GLIMPSE OF SBC’S PAST: Old Railroad Gems: Restoration And Reuse (Part I)

(October 10) By Ruth Musser-Lopez
Our county is graced from east to west with old precious railroad gems in the form of magnificent historic structures financed by railroad corporations to serve as depots and service stops as well as destination points along its rail lines.  Here in San Bernardino County we know how to take to the extreme the Mediterranean romantic architectural splendor with parapets, arches, colonnades and red roof tiles, maximizing that exotic flair that one would expect on the Spanish Riviera or in a Moroccan oasis.   In Spain, castles exemplify the grandeur of romantic architectural style; in San Bernardino County it’s our railroad stations and depots that serve as the bulwark of our vintage romantic structural design knowhow.
In Spain, Moorish influence is found at its southern boundaries at the enchanting Alhambra Palace of Granada.  Here, our county seat holds the claim to one of the crown jewels of precious railroad gems near its western entry. This enchanting gateway, the 1918 San Bernardino County Station was designed in the Mission Revival Style with Moorish Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival features which add to its magnificence and complexity. The structure served as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) Railroad depot with additions of living quarters and a Harvey House added a few years later, replacing the 1886 two-and-a-half-story wooden structure that burnt down in a 1916 fire. Construction was made at the behest of San Bernardino local politicians to replace what preceded it on a much larger scale…and it came at greater expense.  Previous to 1886, a converted boxcar served as the depot so obviously, big strides had been made to return some railroad capital into San Bernardino County since the California Southern Railroad’s cross-continent route was bridged to the Pacific in 1884.
The new station designed by architect W. A. Mohr was built at a cost of $800,000, which adjusts to $12 million or so today, although it is doubtful such a triumphant edifice could be built for that sum now.   It was at the time the largest railway station west of the Mississippi River.   Including hollow clay blocks within its walls, a red tile roof and stucco exterior, the new depot was fashioned to withstand fire.  High beams, coffered ceilings and decorative column capitals all were handcrafted and a 330-foot arcade extended between the depot and the tracks. (
Unfortunately however, as is the case of any structure not properly maintained, the 1918 architectural centerpiece began to fall into decline.  Through a $15.1 million acquisition and rehabilitation effort shared by the San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) and the City of San Bernardino, the Santa Fe Depot was acquired by SANBAG in 1992, restoration began in 2004 and today the fine “county gate” has been restored to its former beauty.  Since June of 2004, SANBAG has been occupying and reusing offices upstairs in the depot located at 1170 W. 3rd Street, between Mt. Vernon Avenue and I Avenue, west of Interstate 215.
In 1908, ten years earlier than the new Harvey House in San Bernardino was built, a “Crown Jewel” had been constructed on the east gate of San Bernardino County; in Needles the “El Garces” named after the Spanish padre/explorer, had put the old wood structure depot in the county seat to shame.  Originally used as the Santa Fe Depot and Harvey House restaurant and hotel in historic downtown Needles, it was built by the Fred Harvey Company on contract with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  The hotel was designed by architect Francis W. Wilson in an elegant Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts style and was considered to be the supreme “Crown Jewel” of the entire Fred Harvey chain.   After construction of Route 66 was completed in the 1920s, passenger traffic on the Santa Fe drastically declined and even though the traffic on Route 66 passed by the station, the restaurant and hotel were closed permanently by 1949.
Afterward, the original imported Italian tiles and chandeliers, along with other precious appurtenances, furnishings and fixtures “disappeared” over the years.  The structure fell into disrepair; rooms were trashed by squatters or given over to bats, rats and pigeons.  In 1988 Amtrak stopped using the station and the Santa Fe made plans to demolish it. The city of Needles, however, stepped in to purchase the property and building in the 1990s.  When restoration was considered, the only financially feasible alternative seemed to be initial gutting and cleanup.  As of 2002, it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some restoration and reconstruction of the historic El Garces began in 2007, by the owners of another historic hotel, the La Posada, in Arizona.
Work seems to be intermittent as funding is available, though it is starting to “come around” in appearance with new paint and the prospects look promising for new glass window treatments soon.  An injection of new funds, perhaps a little more help from SANBAG, wouldn’t hurt.

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