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Saturday, Jul 21 2012 10:00 PM

EARTHQUAKES OF 1952: Quakes and attitudes changed Bakersfield's historic downtown

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Stephen Montgomery walks past the Sill Building in downtown Bakersfield at 18th Street and Chester Avenue.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Stephen Montgomery walks across Chester Avenue at 19th Street in Bakersfield. In the background is a building that survived the 1952 earthquake.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Stephen Montgomery takes a picture of a building on the southwest corner of 19th and M streets that once had arches.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Stephen Montgomery takes a picture of a building on the southwest corner of 19th and M streets that once had arches.

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    Henry A. Barrios / The Californian Stephen Montgomery speaks about Bakersfield downtown architecture.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Bakersfield architect Dave Cross speaks about the impact of the 1952 earthquakes on Bakersfield.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    In his Bakersfield office, architect Dave Cross shows a photograph of downtown Bakersfield after the 1952 earthquakes.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

When Stephen Montgomery walked the length of the Chester Avenue business district in downtown Bakersfield recently, he could see the old beneath the new, the history beneath the veneer, and sometimes beauty beneath the mundane.

Montgomery, a longtime advocate for the protection and restoration of Bakersfield's historic buildings, said the appearance and character of downtown Bakersfield was forever changed by the power and devastation wrought by the violent earthquakes of 1952. Grand structures like the Kern County courthouse, St. Francis Church and the iconic Beale clock tower were damaged and eventually razed to make room for new construction.

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This is the second part of a two-part series on the 60th anniversary of the earthquakes that struck Kern County in the summer of 1952.

TODAY: Downtown Bakersfield was forever changed by the temblors that, in a matter if seconds, made rubble out of brick and mortar. Includes an interview with a Caltech seismologist and a map of Kern County's immense maze of earthquake faults.

SATURDAY: Railroad tracks were bent, fuel tanks exploded and buildings rained bricks in the streets: Survivors of the '52 earthquakes remember the fear and wonder they felt when the earth moved under their feet.

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Elaborate brick storefronts either collapsed or were demolished. Decorative details were often removed or covered over in the months and years that followed in the name of safety or progress.

But Montgomery and others wonder if each one of the damaged buildings torn down or covered over in a more contemporary form following the earthquake really had to suffer that fate.

Or were other forces at work?

"We had just finished with World War II and people were ready for a fresh start," Montgomery told The Californian.

Europe's economy was in ruins even as America's was booming. The consumer society was being born and an attitude of "out with the old and in with the new" seemed to rule the day.

"A lot of things that needed the bulldozer got the bulldozer," Montgomery said.

But in our zeal to "modernize," Montgomery said, city leaders and some builders and business owners may have turned a blind eye to the inherent value and cultural heritage many of the older buildings represented.

Longtime Bakersfield architect David Cross said he believes the original clock tower, an architectural and historic landmark that stood at 17th Street and Chester Avenue, could have been saved had the political will been present.

"For years they wanted to get rid of it anyway because it was an impediment to traffic," he said. "Now I think they would like to have it back for the atmosphere."

Preservationists point to the revival of Old Town Sacramento, the beauty of downtown San Luis Obispo and preservation efforts in other cities as models that draw not only valuable tourism and commerce, but inspire the pride in local residents.

Cross acknowledged that his own views on preservation have evolved over the years.

"In my mind I think it was an ethical issue," he said of the battle for the preservation of Bakersfield's cultural and architectural heritage.

But it was often a losing battle against the drive for new development and the profit it generated. And with profit came political clout.

"So the earthquake in some ways," Cross said, "was a kind of redevelopment."

It may have gone even further, noted Chris Livingston, special collections librarian at the Beale Memorial Library.

Did a "bulldozer mentality" come to dominate the local approach to downtown Bakersfield? he asked.

"I haven't been able to substantiate it in news accounts," he said. But "there were rumors that some of those (condemned) buildings were sturdy."

Former city Mayor Frank Sullivan called the earthquake and its aftermath "urban renewal by an act of God," Livingston said.

But Bakersfield can't blame the loss of all of its historic buildings on the earthquakes.

Many were razed long after the '52 quakes were just a memory.

"The great loss was when they tore down the Hotel El Tejon," which was a fine example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Montgomery said.

The old hotel was replaced by the 10-story Bank of America building at Truxtun Avenue and Chester.

"It was a beautiful hotel and it would be serving a real purpose today if it were still there," Montgomery said.

Many of Bakersfield's older masonry buildings did survive the quakes. But the cost of retrofitting an unreinforced masonry structure can be prohibitive for some building owners.

Mark Fick, assistant building director for the city of Bakersfield, said of the hundreds of unreinforced masonry buildings in Bakersfield before the quakes, only about 21 remain to be retrofitted.

Still, some of those buildings are in use, making them a less than ideal place to be in the event of a strong earthquake.

For a time, city staffers had the power to force owners to comply.

In 1993 the Bakersfield City Council gave its staff the power to seize buildings that weren't retrofitted -- even to close or demolish them, according to Californian archives.

But land owners complained the process was too expensive.

And if the owner chose to vacate the building instead of doing the work, the city could be left with an empty building in need of expensive improvements.

So the council changed the rules in the late 1990s.

These days city staff can only declare the buildings "non-conforming" and require the owners to post stickers near their front doors warning patrons of the earthquake risk, Fick said.

Despite Bakersfield's questionable history in dealing with historic buildings, there have been several success stories as well.

As Montgomery turned from 21st south onto Eye Street, he pointed to the restored brick building that houses the law offices of Rodriguez & Associates. He hailed it as an example of how to save an old, historic building and transform it into an asset -- not only for a business but for the community as a whole.

"They did a beautiful job on this," he said as he walked by the long narrow structure. "This is what a lot of buildings on Chester could look like."

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