By JONATHAN MUMM
Business Journal writer
MODESTO – To a lot of people visiting or even living in Modesto, they probably just seem like interesting-looking old buildings. But dig a little deeper.
“I just did the tiniest bit of digging,” said Bob Barzan of the Modesto Art Museum, “and found things that made my head spin because actually right from the beginning in the 1800s, the people of Modesto brought in the best architects in the country to design their buildings.”
The earliest examples are the city’s old Victorian mansions.
“One of the most magnificent is the McHenry Mansion from 1883,” said Barzan. “That’s really a world-class, furnished, restored museum house and it’s free to go through.”
You’ll also find bungalow districts with their storybook houses. “The ones that look like Hansel and Gretel would come out of them at any moment.”
Although there aren’t many examples left, the Art Deco movement was represented here as well. But, starting in the 1930s, the city started getting national attention for buildings in a new style.
“They were experimenting here with a whole new type of architecture that we’re now calling Central Valley Modernist,” Barzan said.
That style remained in vogue from 1939 until the early 1970s. New York’s Museum of Modern Art featured examples of the buildings in an exhibit on modern architecture it held in the 1940s.
“In fact, one building from Modesto, the Heckendorf House, is on the cover of the catalogue of that trend setting exhibit,” Barzan pointed out.
The Modesto Art Museum has held guided architecture walks and publishes three guides to the city’s architecture. For its “Building a Better Modesto Program,” the museum recently received a $100,000 grant from ArtPlace America.
Although not based in any particular building or space, the Modesto Art Museum has had no trouble finding venues for its exhibits and events, one of which is the yearly Modesto International Architecture Festival. Started six years ago as a two-day film festival, last year it ran nine days and featured 82 events. It is considered one of the oldest and largest architecture festivals in the world. This year it will run from September 14-22.
“That festival has done a phenomenal job,” said Jennifer Mullen of the Modesto Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She sees architectural tourism as a growing thing.
“People actually coming, wanting to come to your area,” she said, “Modesto especially. We have a couple of (architect) Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, for example. That’s one of the bigger names you associate with.”
Those homes, however, are private residences, so there are no tours available. However, there is still plenty to see and now a movement to paint murals on the sides of city buildings has seen four such paintings go up. So far, the murals have been tapping into the part of Modesto’s heritage that was forever enshrined in local boy George Lucas’ hit film “American Graffiti,” based on his days as a teenager cruising the city’s streets.
“So far the murals have classic cars, hot rods, that kind of thing, and it is definitely drawing people” Mullen said. “We have one at 13th and J in downtown Modesto and oh, my gosh, you’d be surprised at the number of people who pull over, park their car and take a picture of their car in front of the mural!”
Although a group called Murals in Motown is planning more, the ones painted so far have been through the efforts of “ModestoView” magazine’s Chris Murphy and John Black of the Peer Recovery Art Project Gallery. “We totally believe that murals and art draw people downtown,” said Murphy. “And I think it gives people who live here a sense of pride when they see stuff like that up on the walls.”
Murphy believes the murals will even get the respect of so-called graffiti artists and in fact, the Peer Recovery’s Black called in former tagger Aaron Vickery to do some of the art work.
“His point was let’s take these graffiti artists and let’s show they can put their work to use for really, really cool stuff,” Murphy said.
And as to the debate over tagging vs. art?
“We’re not even going to get suckered into that conversation,” he said. “These are legitimate mural pieces by artists.”
But the murals aren’t the only works of art Modesto is proud of. Held on the third Thursday of the month, the downtown Modesto Art Walk showcases local galleries featuring local artists.
“And what’s cool is even places that aren’t galleries are opening up and showing their art work, like Intrinsic Elements, for instance,” said Murphy.
“It’s a boutique but they feature an artist and they stay open for Art Walk. They recognize the benefit of people coming downtown, strolling, going out to dinner, shopping in our stores.
I think people recognize the value of creating an Art Walk for foot traffic.” The Convention and Visitors’ Bureau’s Mullen agrees.
“The Art Walk is year round,” she said. “It’s very popular for local residents and a neat addition for our tourists.”