“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.”
— Frank Gehry
These sentiments reflect the importance of architecture and its place in history. Buildings speak to us about where we come from; our past and how our future is borne from that past.
While buildings across Europe and Asia remain standing after thousands of years, it’s quite different in America. As a nation, our concept of “old” is relatively recent and oftentimes not given much reverence. If something is decades old, we smash it down and replace it with a parking lot. The old Hanford Firehouse is one notable example.
However, when one visits Hanford’s historic downtown, it feels as though you’ve traveled back in time — or to the set of "Back to the Future" … or both. And no downtown building exemplifies this nostalgic feeling for the yesteryear of downtown Americana more than the column-lined facade of Hanford’s Civic Auditorium, located at 400 N. Douty Street.
Hanford became an incorporated city in 1891 as a part of Tulare County; Kings County was formed with Hanford as its county seat two years later in 1893. Construction on a new assembly hall began 30 years later in 1923. This hall became the Civic Auditorium, known by locals as simply the Civic.
According to the Oct. 12, 1920 edition of the Hanford Sentinel, the original proposal for the Civic was for the building to not just serve as a "necessary public improvement" and a "public convenience" but to hold a deeper meaning as well.
The Civic would, according to the board of city trustees, be a "public acknowledgement of appreciation to the younger generation of Americans who so creditably answered the call to arms in the great World War, as well as a mark of respect to the memory of those of them who failed to return."
The auditorium was dedicated one year later in 1924 and has been standing in its original site — and with much of its original architecture — for nearly a century. The Hanford City Council Chambers were built into the Civic, providing a singular location from which city business is done.
The Civic Auditorium and the lawn that stretches out past its front steps have been the heart of Hanford for decades.
To its immediate west is the Veterans Hall, and further across Irwin street is the First Presbyterian Church of Hanford campus and the Fox Theater. The Hanford Police Department sits to the north behind the Civic and the Hanford branch of the Kings County Public Library and Superior Dairy sit to the hall’s east just across Douty Street.
The east wing of the auditorium was dedicated in the early- to mid-1990s as an official teen center for middle school and high school students needing a place to spend time after school or on the weekends.
Currently dubbed “The Party Zone,” the teen center has access to unlimited use of basketball hoops, pool tables, foosball tables and ping-pong — that just counts the physical games the center offers. It also has a big screen TV and access to video games.
While it had been originally opened for general use, the Party Zone and its snack bar currently open for birthday parties for kids ages 8 and older. Groups desiring to use the Party Zone can have up to 20 children accompanied by 10 adults.
Civic Park separate’s the auditorium from the old Kings County Courthouse and Bastille, the city’s original jail-turned-restaurant. The park itself adds to the idyllic historical setting of a bygone era.
Over the years, the Civic has been used for a variety of different events. Elementary schools have used its facilities for annual fundraisers and student performances. The local high schools have used it for their proms and winter formals. It has been the site of many a county spelling bee.
The Civic became the centerpiece for Hanford’s centennial celebrations in 1991. It was featured on the fronts of T-shirts, sweatshirts and other paraphernalia used by the city leaders to commemorate Hanford’s first hundred years as an incorporated city.
Civic Park bustled with a crowd of thousands all standing at the Civic steps as the Mayor, City Council, and Chamber of Commerce would preside over the festivities.
It has also been used by organizations other than just schools and education programs. The interior has been used for fundraisers put on by the local Rotary and Lions clubs with proceeds going to various charitable foundations through dinner ticket sales and silent auctions.
Since 2000, Hanford has worked tirelessly to reinvigorate its downtown and community engagement. The outdoor Thursday Night Market — a mixture of mobile food vendors and local farmers market stalls — sets up on Irwin Street from as far north as the Civic and the Fox Theater to as far south as the intersection of Irwin and Seventh streets.
Despite the statewide shutdown and the cautiously limited events being organized due to COVID-19, the Civic Auditorium and its surrounding landscape are still being utilized in way that brings the community back together.
Like the Civic, the park grounds have been used for various outdoor activities. Such notable events have been the Kings County Renaissance Faire — which has been an annual event for more than 40 years — during the first full weekend of October, Hanford’s homecoming, and most recently in April 2021 an Autism Awareness event put on by the Hanford PD and the city; the month of April is dedicated to understanding autism.
While the annual Renaissance Faire didn’t take place in 2020, the event will return to the Civic this year with arts, crafts, live performers and a variety of food vendors.
The return of annual traditions and events in the wake of COVID is a clear reminder of how the Civic is still at the center of not just the city, but of Hanford’s culture.