Preservation group asking for the public’s help in saving the railway depot in Old Town Kern.
No one knows the total number of historic buildings that have been demolished in Bakersfield to make room for “progress.”
But a group of conservationists, advocates, architects, and businesses have formed a local group with the express goal of saving just one building from the wrecking ball.
It was built in 1889 as the South Pacific Railroad depot at Baker and Sumner Streets in East Bakersfield and is now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad.
“I just can’t believe we’d let the railroad level this historic treasure,” said Jeff Johnson, a business consultant who volunteers as a member of the Save the Sumner Station Task Force.
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“The nostalgic value of that building is enormous,” he said. “We also believe that the rehabilitation of the deposit would help with the economic development of the eastern Bakersfield area.”
The task force is asking for the public’s help in convincing the city of Bakersfield, and members of the City Council, to extend an ongoing “maintenance lease” designed to protect the historic repository, said Stephen Montgomery, an architectural preservationist since a long time ago and chairman of the working group.
The lease is for only one year and must be extended, said Montgomery, who is also a commissioner on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
“While we in the group have been meeting with local officials with the intention of persuading them to extend the maintenance lease beyond the current one-year contract limit, we cannot do it alone,” Montgomery said in a Facebook post. “The citizens of Bakersfield must get involved and convince the members of the City Council that the lease must be extended.”
The repository was slated for imminent demolition, The Californian reported last year, but a Bakersfield City Council vote in May gave preservationists some breathing space, said Andrae Gonzales, a District 2 councilmember.
Thanks to council action, the city was able to negotiate a 12-month lease and maintenance plan with Union Pacific for the property and improvements at the 700 Sumner St. location. The council approved the lease on June 16.
The lease includes an agreement with Tel Tec Security, which installed an alarm system and contracted to provide monitoring services at the warehouse for a period of 12 months, at a cost of $71,000, Gonzales said.
The council also approved estimated additional costs to maintain the structure.
“We’ve spent the $71,000 on the security system,” Gonzales said. “We expect to spend $30,000 on system monitoring at the end of the 12 months.”
The city spent approximately $10,000 to board up and maintain the building.
“Thefts have been less than expected,” Gonzales said, “so we may spend a little less than the $130,000 that was budgeted. I guess we’ll spend $120,000 by the end of the fiscal year.”
Now that the security measures are in place, Gonzales said, he expects the second year’s costs to come down.
In the meantime, everyone involved knows that all it would take is a destructive arson fire and their hopes and efforts would be dashed as yet another historic structure is lost. But the new security system seems to be holding up.
Local architect Jeannie Bertolaccini, director of Ordiz-Melby Architects, is also a member of the working group. Senior Project Leader Kathy Grishaber, under Bertolaccini’s direction, is in the process of creating a three-dimensional model of the building’s exterior as it is expected to look after rehabilitation, which would include removing plaster from the original brick veneer.
Such a revival occurred when the Fox Theater was threatened with demolition but was instead transformed into a downtown centerpiece. It happened again when the stucco was removed from the century-old Security Trust Bank at 18th Street and Chester Avenue. After years of work, that once condemned building was converted into a one-of-a-kind local restaurant.
Bertolaccini believes the 133-year-old deposit also has potential for greatness. She said she wants people to see “what’s buried under all that plaster.”
Eventually, Ordiz-Melby will have a full-flight video showing in 3-D animation what the building would look like when it gets a full makeover.
But the cost of such an undertaking will be much more expensive than just buying some breathing room.
According to city estimates, between $295,000 and $443,000 would be needed for immediate improvements to the site, The Californian reported last year.
The cost of a full rehab could range from $5 million to $10 million.
“I think the money is there … federal money,” Johnson said. He also believes that Union Pacific can be convinced to do more to help.
After all, the depot is connected to rich railroad history in East Bakersfield. The steel rails helped bring Basque sheepherders, wool farmers, eaters, and a treasured Basque culture that continues to draw tourists and locals to Kern’s Old Town.
After Ordiz-Melby’s video tour is complete, he will be introduced to Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh and other city officials, Bertolaccini said.
Taskforce members insist that failure is not an option.
“We’re trying to find the right developer for this project,” Gonzales said. “We will find a new life for the deposit.
“Anyone with a heart for Old Town Kern knows how important this train depot is,” he said, “as a historic landmark and anchor in East Bakersfield.”