Bakersfield Built

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2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, the 1939 classic by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s searing images of dust-bowl migrants who came to the Central Valley to find food, work, and a better life for their families defined Bakersfield of the 1930s. While it is true that these migrants left an indelible stamp on Bakersfield’s culture, what has been lost is a story of a resilient city that, fueled by oil, agriculture, and the echo of a 1920s population boom, fared better than many cities during the Great Depression.

A survey of the built environment tells a powerful story about the people and the place. And a look at Bakersfield architecture of this epic American decade reveals the influences of national and international architectural movements—as well as some quintessentially regional ideas. A generation of Bakersfield public schools bore the identifying architectural language of these movements. Often under the umbrella of optimistic New Deal programs, these new styles evoked confidence in institutions and infrastructure with a modern twist. Downtown Bakersfield went upscale, transformed by the erection of escapist movie palaces and the modernization of retail stores with Machine Age goods for sale. And residential development kept apace. Bakersfield’s financial strength was reflected in new residences commissioned by its professionals and executives, many of whom invested in new homes ranging from avant-garde modern to romantic adobe structures—made modern through their plan, materials, and construction techniques.

During the 1930s, Bakersfield’s relative isolation waned. Although the first Ridge Route through the Grapevine was completed in 1915, during the 1930s a “high-speed” alternate route was completed. As a result, Bakersfield engaged in a more fluid economic and cultural dialogue with Southern California. Bakersfield architect Clarence Cullimore, Sr., FAIA, headed south to pursue a master’s degree in Architecture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and surveyed adobe buildings as far south as San Diego. Los Angeles-based Richard Neutra came north to design two Modern gems. The Bakersfield nightclub circuit increased in popularity, if not notoriety, among Los Angelenos looking farther afield for entertainment. Technological advances ushered in a golden age of nationwide radio and programming, creating a unified American experience that previously was inconceivable. New ideas were, literally, in the air. And fortunately, there was enough local commerce and money from federal building programs to build those ideas.

The result was a dynamic and modernized downtown, upgraded schools, and new housing tracts. However, earthquakes don’t play favorites. In 1952, Bakersfield suffered devastating earthquakes. They destroyed much of that handsome downtown and changed the architectural face of the city forever. Resilient, independent, and fiercely self-sufficient to the core, the people rebuilt the town with a strong, contemporary, mid-century aesthetic. As a result, the Bakersfield of the 1930s is but a memory. We present that memory here.