National Register of Historic Places

San Joaquin Light & Power Building

San Joaquin Light & Power Corporation Building (1924)

1401 Fulton Street
Richard F. Felchlin, Architect
Italian Renaissance Revival



The San Joaquin Light and Power Corporation (SJL&P) Building was constructed between 1923 and 1924 in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. The principal elevations face northeast onto Fulton Street and southeast onto Tuolumne Street. There are two less ornate side elevations, one facing southwest onto an alley, and the other facing northwest toward an adjacent one-story brick commercial building. The building is constructed up to the property lines, and there are no landscape features.

The SJL&P Building has two symmetrical principal elevations with a rectangular plan. These elevations are vertically divided into three sections based on the classical form. The first and second floors make up the "base," the third to seventh floors are the "shaft" and the eighth to tenth floors (including the roof) are the "capital." The base and capital sections are clad with terra cotta made to mimic the appearance of granite. The shaft is clad mainly with brick, with terra cotta trim.

There are entrances at either end of the Tuolumne Street elevation and both ends of the Fulton Street elevation. Three of these entrances lead into the display room, while the entrance at the northwest end of the Fulton Street elevation leads into the lobby. There is one set of original double doors at the southwest entrance facing Tuolumne Street; this entrance also retains its original cast iron security gates. The other three entrances have non-original metal and glass double doors apparently installed in the 1980s. A pointed arch surrounds each entrance. Within each arch is a cartouche, with cascading thick ribbons. A row of dentils are located above. The lunette with each arch has a circular bronze medallion cast with the letters "San Joaquin Power" and the image of a transmission line. In turn, there is a rectangular panel inset above the entrance arches. Each panel is symmetrical with typical classical details such as a rosette, fruit and ribbon swag, acanthus and ribbons. Original octagonal tapered bronze light fixtures flank the entrances. The fixtures have acanthus details, and are each topped with a pinecone in the center.

A continuous row of fixed plate glass display windows with metal sashes is located between the entrances at each of the principal elevations. Suspended bronze canopies shelter both sets of windows. The top outer sections of the canopies are topped with highly ornamental heart-and-pin drop-patterned ironwork cresting. There are regularly-spaced rosettes on the side panels of the canopies. Pinecones hang underneath the front of each canopy. Regularly-spaced non-original rectangular light fixtures are located underneath the canopies. They appear to have been installed in the 1980s. Above each canopy is a row of ribbon windows, and in turn there are entablatures. The frieze has a vertical wavy pattern, and the band above it has regularly spaced paterae.

The second floor at the principal elevations consists of simple 1/1 light, regularly-spaced, wood double-hung sash windows with lamb's tongues. Most of the primary elevation windows of the floors above are of the same type and material. The two outer windows at each primary elevation are spaced a little further apart from the rest of the windows and have faux bronze balconies with symmetrical acanthus and rosette details. Interspersed between each window are vertical panels with symmetrical cartouche, medallion, acanthus and ribbon details. There is an entablature above the second floor windows. The frieze consists of regularly-spaced rosettes interspersed with acanthus, with a cable molding border below. The cornice includes a bead-and-reel pattern.

The third-to-seventh-floor (shaft) exterior walls are clad with beige brick. There are nineteen bays at the Tuolumne Street elevation and nine at the Fulton Street elevation. These are called out by a continuous vertical feature between each single window. The outer windows at each elevation, however, are set a little farther apart from the others and are not divided by this vertical feature; casings surround the third-floor outer windows, each with an entablature. Balusters are located just below the wood double-hung sash windows at the third-floor level. Between each floor are rectangular terra cotta panels, with a band below with paterae designs. The entablatures above the seventh-floor windows consists of a frieze with regularly-spaced rosettes, and a cornice that includes and egg-and-dart pattern.

The exterior walls at the eighth-to-tenth-floor (capital) levels are clad entirely with terra cotta features. The eighth and ninth floors are distinguished by a Corinthian order engaged colonnade. The Tuolumne Street elevation has sixteen columns, while the Fulton Street elevation has six columns. Each column has fluted shafts, and is interspersed with wood double-hung sash windows and decorative panels bordered below by a band with rosettes. Each colonnade is in turn flanked by pilasters. Both the columns and pilasters have Corinthian order details within the capitals. The outermost windows at each elevation are set a little apart from the others. The eighth floor of these outer windows at each elevation has a pediment supported by ancones, with dentils in between. The frieze within the entablature has a repeated pattern of double swags interspersed with what appear to be medallions. The cornice above includes dentils as well as an egg-and-dart pattern.

Balusters and a shallow balcony extend the entire width of the tenth floor at the Tuolumne Street elevation. There also is a row of wood double-hung sash windows at the Tuolumne Street elevation. There are no windows at this level of the Fulton Street elevation. Instead, it consists of one large terra cotta panel bordered by a pattern with interspersed swag and rectangular shapes.

The hipped roof is made of concrete slabs clad with Spanish clay tiles. There also are flat areas of the roof that are clad with composite material. There is a crocket, likely made of terra cotta or cast iron, at each of the four corners. At the center of the roof is a rectangular metal sign, 120 feet long and 15 feet high, topped with a horizontal band with circular openings, which in turn is topped with regularly-spaced finials with swag details. The sign is currently mounted on either side with letters reading "Trade Center." This originally read "San Joaquin Power," and the letters "P.G. and E." were later mounted. The original sign was described as a huge electric sign with five-foot-tall flashing letters. Scars from these earlier letters are evident on the sign. The metal sign is flanked by cartouches on either side. They consist of a cabochon with a scroll and a scallop shell above. Each cartouche is in turn flanked by two squat rectangular fluted shafts topped with fruit and flower clusters interspersed with ribbons. Original radio towers rise from the top of the cartouches, with cross bracing throughout the structures. Today there also are satellite dishes as well as cellular antennae mounted onto the towers. In addition to the electric sign, the entire building was originally lighted with multi-colored floodlights with forty-six different variations.

Unlike the two principal elevations, the two side elevations are simply clad with plaster, punctuated by regularly-spaced window openings and one door at the southwest elevation. There are a few sporadic windows at the tenth floor level at these elevations. The double-hung window sashes at these elevations are metal, and the lights are embedded with chicken wire. The first-floor windows at the southwest elevation have metal bars. A few of these windows have been boarded over. There also is a fire escape located at this elevation.


The first-floor lobby is accessed from a set of double doors located at the northwest end of the Fulton Street elevation. The walls and floors are clad entirely with marble. The off-white marble on the walls are clad to resemble ashlar stone; the baseboard is distinguished by darker green marble. The entablatures, located just below the ceiling, consists of a plain frieze and a cornice with dentil details. There are three non-original beveled glass chandeliers in this space. There originally was a consumer department with offices located to the southwest off of the lobby area, which in turn led to a counter space located in the display room. These offices were originally lighted with a light court located at the second-floor level; these have since been enclosed, and equipment has since been installed. A bronze building directory is mounted on the wall facing the entrance into the lobby; it consists of classical details such as fluted pilasters, and acanthus and scallop shells. Three banks of elevators are located in the space behind the directory. The elevator cars are original, but the interiors were replaced in the 1980s or 1990s. There is a non-original circa-1980s wood security desk located at the east corner of the lobby.

The first-floor display room is a large open rectangular space with a mezzanine at the southwest section accessed by a set of wrought iron stairs with quatrefoil, rosette and acanthus details. The mezzanine has a railing grille of the same pattern as those of the stairs, and looks over the display room. The floors and baseboards of this room are clad with marble, and the walls are of cast stone blocks. There are four free-standing octagonal columns within the larger space at the northeast section, and two identical columns at the mezzanine that extend up to the mezzanine level. These columns are partially fluted and have shield details. There also are about an equal number of engaged columns at the northwest end of the room. The bronze doors and window surrounds leading to the street at the east corner are original, as is the interior entrance at the northwest end leading into the lobby. These entrances have classical details such as rosettes and cartouches. The plaster ceiling has rectangular panels extending between each column; these panels have urn designs bordered with Vitruvian wave patterns. The walls have cornice details consisting of dentils, bead-and-reel and acanthus. There are fourteen non-original chandeliers in this room, identical to those currently in the lobby. A consumers department with marble counters and linotile floor originally was located at the northwest side of the room. These features have since been removed, and a small stage was recently added in its place. A cigar stand and stock room originally was located at the north corner of the room, facing onto the lobby. This also has been removed.

Offices occupy the second to ninth floors. These floors generally are distinguished by large open spaces surrounded by individual offices located adjacent to the windows. The floors are carpeted. The walls are plaster, although some of the surfaces have been reclad with acoustic tiles. The baseboards are wood. At most of the office floors, the office spaces are separated from the elevator banks via wood partition walls with glass lights. On each of the levels, the original ceilings are covered with acoustic tiles and the original light fixtures have been removed in favor of fluorescent lighting and ceiling fans ranging in date from about the 1940s to the 1980s.

The auditorium, today called the ballroom, is located at the tenth floor. A stage with an elliptical arch marks the southwest end of the auditorium. At the opposite end are motion picture booth openings on the wall near the ceiling. The room has hardwood floors and an elliptical barrel-vaulted ceiling that runs the length of the space. The interior walls are of cast stone blocks. This room is distinguished by its decorative plasterwork above the spring level of the barrel vault. There is an entablature at the spring level. It consists of a frieze with a repeated swag pattern, interspersed with a medallion and surrounded by ribbons. As a continuation of the frieze, nearer the stage are shields with the initials "SJP" flanking each side. Medallions illustrating an electrical transmission pole also flank the stage. Within the arch of the stage are three additional medallions; the center one also shows a transmission pole; these are interspersed with bands with rosette and acanthus details. Except for the original rectangular panels, the ceiling today is clad with acoustic tiles, likely from the 1950s. A library also is located at the northeast end of the tenth floor; it does not have the decorative plasterwork and barrel-vaulted ceiling of the auditorium. The cafeteria/kitchen, located at the northwest section, has its original plan, tile floor, tile counter tops, sink and light fixtures. The elevator banks lead directly into the auditorium lobby, which has walls and floors clad with off-white marble panels. Most of the surfaces are of beige-colored marble, with the baseboards in a darker green hue.

Historical Significance

The San Joaquin Light & Power Corporation had its beginnings in 1895 and then expanded to serve the rapidly-growing light and power needs of the San Joaquin Valley. The construction of this building in 1923-1924 is symbolic of the prestige and significance the company had attained. Also at this time, the City of Fresno had grown from a small town to a major city. A building boom during the 1910s and 1920s resulted in construction of a sizable number of significant buildings. This building was and still remains a significant visual landmark in the city, and is an excellent example of the Italian Renaissance Revival style. In addition, it was constructed by R. F. Felchlin Co., an important local architectural, engineering and construction firm.

The San Joaquin Light & Power Corporation provided electricity to seven San Joaquin Valley counties and also supplied the electrical current distributed by the Midland Counties Public Service Corporation in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. The SJL&P had its beginnings on 1 April 1895, as the San Joaquin Electric Company, when the company built Powerhouse No. 1 on the San Joaquin River thirty-seven miles from Fresno. The company, however, declared bankruptcy in 1899. William C. Kerckhoff and A. C. Balch purchased the company in 1902. They renamed and incorporated it as the San Joaquin Power Company on 13 May 1905. Albert G. Wishon was named manager. The company became the San Joaquin Light & Power Corporation in 1910. It was to play an important role in supplying electricity to Fresno and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, where large areas were being farmed and towns were being established and growing in response to the booming agricultural industry. The SJL&P played a crucial role in the growth of the San Joaquin Valley as the leading agricultural force in California. By 1920, the SJL&P was an established and significant public utility, with eleven powerhouses and a vast array of transmission lines throughout the Valley.

The SJL&P Building was erected during the building boom of the 1910s and 1920s, when Fresno was prosperous and growing rapidly. The agricultural industry was booming, thanks in large part to the SJL&P, which provided the required power via their transmission lines. During this era Fresno grew from a small town to a city with a significant number of new high-rise buildings. The Hotel Fresno (1913), Helm Building (1914), Bank of Italy Building (1917) and Mason Building (1918) were built in the 1910s, while the Mattei Building (1922), T. W. Patterson Building (1922), Pacific Southwest Building (1923) and Radin-Kamp Department Store (1924) are examples of buildings constructed in the 1920s. Except for the Radin-Kamp Department Store, these buildings are eight stories or taller. These buildings define the Fresno skyline, which did not change at all until the 1960s. It still remains very similar today to its appearance following the 1910s and 1920s boom.

When ground was broken for the SJL&P Building with an elaborate ceremony on 27 September 1922, The Fresno Bee called it "Fresno's Champion Skyscraper." A monumental anchor to the northeast end of Fulton Street, the building is symbolic of the culmination of the SJL&P's success in distributing hydroelectric power to the San Joaquin Valley. The building was distinctive in that, during its early years, it was brilliantly illuminated with colored floodlights, making it highly visible throughout the city. Forty-six different varieties of colors were arranged to create striking effects. They supposedly were the brightest illumination in the Pacific Southwest. In addition, the rooftop sign with the company name was lit. This was a monumental and significant building for the city.

By 1930, the SJL&P had merged with the Great Western Power Company, and both became part of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). The SJL&P name and identity finally merged completely into the parent PG&E Company in 1939. The name on the roof sign, however, did not change to PG&E until well after World War II. PG&E vacated the building and moved into another building in Fresno in 1987.

The SJL&P Building is a highly significant building in Fresno, both as a visual architectural landmark for the City and as an excellent example of the Italian Renaissance Revival style.

Adapted from the National Register of Historic Places nomination, originally written by Christeen Taniguchi (Galvin & Associates) and Barry Price (Applied Earthworks, Inc.).