FRESNO — From the vantage point of Freeway 41, above the train tracks and the house where writer William Saroyan grew up, Fresno's new city hall jars the landscape--a mirage in the desert of humdrum.
Sleek and futuristic, all glass and stainless steel, it looks like a gleaming vessel visiting from space. The five-story sloping design is supposed to be emblematic of the Central Valley ascending to Sierra. It's hard to imagine a more discordant shrine.
People here either love it or hate it. Trying to describe the indescribable, they have reduced it to sobriquets. The Starship Enterprise. Twin Peaks. Madonna's Bra. Darth Vader. The Chrome Dome.
It cost $30 million, people are bothered by sunlight reflecting off it, and on a recent hot day city workers sweltered inside.
On its shimmering shoulders rests a heavy load: to save a dying downtown; to help this city crack the big leagues; to erase once and for all those sneering surveys ranking Fresno at the bottom of America's desirable places to live.
"Look at the buildings around it--boxes of cornflakes without the brand name Kellogg on them," says Ray Salazar, the city's construction engineer. "We could have had one of those buildings for 10 or 12 or 15 million.
"But this building is something you want to tell your friends about back East. It's a statement and a half."
That statement, like beauty, depends on who is gazing.
Workers in nearby offices grumble about the glare--it is like a giant radiating mirror.
"I'm staring at the backside of Darth Vader's helmet," a state health and safety worker said from his perch across the street.
"It's quite intense. A real aura. But couldn't they have come up with something a little less costly and a little more in line with the rest of downtown?"
Others wonder about the wisdom of erecting a stainless steel and glass structure in one of the hottest spots in the country, where it takes the August sun just 12 days to blister a grape into a raisin.
Last week the mercury hit 105 and the air conditioning inside the new building could not keep up. It was not the first time.
"It's been either too cold or too hot since it opened in January," said Sherry Garrett, a secretary in building maintenance. "I got calls from the mayor, all the council members, aides to the city manager and city attorney.
"They all wanted to know why it's running so hot. A couple of them asked for fans but my boss said no. It wouldn't look good."
City halls in Fresno are no stranger to controversy. The previous one, an austere rectangle built in 1941, was considered a heresy. It ended up winning numerous national awards.
When local architect William E. Patnaude got the $2.5-million contract to design the new building, city leaders said they wanted something emphatic that would propel Fresno into the next century and spur a downtown renaissance.
To conceive the rendering, Patnaude chose Arthur Erickson, a Canadian architect whose bold buildings had won gold medals in France, England and the United States.
The basic vision was a tent over a box hollowed out in front like a boomerang. The building was going to be copper until concerns arose over cost and the green rust. Stainless steel, which is not an inexpensive alternative, was chosen.
All that money, some thought, and yet the new city hall is not even tall enough to add to Fresno's meager downtown skyline, which amounts to a dozen buildings seven to 15 stories tall that are either boarded up, padlocked or half empty.
Downtown merchants fought to have the building located at the Fulton Mall, a pedestrian shopping area that needs all the foot traffic it can get. They lost and the structure broke ground five blocks east along the Santa Fe railroad tracks.
Mostly, the project sailed smoothly. The shape and choice of stainless steel and glass did not provoke much debate, nor did the fact that the building's backside would rumble with each passing train or that even at $30 million the building is too small to house all city departments.
The City Council did fret, though, about the building facing P Street. Was "P" indecorous? New street names were solicited. A public hearing was called. The vets lobbied for Veteran Street. Saroyan fans wanted it named after the author. Boondoggle Avenue and Turkey Lane were offered up.
In the end, the city decided not to change the name but fudge a little and use Fresno Street, which runs along the north side of the building, as the address.
"It was one of those weird debates that defines this place," said Jim Wasserman, columnist for the Fresno Bee and the city's public scold.
"People thought that if it was on P Street that's one more joke you can tell about city hall. They'd be calling it 'The Outhouse' now."
That this city suffers an inferiority complex is no wonder. For years Fresno furnished fodder for Johnny Carson's monologues. Hollywood's been here once, to do a miniseries spoof on "Dallas" called "Fresno," starring Carol Burnett and Dabney Coleman.