Fresno County Courthouse

November 27, 2011

The historic Fresno County Courthouse, photographed in February of 1963, three years before it was torn down.

Then: Fresno Bee

Thought by many to be the grandest building in the Central San Joaquin Valley, the old Fresno County Courthouse might also have been the most controversial.

It was celebrated before it was even built.

On the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1874, a brass band led a procession of fraternal lodge members, dignitaries and visitors from as far away as Stockton and Visalia. They marched from the train station to the site where the courthouse would be built at Mariposa and K (now Van Ness) streets.

Fresno County District Attorney C.G. Sayle proclaimed it would be “the grandest and noblest edifice that has ever been planned and contemplated in this valley.”

“The said edifice, when completed, is expected to stand the storms of winter and the heat of summer, for the period of 1,000 years or more,” he declared.

Unfortunately, it didn’t survive even 100 years, but no one could have foreseen that in those heady days.

The county seat had been moved to the settlement of Fresno from the Gold Rush town of Millerton in 1874, and the board of supervisors soon voted to issue bonds for a courthouse as big as their aspirations. The 19th-century neoclassical style drew inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman design.

Historian L.A. Winchell colorfully described the scene of its construction on the outskirts of town in spring 1875: “Springtime spread its wonderful robe of flowers over the plain, and all around the workers-to the very walls of the courthouse-the ridge blazed with the flame of the royal poppy. Here, at sunrise one morning, curiously drawn towards the red walls of the building, a band of antelope ranged their ranks in cavalry front and stood like statues, inquiring the strange danger, until a moving enemy startled them in column flight to the far, unbroken horizon.”

The building was completed that year at a cost of about $56,000.

Expansion followed in 1893 with two new wings and a stately copper dome. Imposing statues depicting the Goddesses of Justice stood atop each wing, and another, the Goddess of Liberty, towered over the main vestibule. A fire two years later, on July 29, 1895, gutted and collapsed the central portion of the building, melting the copper-sheathed dome. The building was restored and served the the county for another half-century.

The end of its life was controversial, and hard feelings remain today. By the early 1960s, officials saw the old courthouse as obsolete, antiquated and cramped. More importantly, it was deemed unsafe. A structural survey said it would not be not able to withstand a strong earthquake. The board of supervisors, viewing restoration as too expensive, voted for demolition, and to replace it with the current version, an imposing eight-story structure built in the midcentury modern style.

Preservationists didn’t go down without a fight.

Lawsuits were filed, reaching the state supreme court twice. But the supervisors prevailed, and construction of the new courthouse began in 1964, in front of the old one.

Friends of the old courthouse had their say during the 1964 elections, organized so effectively that three supervisors who supported demolition were voted out of office. Wreckers at the time bragged that they could bring down the courthouse’s iconic 50-ton dome in two hours. It took nine hours, suggesting to many that it was not as “structurally unsafe” as believed.

A monument marks the spot of the base of the Van Ness Avenue entrance
steps to the original courthouse.

Today's Fresno County Courthouse, built in the Mid-Century Style, with its distinctive honey-combed sunscreen facade. The old courthouse sat just behind this structure.

Now: John Walker/The Fresno Bee