Reedley residents organize to save historic building

REEDLEY — In a small apartment complex, Georgia Linscheid and Pat Bergthold have called a meeting of seniors. They have one mission: prevent one of the city’s most historic buildings from being demolished.

“Never underestimate an old lady in tennis shoes,” said Linscheid, Reedley senior and a preservationist.

Without their intervention, they say, the abandoned Granger warehouse in downtown could be knocked down and replaced by new school district offices.

The building — 62 feet by 351 feet — sits on a dirt lot across from Reedley’s historic water towers and opera house. From the outside, it doesn’t look like something worth saving. The ground is decorated with weeds and brush. What’s left of old paint clings to dusty 12-inch-thick brick walls. The simple, boxy building doesn’t have visual appeal.

But the Granger building represents Reedley’s deep agricultural roots, the women say. And they add that history within the building’s walls makes this pile of bricks significant.

“If that building goes, so does 100 years of history,” said Bergthold, a 77-year-old former Reedley High School teacher and preservation activist.

Bergthold makes her way around the property in her pastel cardigan and tightly laced tennis shoes, sharing stories of the building’s past. She points out different aspects of the building that make it wonderful, eyes fixated on this seemingly ordinary structure.

Built in 1892, the building was commissioned by the Granger’s Bank in San Francisco, which was a group serving farmers. It was reputed to be the largest grain warehouse west of the Mississippi River.

When vineyards and orchards replaced wheat fields, the building transformed into a raisin packinghouse. This was the birthplace of Sun-Maid Raisins and became well-known throughout the West Coast.

Bergthold and Linscheid, 87, her longtime friend, have fought for many years to save Reedley’s history. During a walk around the property, Linscheid straightens out a sign she made that hangs on the front steps.

The sign reads “Granger Building. Built in 1892.”

She put it there so residents would recognize the building’s significance. Linscheid laughs as she wipes dirt off, and says she doubts the city would have given her permission to hang the sign had she asked. But in this case, the senior activists are taking on City Hall and the Kings Canyon Unified School District.

The city has condemned the building, which has been empty for nine years. The school district wants the site for new administrative offices, and the city supports the district.

Schools Superintendent Juan Garza sees the demolition as a positive thing. The district’s current offices are small and outdated. “We outgrew our current facility years ago,” Garza said.

Having the office in downtown would increase foot traffic and business. If the district can get its hands on the property, its new office could be opened in a year and a half.

“We would pay respect to the building and try to model ours off of the current structure,” Garza said. “It’s a win-win from our perspective.”

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba believes the Granger building has passed the point of saving. “We would have to take that building apart brick by brick in order to restore it,” she said.

But Zieba appreciates the seniors’ efforts to preserve the city’s history. “People like them make Reedley the unique city that it is. We really appreciate their work, but we wish they’d look at the facts.”

Bergthold and Linscheid say facts back them up.

They contacted Scott Vincent, a Fresno architect specializing in historic buildings. He and his team of engineers inspected the Granger warehouse about five years ago.

During his inspection, Vincent found the roof trusses needed reinforcement and the length-to-width ratio exceeded safety limits. However, he found it safe to be renovated.

He drew up a plan to have the building turned into a public library on one half, and a multipurpose meeting space on the other half. He estimated the cost at $7 million.

“Just because a building is condemned doesn’t mean it can’t be restored,” he said.

Bergthold has been down this path before. She’s had a hand in preserving old and historic Reedley buildings for decades. She and her late husband worked together in 1983 to save the historic Reedley Opera House.

“There were dead rats and stray cats in that building,” Bergthold said. “But now it’s beautiful and everyone loves it.”

Bergthold and her husband were able to buy the property with the help of two partners. When the opera house was renovated, the couple gave the building to the city. It is now used for local theater productions.

Bergthold remembers the process of saving the opera house from a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant that was pegged to fill the property.

“I didn’t want a bucket of chicken,” Bergthold said. “The whole experience was just very politically challenging.”

Bergthold was a schoolteacher in Reedley for many years, and her husband worked for the YMCA. Bergthold and her partners, Ruth Hase and David Matsurra, still own four of the older downtown buildings along Main Street, which are occupied by businesses. Due to her husband’s recent death, Bergthold hasn’t been able to acquire the Granger property.

“We need to work together with the city to make that building what it should be,” Bergthold said. “It would be a team effort — I couldn’t do it alone.”

The preservationists convinced LaVerne Youngberg, a former Reedley mayor, to join their movement. She said she always has been a fan of older buildings, but never had been an activist — until now.

“When I heard that building was going to come down, I had to say something,” Youngberg said.

She said it’s important for the city to see where the preservationists are coming from.

“We aren’t trying to stop progress, but rather integrate the present and past,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with new things; I just don’t want people to lose sight of where we came from.”

Many of the preservationists have been around Reedley for decades. Linscheid has seen the Granger building go through many stages.

“Every generation has found a new use for that building,” Linscheid said. “Saving the building might not be the path of least resistance, but we have to step up and take action.”

Whichever side wins the argument, hurdles remain. The school district still needs to acquire the property from the state of California, which obtained control when Reedley’s redevelopment agency was dissolved.

The preservationists readily acknowledge they don’t have the money to finance the building’s rehabilitation. They’re hoping the city or school district will dig deep to save the building.

“We’ve never been the ones with the deep pockets. We’re the visionaries,” Bergthold said. “This town has tons of visionaries. We just need to keep their visions alive.”

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