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Press Coverage

Taste of Old Fig

Its charm stems from the diverse styles of homes

By SANFORD NAX
Fresno Bee
May 13, 2007

Goldsmith Home
  The Goldsmith home in Old Fig Garden will be one of the houses featured in a historic homes tour presented by the Fresno City and County Historical Society.
Eric Paul Zamora / The Fresno Bee

Families in Fresno's historic Old Fig Garden neighborhood have never opened their houses for viewing, so that makes an upcoming tour pretty special.

Five houses in Old Fig, constructed between 1920 and 1948, are on the tour Friday night and Saturday.

They include a 1920s home at 711 E. Ashlan Ave. built for Sen. Morris B. Harris that still has original wallpaper depicting a British hunting scene; a 1937 house on Wilson Avenue constructed by Gareth Gillis of Sterling Laundry that contains an original bar and poker table; and a 1933 Colonial Revival on Van Ness Boulevard that has original windows and an "H" floor plan that provided three-sided ventilation. It was built for businessman Leon Levy and his wife, Elizabeth.

Also displayed will be a 1948 ranch-style house on Wishon that has its roots in North American Spanish colonial architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the former Bert and Mary M. Goldsmith house at 4341 Van Ness from 1920 that is the site of a wine and hors d'oeuvres gathering from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday.

The neighborhood, defined by the Fig Garden Homeowners Association as the area bounded by Shields, Shaw, Blackstone and Fruit avenues, is one of Fresno's most unique communities. Lots are large, trees offer shade, landscaping is lush and the area is without curbs, gutters and sidewalks.

Houses often sell quickly.

"It's a wonderful neighborhood where they take care of each other," said Paula Conner, a longtime real estate agent.

Archivist and history professor Kevin Enns-Rempel attributes part of Old Fig's charm to a diversity of housing built over decades instead of months like today's suburban subdivisions.

The story of Old Fig Garden looms large in local history books. The Old Fig story is also the story of J.C. Forkner, a visionary one-time lawyer from Kansas who turned to real estate development.

Born in 1873, Forkner first developed property in Kansas where he began settling people on foreclosed farms after the panic of 1893. He moved to Los Angeles in 1900 and within months made $8,000 on a land deal near Bakersfield. He moved to Fresno 10 years later because he was convinced it would become the largest city in the San Joaquin Valley, according to information from the Fresno Historical Society.

In 1912, he started acquiring 12,000 acres of hardpan and hog wallow north of downtown where he spent $8 million developing home sites. A University of California professor also introduced Forkner to local nurseryman George G. Roeding and Henry Markarian, who grew figs where Manchester Center is now.

Twenty-five miles of canals and 135 miles of lateral ditches were dug to carry water to the property that later became Old Fig Garden. He bought 46 Fordson tractors to level the land, a purchase that was so large it prompted Henry Ford to hop in a Model T and drive to Fresno to investigate.

Forkner's men used 660,000 pounds of dynamite to blast holes through the hardpan so that 600,000 fig trees could be planted, eventually becoming the world's largest fig orchard. They also planted 60,000 deodar cedars, oleander and eucalyptus, many of them along the nine-mile stretch of Van Ness Boulevard from the city limits to the San Joaquin River. The Fresno Chamber of Commerce condemned the project, claiming the land was worthless. "The Chamber of Commerce accused him of being a swindler," said Carole Lester, spokeswoman for the Fresno Historical Society. "So he took out ads saying he would give $1,000 to anyone who could not find hardpan."

Chunks of that hardpan were used to build garden walls and waiting stations for a street car line that ran along Wishon Avenue from downtown to the river.

Forkner persuaded people to buy 10 acres to 40 acres, build homes and grow figs for profit. As the area developed, people built houses styled after the popular designs of the day.

"There is a wide variety of styles partly because they [houses] weren't built simultaneously. Fig Garden took decades to fill out," Enns-Rempel said.

Period revival, bungalows, adobe and ranch can be found in Old Fig. Many of the houses have libraries, sitting rooms, basements, leaded windows and other features common in those days, said Louise Yenovkian, president of the Fig Garden Homeowners Association.

"You drive into that neighborhood and all of a sudden you're in a very different place," Enns-Rempel said.

Enns-Rempel will highlight the role the sprawling single-story ranch-style house played in the development of the neighborhood in a lecture he'll give Saturday. A ranch-style house often was oriented toward the backyard instead of the front. Large picture windows looked into a backyard that was often enclosed by the "L" or "U" shape of the home.

"The ranch home really took shape in the '30s," he said. "It became the style of choice of developers in post World War II."

But the ranch-style houses in Old Fig were often kicked up a notch from the typical suburban ranch. "A lot of these are high-style examples on larger lots," Enns-Rempel said.

People who go on the home tour will view the insides and outsides of the houses. The Friday night tour will be by candlelight after wine and hors d'oeuvres, Lester said. The Saturday tours start at the first house at 4341 N. Van Ness.

Proceeds go to the Fresno Historical Society.

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