National Register of Historic Places

Fresno Bee Building

Fresno Bee Building (1922)

1545 Van Ness Avenue
Leonard F. Starks, Architect
Renaissance Revival


The Fresno Bee Building is located at Van Ness Avenue and Calaveras Street in downtown Fresno. Both in scale and detail, the building as originally designed was a modified Palazzo in appearance. Its ornamentation and fenestration was layered in a manner typical of Renaissance Revival commercial buildings designed during the 1920s. A raised basement supported a two-part building composition split by a molded and bracketed belt course, and capped by a terra cotta tile mansard roof. An intricately detailed cast concrete cornice marked a rigid contrast to the more casual California flavor of the mission-style roofing material. The raised base was accented by a pronounced plinth course, marble entablature inserts, cast ornaments, and a continuous Greek key detail along its top. These simple embellishments added to the impact of the rusticated triple arched entrance on the Van Ness elevation. The arched motif was repeated above the main entrance in the form of a recessed loggia with a cast plaster balustrade. A row of executive suites and editorial offices opened onto the open-air loggia through Florentine doors and windows.

The upper fenestration that dominated the Van Ness elevation was repeated above the belt course on the Calaveras facade in a row of five arched Florentine windows. A shallow balustrade, less decorated than the balustrade along the front loggia, completed this second level scheme. Below the belt course on the side street elevation, two rows of double hung sash windows introduced the utilitarian fenestration that characterized the south and rear elevations of the building. These "backsides" of the structure were unadorned expanses of functional concrete plaster, punctuated by industrial window openings, service entrances, ventilation hoods, and fire escape platforms and ladders.

The most decoratively appointed interior space was the central business office and public information area, located on the elevated first floor of the building. Public access to this 2000-square-foot room was made via either of two centrally opposed biaxial stairways. These stairways were tiled in a mosaic basketweave pattern with a side wainscoting of marble. A pair of cast bronze and glass display cases, mounted within the outermost arched openings, served as safety railings along the upper stairway landings. The stairwell cavity was topped by an ornately painted vaulted ceiling. Two brightly painted metal doors opened into the business office, which was nearly eighteen feet from floor to ceiling. The two-story space focused on a vault door set into a classic frontispiece of wood, marble and cast mythological ornamentations. A marble wainscoting was applied throughout the room in addition to a Caen stone wall treatment. Four simple square columns and a series of perimeter pilasters supported a massive beamed and coffered ceiling. The floors were surfaced in tile and marble. A marble-faced counter separated a public reception area from the main business office. Compared to the practical planning that was employed in most of the 80,000 square feet of functional space in the building, only the architectural scheme in the business office effectively echoed the classic revival trappings expressed on the exterior.

The Fresno Bee Building has undergone a continuous evolution of physical modification, the natural consequence of growth in staff operations and massive changes in printing technology. Except for minor repairs and alterations, the 1922 structure remained virtually original until 1936. A significant addition to the building was constructed that year to house an enlarged engraving department and studio space for radio station KMJ. Designed by the Fresno architectural firm of Franklin and Kump, this four-floor addition was thoughtfully connected to the old building at the south elevation. Its sensitive extension of the textural and ornamental patterns from the original facade rendered the enlarged structure nearly as successful a design as the original. Moderate changes were again made to the building in 1947, by Lake and Hastrup, Architects, of Fresno. These alterations included relocation of stairways, installation of additional floor levels, and modernization of interior appointments. The most damaging addition to the building, however, came in 1951, when a large pressroom and new entrance wing were designed by Lockwood Greene and Dunbar Beck. Although the additions succeeded in increasing the production requirements of the newspaper, they compromised the integrity of the original 1922 design, and annihilated the facade on the 1936 addition.

The newspaper's Van Ness facility was abandoned in 1975, when the Fresno Bee completed its relocation into a modern printing plant located in a West Fresno Redevelopment Area. In spite of the unfortunate effects of the 1951 addition, a substantial amount of original fabric remains intact on the exterior of the old building. Nevertheless, there have been numerous curious casualties, including the destruction of the business office vault and the almost baronial wall which that vault created; the removal of the original chandeliers, and their replacement with fluorescent fixtures wired through rough surface-mounted conduit; the wholesale partioning of the once-disciplined arrangement of offices and work spaces into a jumbled maze of corridors and interconnected rooms; the multiple repaintings of decorative features with industrial coatings totally alien in color to the theatrical tonal range originally used throughout the building; and the removal of the mansard roof, which was replaced by a pipe rail parapet.

Historical significance

On October 17, 1922, "From the midst of an unfinished building with the clatter of hammers drowning the click of typewriters, The Fresno Bee . . . emerged . . . with its first paper for Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley." The fledgling evening newspaper printed a five-section, sixty-page premier edition, which launched a decade of intense competition with the politically entrenched Fresno Morning Republican. As the newest arm of the Sacramento-based James McClatchy Publishing Company, The Fresno Bee initiated an aggressively competitive advertising and subscription campaign to capture circulation in this vast region of Central California. By 1932, the McClatchy-owned paper successfully absorbed the ailing Morning Republican into its bannerhead.

James McClatchy, an itinerant baker who emigrated to New York City from Liburn, County Antrim, Ireland, had "the fever of journalism . . . in his veins, and . . . drifted around the office of The New York Tribune where he became a fast friend of Horace Greeley." Greeley secured a position for McClatchy with the paper, then encouraged the young man to travel west as a correspondent for The Tribune. After a treacherous journey via the Isthmus of Panama to California, McClatchy settled into reporting the colorful and often violent territorial news.

McClatchy was a fiercely independent man, whose instincts sensed the limitless opportunities of the western territories. With characteristic ambition, he decided to publish his own newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, in the sparsely populated Gold Rush territory. Thus began "one of the longest unbroken lines of newspaper ownership in California, if not the longest."

When the McClatchy Publishing Company decided to establish a newspaper in Fresno, it hired architect Leonard F. Starks to design the building for that purpose. Starks was born in Healdsburg, California in 1891. Following his graduation from San Francisco's Lick Wilmerding Technical High School in 1908, Starks continued his architectural studies in San Francisco under the auspices of a seven-year duplicate study system offered by the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Paris.

Starks worked as a designer on the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco from 1913 to 1915, before relocating to work for Waddy Butler Wood, an architect in Washington, D.C. Wood had a significant reputation as the designer of many prominent commercial buildings and private residences in that city. A year later Starks moved to New York City to join the architectural firm of Thomas W. Lamb. In 1921 Lamb sent Starks to California to design and construct a chain of theaters for Famous Players. He soon left the Lamb firm to establish his own practice in Sacramento. Later that same year, the James McClatchy Publishing Company commissioned Starks to design a building for The Fresno Bee, which was the company's first major expansion outside the Sacramento area.

The Fresno Bee Building appears to have been one of Leonard Starks' first major designs working on his own. It reflects the influences of both his Beaux-Arts training and his theater work adapting the flamboyant idiom popularized by Thomas W. Lamb. The Bee Building blatantly broke with the conservative and sedate architectural styles that characterized most of the town, and became something of a "painted lady" with its classic details rendered in shades of yellow ochre, venetian red and cerulean blue.

In mid-1923, Starks joined E. C. Hemmings as a partner in the firm of Hemmings and Starks, Architects and Engineers. Hemmings, however, succumbed to a lingering illness a year later, leaving young Starks to complete a sizable backlog of projects. Edward Flanders joined Starks as an associate during this period, and in 1925 accepted a full partnership in the new firm of Starks and Flanders. This historically significant firm existed until Flanders' death in 1941. The catalog of works by Starks and Flanders was formidable, including the Fox Senator (1924), the Elks Temple (1925), the Alhambra (1927), the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse (1932), the Marysville City Hall (1939), and countless small commercial projects and residences. The work of Starks and Flanders helped fashion much of the architectural character of greater Sacramento and numerous Sacramento Valley communities.

Starks was extremely active in civic affairs during his career, and served as presidenct of the Society of Sacramento Architects, Chairman of the Sacramento Board of Appeals, member of the Sacramento Planning Commission, and the first president of the Central Valley Chapter of the A.I.A.

By 1965, Leonard Starks had retired to paint watercolors and sculpt after fifty-six years in the architectural profession.

The Fresno Bee Building stood vacant for several years after the newspaper moved to new facilities in 1975. It was later occupied by the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art, History and Science.

Adapted from the National Register of Historic Places nomination, originally prepared by John Edward Powell.