I Street a focal point in a growing Modesto

First of two parts

By December 1870, just two months after its founding, little Modesto Village already was up and running.

Established by the Central Pacific Railroad, the railroad's surveyors had laid out the new 1-square-mile town, parallel to the tracks. They then divided the area into 300-by-400-foot blocks, each bisected by a 25-foot-wide alley. Every block had 32 lots, each 25 by 140 feet, with 80-foot-wide streets.

The one exception was I Street. Instead of 80 feet, it was made 100 feet in width, with expectations that it would become the town's main street. That never happened. In the beginning, Modesto's main street was H Street and then, for years, it was 10th Street.

However, perhaps because of that extra width, some of the town's first fine homes and buildings were built on or near I Street.

One of the city's few still-standing oldest houses dates to the 1870s. Often referred to as the Hanson House, it is at 924 15th St., half a block from I Street. It was built by tailor Julius Hanson who later worked at local men's stores Dozier and Leighter and the Toggery. That building has been remodeled several times, most recently for a series of restaurants.

In 1880, attorney William E. Turner built a large Italianate-style mansion topped by a cupola, on I Street between 16th and 17th. The First United Methodist Church now occupies that location.

At the time, local newspapers reported that construction costs for the Turner home totaled $10,000.

However, in 1897, the Turner house was sold for $3,700. During that decade, the United States experienced an economic depression, ranked on a par with the Great Depression of the 1930s. This probably affected the selling price of the Turner property, which included the house and most of the block, with 22 of the 32 lots.

In 1920 that property was re-sold to the Catholic Church, which planned to develop a parochial school at the site. Two years later the home burned, resulting in the church's decision to abandon the school building plans. Instead, it took what lumber it could salvage and used it to construct St. Stanislaus Hall.

In 1924, the First Methodist Church purchased the same property for $20,000 and began to raise money and develop plans for a new church building. It was dedicated in 1932.

Meanwhile, in 1883, banker and wheat rancher Robert McHenry built what was proclaimed the finest home in the Central Valley. That 10,080-square-foot house is today's city-owned McHenry Mansion at 15th and I streets. It was constructed by Jeremiah Robinson and his carpenter brother Mayhew, who had completed Modesto's first courthouse in 1873.

By 1880, McHenry and his wife, Matilda, had been involved in the building of the First Presbyterian Church on the corner of 14th and I, she as fund- raiser and he as a builder. Then they built their own home, today's McHenry Mansion, just a block away.

In 1885, wheat farmer Willis Bledsoe put up a dramatic Queen Anne Victorian home at 16th and I streets. It was replaced in 1936 by the Shannon Funeral Chapel, considered one of the finest examples of art deco architecture in California. Its replacement was an office building constructed in the 1990s.

As the years have passed, I Street has continued to grow and change.

Next Sunday: A look at just what some of those changes were.

Bare is the author of several books about area history and is the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at