What does one find upon entering a building that’s been out of public use for much of the past 40 years? A few weeks back, we were lucky enough to find out as we ventured along with fellow Old Riverside Foundation members into the long-shuttered Franzen / Westbrook’s / Imperial hardware building at 3750 Main Street. Allowing us access and helping lead the tour were several officials with the city of Riverside, including Carl Carey, Emilio Ramirez, Robert Wise, Erin Gettis and councilmen Mike Gardner and Andy Melendrez.
The structure itself dates back to at least 1900 when Franzen Hardware opened its doors. Owned by Henry and Chris Franzen, the store was later sold in 1921 to R.H. Westbrook, whose family had become partners with the Franzen’s in 1908. Following a 1935 fire that wiped out most of the stock, the building was refurbished, restocked and renamed Westbrook’s Hardware. Part of the post-fire remodeling included the Henry L.A. Jekel-designed Art Deco façade visible today.
In September 1959, Westbrook’s was sold to El Centro-based Imperial Hardware Co., a small chain of 14 hardware and housewares stores in Southern California, this according to an article in the Riverside Press. City permits indicate Imperial covered up the Westbrook’s façade in 1964 with a modern false-front — a common practice at the time. Imperial remained until 1972 before relocating to the then relatively new Tyler Mall (where it lasted for a short period).
For whatever reason, a replacement tenant for the old building never materialized. As such, Imperial’s sleek metal front remained intact until June 2007, when its removal re-exposed the impressive 1930s Art Deco façade.
Upon signing waivers, grabbing flashlights and donning hard hats, it was time for us to explore the dark and mysterious interior. What would we find? How bad was its condition? Was anything salvageable?
On level one, we immediately noticed lots of dust and debris and what appeared to be various amounts of stored items (more on this later). As we lumbered around, we saw that the 2-level plus basement structure was comprised of two buildings unified into a single store. A large central wall separated the two nearly-equal parts, with cutouts allowing passage between the northern and southern sections.
Along the main wall in the middle of the northern section was an L-shaped stairway to the basement. Nearby, a small passenger elevator waited patiently, call buttons still intact. Tucked in the corner at the back was a freight elevator. Another stairway, this one heading up to level two, stood crumbling close by. Its heavily soiled carpet indeed had seen better days.
The building contained two more stairways: a third in the northern section just inside the building’s main entrance, which headed directly to the basement; and a fourth — the only stairway in the southern section — leading up to a small mezzanine level in the back. Decorative metal railing lined it and the mezzanine’s balcony.
After our initial surprise of actually being inside the building wore off and our eyes gained traction in the dark, realization that the interior had suffered serious neglect over the past 40-plus years was quite evident.
Throughout, the floor was covered in dust and debris — and yes, a fair amount of bird excrement. Hanging down in several spots was water damaged ceiling tiles. Front window casements on level two looked old and tired. A room on the same level had large holes in the roof exposing the sky above. And while some lighting fixtures were present, none appeared ready to illuminate our tour.
In general, both the basement and level two were free of large items. Support poles and crumbling debris — particularly on level two — provided much of the scenery. However, the ground level contained fair amounts of stored items. Everything from old office equipment, furniture and décor to aging bankers boxes stuffed with business records, some of which had escaped and now littered the floor.
An unexpected discovery was various items for Woodhaven Development (one | two), a once mighty Riverside home builder. (It’s believed the building at one time had been owned by David Miller of Miller’s Outpost fame and Woodhaven.)
Probably one of the most curious finds was a 12-inch, encircled “W” inlaid on the floor immediately in front of the passenger elevator on level two. No doubt this logo stood for Westbrook’s.
Elsewhere, a few other surprises greeted us. On level two was what appeared to be the former “Appliance” section, with decorative mid-century lattice. Also on level two was the ladies lounge / restroom, which looked probably as it did 40 years earlier, with most fixtures and décor still in place including sinks, toilets and Victorian style wallpaper (one | two). (On a related note, remnants for at least seven styles of wallpaper were present in the building, including one | two | three.)
In the basement, we noticed blackened bricks along the southern wall, likely from the 1935 fire that destroyed much of what was then Franzen’s Hardware. Next, we stumbled upon a Lamson pneumatic tube system likely dating from the 1930s. Attached to a support pole were two tubes that emptied into a metal basket. The tubes followed a ceiling beam toward the rear, possibly ending up in the southern section’s mezzanine level.
Affixed to the same support pole next to the tube system, we found a typed phone listing with extensions for the once vibrant departments: Hardware, Appliances, Furniture, Carpet, Drapery, Housewares, China, Sporting Goods, Credit and Delivery. Scribbled nearby were a few old Riverside “OVerland” exchange phone numbers as well as the address for Lindgren’s Hardware (which is still doing business on Brockton Ave.). Lastly, our flashlights spotted a near-mint price tag for Imperial Hardware Co. hanging from a nail, adding context to our other finds.
Overall, it seems the tour left most of us scratching our heads wondering why the building had been left to essentially rot for 40 years. Undoubtedly, lots of cleanup was needed. But was there anything worth grabbing? Yes indeed. And was the interior itself salvageable? Probably not.
And though we understand various redevelopment plans have been floated in recent years, we’re hopeful the city — which now owns the building — will find a compatible re-use for it. Certainly, incorporating the building’s shell into any new pedestrian mall friendly development seems plausible, and in fact, even warranted considering it’s probably the best Art Deco façade remaining in Riverside.
- RaincrossSquare.com – Peeling back time (June 2007) | Then & Now – Main at Mission Inn (March 2007) | Out & About – 09/16/2006 (Sept. 2006)
Sources: City of Riverside, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside Public Library, “Riverside in Postcards” (Steve Lech), “Riverside – Then & Now” (Glenn Edward Freeman)