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San Bernardino Shows Off One Leg of Its Revival Plan

Officials hope a $15-million makeover of its train depot will aid the city's renewal.

June 14, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

When renovation workers stepped into San Bernardino's historic Santa Fe train depot about a year and a half ago, they found the ceiling choked in vines, the walls alive with bees and the tile floors covered with a 4-inch layer of pigeon droppings.

It was a tragic scene considering that in the early 1900s, the depot was the hub of one of Southern California's most flourishing railroad towns.

As part of an effort to return the depot -- and the city -- to their former glory, San Bernardino officials have spent nearly $15 million to renovate the three-story Spanish Revival depot to house government offices, a ticket counter for a commuter rail service, and restaurants and coffee shops.

"The restoration of that depot is critical as a catalyst of the economic improvement of that area," said San Bernardino Mayor Judith Valles, who hosted a grand opening for the depot last weekend.

The depot renovation project and a separate plan to develop a network of lakes and streams in the city's downtown core are part of the city's drive to revitalize an area that has been dogged by depressed real estate values, high vacancy rates and the loss of several major employers.

San Bernardino's troubles began in the early 1980s when Kaiser Steel closed its Fontana plant, eliminating 8,800 jobs. In 1992, Santa Fe Railway moved its maintenance shop to Kansas, taking 6,300 jobs. The local economy suffered a third blow when Norton Air Force Base closed in 1994, eliminating 10,000 jobs.

Despite the population boom in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, older blue-collar towns like San Bernardino struggle to attract investors and retailers to their downtown centers.

Economist John Husing said San Bernardino's idea, to promote private investments through a publicly funded downtown improvement project, has worked in Old Town Pasadena and on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

But Husing warned that retailers and other merchants would be leery of investing in downtown San Bernardino unless they were certain the neighborhood was going to rebound. "Public investment can only go so far," he said.

The depot is off a rutted, worn city street that is lined with aging storefronts, a haggard swap meet and weed-choked lots. After nearly 18 months of renovation work, however, the depot with the tall Moorish-style towers stands out as an oasis in the distressed neighborhood.

The depot was built in 1918 and expanded three years later. In the 1920s, it was a community gathering spot. The adjacent Harvey House Restaurant served hundreds of passengers each day on tables adorned with fine china and linen. The waitresses were known as the Harvey Girls, named after Fred Harvey, who opened hotels and eateries along the Santa Fe Railway line to serve rail passengers. The Harvey Girls lived in dorms above the restaurants and signed contracts agreeing to strict standards of conduct.

Kent Schofield, a retired history professor, said the rail lines created hundreds of jobs. "That area was surrounded by railroad workers," he said. "It was a workingman's neighborhood, but a thriving one."

But the growing popularity of the automobile contributed to the decline of railroad travel. The number of passengers using the Santa Fe Depot dropped significantly starting in the 1950s.

In 1992, the San Bernardino Associated Governments, a regional transportation agency, bought the depot and the surrounding land to use as a station for Metrolink, the commuter rail line. The agency hopes to move its offices into the depot and persuade a coffee shop or restaurant owner to take over the Harvey House Restaurant space. Metrolink passengers eventually will use the depot.

For the last few years, however, the primary occupants of the depot have been an outgrowth of wild vines, bees that produced more than 500 pounds of honey in the walls, and pigeons that covered the tile floors with droppings.

"The vines were hanging," said Cheryl Donahue, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino Associated Governments. "It was like Tarzan in here."

Al Pagani, the construction manager for Transtech Engineers, which oversaw the project, said workers had to wear hazmat suits to remove nearly 30 tons of droppings.

The plywood that covered the tall arched windows has been replaced with new wood casings and antique-styled glass. Workers have restored the interior with much of the original turquoise blue and avocado-green tiles. The walls are painted gold. Artists hand-carved the leaf designs on the decaying capitals on the depot's columns.

The biggest challenge in the project was removing asbestos from the frame and adding a heating and air conditioning system to a building that was not designed for such modern-day luxuries.

"It's the typical quandary: how to make something new but make it feel old," said David VanDusen of Soltek Pacific, the primary contractor on the project.

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