A Testament to Perseverance

by: Kurt Schindler, FAIA, LEED AP
All historic preservation projects are a testament to perseverance, but some have a longer road to fruition than others.

Take the Old Administration Building on the campus of Fresno City College. Built in 1916 as the first permanent structure on Fresno State Normal School campus, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Only two years later, it had to close because of the passage of new seismic regulations for community colleges. It would remain vacant for three decades, as ivy slowly crept up the brick walls and feral cats took up residence inside.

The building is a beautiful example of Spanish Renaissance style architecture. California State Architect George McDougall designed the 100,000-square-foot building, and to take advantage of the mild, sunny climate, he organized it around two spacious courtyards with arcaded loggias along the perimeters. The brick on the east and west walls of the auditorium and above the arcades features decorative Moorish geometric details.

The building had served a variety of purposes over the decades. The Fresno State Normal School used its classrooms, offices, and 1,000-seat auditorium to train teachers. In 1921, Fresno Junior College—the first community college in California and one of the first community colleges in the nation—moved in to share the campus with the normal school. Several decades later, Fresno Junior College (now Fresno City College) purchased the campus and took up residence in the administration building from 1956 to 1976. To keep up with a growing student body, the college erected new structures, while eliminating three of the original Spanish Renaissance buildings, leaving only the original library and the administration building.

A number of the city’s historic structures had been lost over the years, and the community was determined that this one would not share their fate. As soon as the administration building closed, Fresno’s historical society mounted efforts to save it. Various ideas were put forward to bring it back to life, including plans to transform it into an agricultural museum and then a senior center. But costs for seismic strengthening were prohibitive, and demolition often loomed as a possibility. Then in 2002, the passage of a local bond measure paved the way for the building’s return to service, supplemented by funds from the state, the community college district, and the State Center Community College Foundation.

We set about bringing the facility back to its original glory, hiding virtually all our structural work behind original or replicated interior finishes. Fortunately, about 100 sheets of the original architectural drawings were still available, which helped a lot. We cleaned the exterior, which consists of uniquely textured, hand-crafted Roman brick. The original manufacturer had gone out of business about ten years before we began the project, and replicating the bricks would have been difficult, so in those rare cases when we had to remove a few bricks for seismic work, we saved them and used them in other places on the project. Everywhere we could, we saved and restored original materials, like the clay roof tiles, decorative wood eaves, tile accents, doors, and even the building’s 1,200 wood windows.

The interior had borne the brunt of the three decades of neglect, with water damage, mold and mildew, and graffiti—not to mention those feral cats, who had to be tempted out of the building with humane traps baited with tuna (no cats were harmed in the restoration—they were escorted to the SPCA). In refurbishing the spaces, we kept the original layout in more than 90 percent of the building, although we did insert some new restrooms and service spaces. We also concealed modern electrical, data, plumbing, mechanical, and fire protection infrastructure in attics, crawlspaces, and joist and wall cavities to keep them from disrupting the historic look.

In the auditorium, we restored the original seats, reducing their number from 1,000 to 660, with more room between them to accommodate contemporary ideas of comfort. We added light sconces to brighten the space, expanded the proscenium stage with a 12-foot apron, and installed adjustable acoustic shell to improve the sound.

The first phase of the Old Administration Building reopened in January 2011, and the second phase was completed in time for Fall 2012 classes. Once again, the Old Administration Building is bustling with students and faculty members, just as it was 95 years ago. It gives the campus additional instructional capacity for about 2,000 students—not including the auditorium—and offices for 70 faculty and campus administrators. The high ceilings, light-filled spaces, and traditional detailing provide an environment that is rarely affordable in new construction. It might have worked as a senior center or a museum—adaptive use is a great way to bring historic buildings back to life—but in this case, it’s great to see this vital piece of the campus’s fabric restored to its original role. It was worth the long wait.

Historic photos courtesy of State Center Community College District.