David Castellon, ">

The Hanford City Council voted last week to begin the process of selling the 121-year-old Bastille building in its downtown district. The city purchased it in 2014 for $1. It’s estimated that renovations for the building could run upwards of $2 million. Photo by David Castellon

published on February 13, 2019 - 1:34 PM
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The name “Bastille” may churn up memories of childhood history lessons about the famed Paris prison stormed during the French Revolution.

But if you live in Kings County, chances are you might think of another jail – a former jail, actually – known as the “Bastille” in downtown Hanford.

Last week, the unique, red-brick building that looks like a castle, complete with a turret – hence, the nickname that has stuck for decades – was on the mind of the Hanford City Council, which voted to make the Court Street building in Civic Park surplus property.

It’s the first step in a process that could lead to the city putting the building up for sale, either to another public agency or private buyer.

But whoever buys the building will have considerable costs going in, as the Bastille hasn’t been occupied since 2009 due to structural problems that lead to it being vacated for safety concerns.

It has remained vacant since, and Hanford officials have said the building has continued to deteriorate.

That’s not surprising, as the Bastille is more than 120 years old, built by Kings County in 1897. It continued being used as a jail until 1964 “when the building was condemned following the discovery of the sheriff office’s ceiling strewn upon his desk and surrounding floor area,” leading to the construction of a new, larger jail and sheriff’s office in Hanford, according to WeirdFresno.com, one of several websites that identify the Bastille as being haunted.

“Could some of the prisoners who died here over the fifty-plus years still be roaming the building, claiming they are innocent and are trying to get anyone’s attention,” the website asks, noting incidents of kitchen staff reportedly seeing pots and pans move and feeling like someone was watching them after the Bastille became a restaurant.

“I have heard of that, but the city had nothing to do with that website,” Darlene Mata, Hanford’s community development director, said of the haunted building claims.

Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon, whose mother worked at the Bastille in the 1970s when it was a bar, said, “it was haunted back then.”

City officials contacted couldn’t immediately provide much specific information about the Bastille’s history, but the WeirdFresno site states, “Over the years, the building has been home to several restaurants and nightclubs.”

As for how the former county jail came to be owned by the city, Verboon said Hanford had been leasing it from the county for $1 a year for several years and subletting it to businesses under an agreement that the city would handle and pay for the building’s upkeep.

Hanford bought the Bastille – along with the old post office, courthouse and veterans hall – from Kings County in 2014 for $1. Mata speculated that the county just wanted to get the building off its books.

Since then, the Hanford City Council has failed to approve funding to renovate the building, due to the high cost, which Verboon said could end up as nearly $2 million.

If the council votes to sell the building or possibly give it to another public agency, the recipient would have to bear the costs of the structural fixes, along with the added costs of renovating it to suit the new owner’s needs.

That could turn away some prospective buyers, said Jacob Hower, a commercial property appraiser and owner of Simon and Hower, Inc. in Hanford.

“It’s a cool building, if you could have a feasible project there,” he said, adding, “It would cost an incredible amount of money to get it up and running.”

Adding to the complications for potential buyers is the Bastille is in an historic district that would prevent it from being torn down and replaced, as well a setting some restrictions on renovations.

“I hate to say it, but I thinks it’s just a white elephant. You know, it’s one of those things that’s going to be hard to sell,” said Hanford Realtor Laverne Johansen.

She added that Hanford officials likely would watch closely to ensure the historic building regulations are enforced.

“They’re really serious about their historical stuff, I mean, my office was down the road from there – like a block and a half – and our signs had to meet specifications. Everything had to be perfect. They are hardcore about that stuff, so that’s going to be difficult, too.”

As such, she said, selling the Bastille might be difficult unless the city asks a very low price to offset the repair and renovation costs.

Mata said the city hasn’t yet had the Bastille appraised.

As for what should happen to the two-story building, Hower said that converting it to office space and leasing it out probably wouldn’t generate enough income to cover the costs of buying and renovating it.

Converting the Bastille to a retail space may also be a tough go, as such businesses and their customers are gravitating away from downtown to the Hanford Mall and large retailers in that area, Hower added.

Mata said Barrelhouse Brewing Co. has expressed interest in converting the bastille into a craft beer taproom. Officials with the small chain of taprooms, including one in Visalia, didn’t respond to an interview request.

Both Hower and Johansen said a brewery or bar seem good possible uses for the Bastille once it’s fixed, with Johansen noting that the last time she was in the building it still had the upstairs bar – “it’s a neat bar, kind of like the Cheers bar, a great, big huge thing” – from when it was a nightclub.

The former jail cells downstairs could be “cool” places to put tables, if the place were turned into a restaurant, she said.

“I could see a restaurant doing OK there,” said Hower, adding a caveat that that “Downtown restaurants have struggled in the past.

“Maybe if you have a nice new brewery it could do well,” he said, adding, “The cool restaurant trend is toward the brewery industry.”

For his part, Verboon suggested the Bastille might be a good spot for a marijuana dispensary, but for that to happen the folks at City Hall – across the street from the historic building – would have to vote to make dispensaries legal in the city.

The supervisor noted that Woodlake is reaping the tax benefits of having a recreational cannabis dispensary in its city, and that business can legally deliver to Hanford and other cities without dispensaries of their own, with Woodlake reaping the tax benefits of those out-of-town sales.

“We need to open our eyes up and open revenue streams,” he said.

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