Committee begins work to save Visalia’s history

Historic Preservation Advisory Committee seeks volunteers to update survey of historic sites in and around downtown Visalia

VISALIA – One of Visalia’s first titans of industry was William Rufus Spalding. He and his wife moved to Visalia in 1899 and opened the W.R. Spalding Lumber Co. at 201 W. Main St. Over the next four decades, Spalding established his business as the premier lumber company in Tulare County and opened seven more lumber yards throughout the county.

The Spalding home at 631 N. Encina St. and nearby carriage house are among the oldest homes in the city. The Colonial Revival home was built by the lumberman in 1902 and incorporated the best woods in the area. His wife Carolyn owned a car made by Baker Motor Vehicle Co., reportedly Visalia’s first electric car, which was housed in the carriage house originally a tackhouse, stable and storage for buggies. Built in 1903, the “Carriage House” was later made into another home and give the address 208 W. Grove.

These two homes are among a small portion of the nearly 400 sites on Visalia’s Local Register of Historic Structures which have been designated as “exceptional,” meaning they are historically significant and in excellent condition and are protected from being demolished or relocated under the city’s ordinance. Yet 90% of the list falls into either the “focus” category – good to excellent quality that have significant value—and “background” category—may not be historically significant or unique in and of themselves, but contribute positively as a group to the “visual fabric” of Visalia—which are relatively unprotected from demolition under the current ordinance.

While there are many commercial buildings not designated as exceptional, they are protected for their location on prime real estate and with well paying commercial tenants. The history Visalia is in danger of losing are the historic homes which have not reached protected status. One of Visalia’s oldest homes could be torn down over any objections from the city. Built in 1883, the house at 617 N. Encina was once home to prominent businessman R.H. Stevens. Stevens owned an entire block of businesses in downtown Visalia, including his own Stevens General Merchandise. He had a private well and gas plant which supplied faucets with water and fuel for the gas lights.

The city has already lost one piece of residential history when the Odell-Mor building was demolished in May. The 1914 bungalow at 209 N. Encina was believed to be Visalia’s oldest multi-family housing development but the property was only given a background designation, so nothing could be done to prevent the building’s demise. The empty dirt lot now serves as reminder of how quickly the city’s history can be lost if it isn’t preserved.

“These buildings are in important piece to understanding the legacy of our community,” Walter Diessler said.

Diessler was part of original survey of the city’s historic buildings in 1978 when the city of Visalia formed its Historic Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC). Shortly after completing the survey, Diessler moved to Southern California where he could better do his job as an architect for In-N-Out burger chain, which at that time was only located in L.A. Basin. When he returned a year-and-a-half ago, he found the committee had dwindling participation, the list had not been updated since 2013 and the committee had not surveyed the buildings since the survey he helped organize more than 40 years ago.

Diessler is now chair of the HPAC which is beginning a new survey of all of the buildings in the city’s historic overlay district, bounded by Houston Avenue to the north, Tulare Avenue to the south, Giddings Avenue to the west and Santa Fe Avenue to the east.

Diessler said in the last year and a half, the committee has filled most of its seats, has the support of the city council and now needs an army of volunteers to complete the survey before any more historic homes and sites are lost.

“It doesn’t matter what part of town you live in, we need volunteers from every corner of Visalia to help save our history,” Diessler said.

The committee is partnering with Visalia Heritage to develop walking tours of historic buildings in the downtown area. Created out of the need have a nonprofit organization to raise money to help preserve the inventory of historic sites, Visalia Heritage was formed shortly after the city completed the original survey in 1978.

“I don’t think a lot of people even know we have a historic district,” Visalia Heritage president Michael Kreps said.

Through a partnership with Visit Visalia, the city’s tourism and marketing association, Visalia Hertiage developed a brochure of some of the more historic commercial buildings in partnership with Kaweah Kollectors and the local chapter of Questers International. Visalia Heritage wants to add residential properties to the tour and develop an interactive app tour goers could use on their smartphone, showing them videos, photos and reading them information on as the walk up to each site.

“There are some incredible stories to be told here,” Kreps, also a retired architect, said. “It helps provide people a deeper and richer connection with their community.”

Diessler said his ultimate goal is to create a cultural museum, where old photos, videos and artifacts from Visalia’s past could be stored, displayed and exhibited. Anyone interested in helping complete the new survey of the city’s historic buildings in and around downtown should call the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee at (559) 713-4443.

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