There are many hidden histories in downtown Merced.
I’m not talking about the secret tunnels crisscrossing businesses or the secret room in the Mondo Building (formerly known as the Bank of Italy). I am talking about the inscriptions and date stones of historic buildings that are hidden by plaster and time.
The building that houses Trevino’s Mexican Restaurant on the southwest corner of Main and K streets is one such building. Many Merced residents still call it “the Sterling,” which was a department store known for its upscale women dresses, but few know its original name.
Built in 1903 by a successful Portuguese immigrant named Antonio Freitas Pedreira, it was known as the Pedreira Building because the name and construction date were prominently placed on the side of the building facing Main Street. The name and date now are either covered by stucco or were removed during one of the building’s renovations.
Inscriptions have long been used to establish the age of a building. For example, at least two Olcese and Garibaldi buildings (O & G block) have occupied the southeast corner of Main and Canal streets before the turn of 20th century.
After the first one was gutted by a fire in 1896, a second O & G Building was erected and remains standing today. Historic photos of these two O & G Buildings show their construction dates as “O & G Block 1886,” and “1896 O & G Block.” Next time you are in Pinocchio’s Restaurant, keep in mind you are in one of the oldest buildings on Main Street.
Even though an inscription is useful in dating an old building, it alone by no means is a reliable source. That’s because a date stone or inscription could have been placed by a later owner who may have renamed the building, or a date inscription may have signified something other than the date of construction.
Although such instances are rare, it happened in the case of the Tuolumne Hotel.
The Tuolumne Hotel was in the middle block of Main Street, between Canal and M streets. With the inscription date of “1873,” one would assume the building was erected in 1873, which would make it one of the first hotels built in the new town of Merced.
The proprietor of the hotel was William Fahey. He purchased the lot from the Central Pacific Railroad Company in February 1873. It was a joint venture between Fahey and his father, William Fahey Sr., when the business was first opened.
The partnership was dissolved in December 1873, but the business continued under the management of William Fahey.
Since there aren’t any early photos or drawings of the hotel in existence during this time period, very little about this building is known.
When later photos show a beautiful two-story brick building with an inscription of “Tuolumne Hotel 1873,” it is natural to assume this is the original hotel built in 1873.
The information for the building is about when the business was established, not when the building was actually built.
I learned the original building erected in 1873 was destroyed in a fire on May 17, 1877. Merced Express, a local weekly newspaper, reported two fires that broke out on this block within a week of each other in May 1877. The fires were so catastrophic that the south side of the block almost was wiped out. The Tuolumne Hotel was among the casualties.
Fahey soon rebuilt the hotel at the same site and duplicated the original architectural design of the building.
When this new building opened for business in December 1877, the inscription of “Tuolumne Hotel 1873” was not yet placed on the building. Fahey was an ambitious entrepreneur.
The destruction of his former establishment did not dampen his spirit. Instead, he expanded by purchasing the adjacent lot from J. M. Henry whose Star Hotel was also in the 1877 fire. By 1879, Fahey completed the construction of his new Tuolumne Hotel, which was double the size of the original. As he put on the final touches, he placed “Tuolumne Hotel 1873” atop the building.
Now we know that Fahey’s choice of the year of 1873 was to mark the beginning of his business rather than the construction date of the building.
Fahey sold the property to J.K. Law in 1899; and after several transactions, the building became the property of John Raymond Flynn, the owner of Merced Hardware. As for the Tuolumne Hotel, it was eventually renamed the Tacoma Hotel before it was torn down to build the new Merced Hardware in 1930.
Downtown Merced has many hidden stories.
To learn more about the history of Merced the city and Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum in the Courthouse Park. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Guided tours are available and admission is free. On display until May 26 is a traveling exhibit titled, “Gold Fever! The Untold Stories of California’s Gold Rush.”
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.