housed #13 and #13 ½ were structurally stabilized in the 1990s. In 2007 the Wing family donated the L.T. Sue Herb Co. building was donated to the Preservation Society, but time, weather, and disuse had done significant harm. When the Preservation Society took possession of the building, nine tons of avian residue had to be removed before anything else could be done. I can’t begin to tell you how much damage bird poop can do to a building. I’m just thankful there are businesses that can help with the removal.
Avian residue and a huge beehive eliminated, the L.T. Sue Herb Co. building has been structurally stabilized and the second story has a new roof. There’s still much work to be done, but little by little, I see progress.
In 2015 the Preservation Society was also able to purchase the old China Café building, which was about to be purchased and torn down. They also acquired the vacant lots with plans to create a Chinese herb garden in the future.
As I thought of all of our historic buildings in China Alley and in Hanford’s downtown core, once again the final song from the musical “Hamilton,” played in my head: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
We are losing the thread to the old WPA firehouse, but history about the place remains. This week I’m sharing a recipe that is a result of my researching and combining recipes created by fire fighters for dishes and served in firehouses. I love collecting recipe books and some of my favorites are by groups, such as Guilds, Junior Leagues, and home cooks. I had a lot of fun perusing recipes served in firehouses. This recipe is a hearty, meaty soup. I used black-eyed peas because it’s that time of the year, but pinto beans can be substituted.