Have you ever caught a glimpse of the Courthouse Museum at twilight, perhaps from a slight elevation?
What a breathtaking view.
Every time I drive by the Merced County Courthouse Museum, it takes a good deal of control to keep my eyes on the road and not let my gaze wander toward the historic white building.
Another building on M Street has always caught my attention, too. It doesn’t stand out the way the Courthouse Museum does. It’s nestled behind some trees and bushes off of M Street. It’s apparent that, at one point in time, it was an important building in town, but seems as if it’s been vacant for a long time.
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Now, the doorway and windows are boarded up, and no sign of life or activity remains.
Q: What did the building at 2125 M St. in Courthouse Park used to be?
A: The building was Merced County’s first high school before becoming the county library.
The county’s first high school was built in 1897 by contractor John Miller for less than $13,000. The architect was Louis Stanwood Stone. The Richardson Romanesque building originally was three stories tall and 13,182 square feet.
The main floor housed classrooms, the school library and the principal’s office. The second floor was home to the gym and additional classrooms, while the basement originally served as chemistry and physics labs and a boiler room.
The high school’s first class to graduate in 1898 consisted of 23 students.
The school quickly grew out of the building and, by 1920, had moved to newer facilities on G Street.
In 1921, the Merced County Library remodeled and moved into the former high school building. For decades, the building remained a haven for books and periodicals, even sharing space with the California Highway Patrol at one point. It also provided space for Superior Court judges chambers, the Merced County Veterans office, the Merced County switchboard and the Merced County Schools Library.
But, eventually, the library also outgrew the space and moved to a new building in 1976. The one-time high school, now more formally known as the Old County Library, has been vacant since then.
Vacant, but not forgotten.
In 1984, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and the State of California Register after that.
Still, the building seemed to sit with little attention for more than a decade after that.
At the turn of the millennium, it was, in a sense, rediscovered. It was announced in January 2001 that the county would work to restore the building.
Former county Supervisor Kathleen Crookham requested state funding from then-Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza to renovate the building for office space. The district attorney even expressed interest in occupying the building.
The county paid about $30,000 to do a study on the building, analyzing various aspects of the structure, including whether it needed seismic retrofitting.
The renovation project was tagged at $2.8 million.
Over the years, a committee for the renovation project formed and met regularly, exploring grant funding and seeking private donations for upgrades.
Some upgrades were made: Work was done to clear asbestos from the building, the roof was upgraded and the entire building was mothballed.
But work eventually stalled. Sarah Lim, director of the Courthouse Museum, put it this way: “After Kathleen Crookham retired, nobody picked up the project after that.”
That sounds about right, Crookham said. She retired from the Board of Supervisors in 2008. The county still owns the building.
That wasn’t the best time to renovate a historic building, she added.
“The economy hit a tremendous downturn and sucked the lifeline out of Merced County,” she said. “It’s difficult when people are just trying to keep their heads above water. It’s hard to say, ‘Can you open up your wallet and give some money to this project?’ ”
Crookham’s mother attended high school in the building. She always told a story about the school’s fire drill. The fire department put a chute up to the window of the top floor, and students climbed through the window and slid down to the ground below. But Crookham’s mother refused to go down the chute and took the stairs.
Crookham said that in the last couple of months, she has had several people approach her about the Old County Library, wondering whether the project will ever be picked back up again.
“I really do plan to pick up the banner,” she said. “It’s going to need community support, a benefactor – someone who really wants to step up to the plate and get it done.”
The possibilities for what the building could house in the future are endless: “I can dream and imagine a million things that could go in there,” Crookham said.
So, if you’re interested in the project and would like to help, get in touch with Crookham. She said she’s willing to put names together and get the project going again.
It would be nice to see the old library rejuvenated, its former life restored.
On another note – if you’re waiting for an update to my May 8 column on the area’s best tacos, I promise I haven’t hung you out to dry. There were a lot of suggestions, which means I have a lot of tacos to try. I’m working on it, slowly but surely. So stay tuned for more taco talk.