Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
uring the early years of the 20th century, Visalia was on a roll. Times were good by most measures, with advancements evident everywhere. Increased street lighting and telephone usage were just a couple of indicators that Visalia was moving in the right direction. Railroad transportation was another telltale sign of a bustling city.
In 1910, the Visalia Board of Trade reported, “There are 25 passenger trains everyday and the electric road [Visalia Electric Railroad] makes eight round trips daily.”
Even though the local economy was doing well, there was one area that needed attention. The town had no large building that could handle big events. Because of that, community leaders believed that the town was losing valuable business.
In 1910, a plan surfaced to build a modest facility, a move that would require passage of a $40,000 bond. To gauge public acceptance, on Jan. 12, 1911, the Visalia Daily Times asked the community the question, “Should the city put up a cheap structure or one that will be a credit to the municipality?” Susman Mitchell, a prominent business leader, responded publicly, saying, “If we are going to put up a building for this purpose, let us put up a good one or none at all.” Many agreed, and the early plan was overwhelmingly rejected.
So the idea for a larger facility moved forward. In 1914, the Visalia Board of Trade, led by its president, Charles A. Whitmore, emphasized the need for such a building. Most community leaders agreed, but a new facility would be expensive so a bond was needed.
The plan to build got a boost when it was noted that the local National Guard needed a new home and, by adding an armory as part of the new building, at least part of the funding problem would be solved. The state of California would pay for National Guard quarters, thereby reducing the total project cost.
The reasoning was sound, but the voters needed to pass a $50,000 bond. The bond election was set for June 29, 1915. Just two days before the vote, the Visalia Morning Delta let its position be known, warning, “Future growth of Visalia and our status as the metropolis of this section of the San Joaquin Valley will depend largely upon our facilities for public enterprise and entertainment.” There were two bond issues on the ballot — one for a city sewer upgrade and the other for the convention facility.
On Election Day, members of the National Guard shuttled voters to the polls, obviously hoping to get a favorable vote for their new home. Voting was light, with only about 1/3 of the registered voters casting their ballots, but the low voter turnout didn’t seem to matter. Both bond issues passed.
Rollin R. Harris, president of the Visalia Board of Trade, was obviously pleased and declared, “Every citizen of Visalia should be proud … a new era has dawned for our city….”
The Visalia Board of Trustees (City Council) hired the architectural firm Contes & Traver of Fresno to draw up the plans. In October 1915, official requests for contractors to submit bids for construction of the new building, which would be known as the Visalia Municipal Auditorium, were published. Bids came in from all over the state, and the Fresno company Trewhitt & Shields was selected. The contract was signed and the company had 150 working days to complete the job — just enough time for Visalia to host the League of California Municipalities’ annual convention.
The builder wasted no time. The site, previously occupied by the Pierce and Anderson Lumber Co., was on the north side of Acequia Avenue between Garden and Bridge streets. The site was cleared and quickly turned into a construction zone. Digging the huge basement created in a mountain of dirt, and as bricks and other materials arrived, Acequia was closed to traffic between Garden and Bridge.
The city requested bids for furnishings, fixtures and chairs for the new building and, to the delight of many, the Sweet Company of Visalia won the contract for the chairs.
While work was being done, the local boys of Company D, California National Guard, were called to serve in the Mexican border skirmish. Visalians promised to nicely furnish their “barracks” in the new building so it would be ready for them when they returned.
Construction of the building and arrival of the furnishings moved along nicely. On Feb. 22, 1916, a cornerstone ceremony took place organized by the local Masonic lodge. An estimated 5,000 were in attendance. It was an elaborate affair, complete with a parade, speakers and an appropriate ceremony for the placement of the cornerstone that had been filled with photographs, newspapers and other memorabilia of the day.
On July 4, 1916, the new building was ready for dedication, with plenty of time to spare for the League of California Municipalities’ convention. Visalia had waited for this hosting opportunity for a long time and, on Oct. 10, 300 distinguished visitors and their guests arrived from all over the state. The four-day affair was well received by the delegates, and Visalia earned accolades from those in attendance. Visalia Mayor Askin wrote an open letter of thanks to the locals, expressing his gratitude for the courtesy shown to the out-of-town visitors.
For nearly half a century, the building hosted conventions, National Guard exercises, rallies, wrestling matches and a host of other events. But by the 1950s, the auditorium that had served so well began to show its age. In 1963, after a thorough inspection, it was found to be unsafe.
On Dec. 17, 1963, the Visalia Times Delta announced the fate of the old structure: “City to Tear Down Auditorium.” By March 1964, demolition was complete. The cornerstone was salvaged but, unfortunately, exposure to the elements had almost totally destroyed the contents.
It would be another eight years before Visalia would replace the auditorium. In 1972, the existing Visalia Convention Center opened directly across the street from the site of the old auditorium. In 1991, the Convention Center was refurbished and doubled in size. Today, a parking structure stands where the old auditorium stood.
The Visalia Municipal Auditorium stood on the northeast corner of Acequia Avenue and Garden Street. Circa 1920
This interior view of the auditorium shows the 1917 meeting or convention of the Woodmen of the World.
This view shows the auditorium from Hyde Park, which was directly across Acequia Avenue. Circa 1925
This group photograph is believed to be delegates at the 1916 League of California Municipalities’ convention.