Recently, I attended a concert by guitarists Francesco Buzzurro, Richard Smith and local favorite John Albano at the Multicultural Arts Center in downtown Merced. As I listened to these three wonderful performing artists and my mind wandered off to the Island of Sicily, I couldn’t help thinking, “where am I?”
I was actually in a historic building that has been transformed into a modern concert hall. For many Merced residents, the MAC is housed in what used to be the old Montgomery Ward building, but very few know that the multilevel structure was remodeled from a single-story garage known as Gateway Garage.
The Gateway Garage at 645 W. 17th (Main) St. was built by John R. Flynn in 1921 around the time the automobile was becoming a popular mode of transportation in our rural valley town. Flynn, a local hardware merchant, saw an opportunity to invest in an automobile-related business. In 1921, there was only one other garage on the 600 block of W. 17th Street — Harry E. Doyle’s Garage. But by 1922 there were four garages and two service stations on this block.
As the area became overrun with automotive services, Flynn had another vision for the Gateway Garage. In 1928, when Montgomery Ward chose Merced as its Chain Store No. 64, Flynn offered to remodel the garage into a modern department store in exchange for a five-year lease. It was a substantial renovation because a mezzanine floor was added and the roof was raised by five feet. Other alterations included tearing down the front of the structure for show windows, putting in maple flooring and decorating the interior, according to Montgomery Ward plans.
Raising the roof was not the only permanent change that made the Gateway Garage building unrecognizable. What created the current footprint of the Arts Center was the unification of the garage and the adjacent building at 641. In order to achieve that, a common façade was created, although the uses of these two buildings remained separate. The 641-location, which was smaller than the garage, was a cigar stand and soda fountain. Known as The Club, it was run by C. C. McCormick and Rusty C. Doan, a notorious vice king in Merced.
The renovation work began in mid-February and was to be finished in April. When Flynn was interviewed by Merced Sun-Star about the progress of the renovation, he pointed out that four shifts of men were at work and that the building would be ready for occupancy after April 1. As to the scope and size of the project, Flynn felt it was more like constructing a new building than remodeling an existing one, adding “It will be the finest Montgomery Ward store in the valley.” The remodeling cost $16,000.
Finally, Merced’s Montgomery Ward opened its doors at 8 o’clock on Saturday, April 21, 1928. Among the attendees for the grand opening were several corporate officials led by Territorial Manager F. L. King, Merced Store Manager John L. Frazee, and his assistant Gran T. Golson. The store carried a great variety of merchandise from small packages of hair pins to a concrete mixer. Tens of thousands more items were available in the Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog which could be purchased by mail order.
Montgomery Ward was also conscientious about creating jobs and spending money locally. Because the Merced store carried such a large assortment of merchandise, customers had no need to shop elsewhere and the money stayed in Merced. In terms of work force, all 30 people hired by the company were Merced County residents. According to the Store Manager Frazee, 65 percent of the merchandise sold in California by Montgomery Ward was made west of the Rocky Mountains.
Montgomery Ward indeed lived up to its business philosophy as it grew into one of largest employers in Merced. During the Great Depression, while others were cutting costs and laying off people, Montgomery Ward found ways to create jobs and stimulate the local economy. By 1939, the company had 45 regular employees and spent $100,000 on its construction and expansion projects. The store was remodeled three times during this period. Frazee oversaw a major expansion in 1929 when the mezzanine floor was enlarged and a furniture floor was added. It became a three-story building. Of the $100,000 renovation cost, $40,000 was spent on the construction of a warehouse and auto service department at 628 W. 18th St.
Montgomery Ward remained at the same location in downtown until 1970 when it moved to 1111 W. Olive Ave. After being vacant for a couple of years, the former Montgomery Ward building was reopened as a furniture store. In 1994, Merced Redevelopment Agency formed a partnership with Merced County Arts Council to renovate the old Montgomery Ward building with additional funding from the Morris and Amelia Goldman bequest.
Since its opening in 1996, the MAC has been an anchor of downtown art scene from the long-gone Big Valley Arts and Culture Festival to the vibrant Merced Art Hop.
As concert goers and art patrons immerse themselves in the beauty of both visual and performing arts at the MAC, remember the art gallery once housed a cigar store and soda fountain and the concert hall was once a garage.
For more history of Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the An Agricultural Centennial: Farm Bureau and Ag Extension exhibit.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.