Union Pacific train enters the weather-beaten station in east Bakersfield.
Stephen Montgomery is an architectural sleuth. When he is not working as a conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad, he spends his spare time poking his nose into and under some of Bakersfield’s oldest buildings.
He lifts dates off of plumbing fixture, finds discarded catalogues stuck in walls and searches through government documents – all part of his tedious hunt for the pieces of puzzles that tell the stories of decades-old homes and businesses.
He also is a man on a mission: Protecting Bakersfield’s history.
No high-falutin’ government agency appointed him to this task or mission. He’s just a regular guy, a lifelong resident of Bakersfield, a member of the Kern County Historical Society, a self-taught architectural detective and a passionate believer that Bakersfield isn’t doing enough to protect its heritage.
And that belief particularly applies to the building he has worked in during his more than 40-year railroad career.
Once known as the Southern Pacific Railroad depot on the corner of Baker and Sumner streets, the building is now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, after a merger in the mid-1990s.
Appearing weather-beaten and forgotten, the east Bakersfield building is still used by crews manning the six to 10 freight trains that pass by the station every day.
But the glory of its past – when it formed the hub of a new town named Sumner, and when passengers would squeeze through its doors and line the benches of its waiting room – are long gone.
He would like to see the building sold to investors and “repurposed for business and professional uses.” Montgomery envisions the building becoming a restaurant, collection of shops or turn-of-the-century themed focal point for a revitalized Baker Street corridor.
Before the present economic slump, the city’s redevelopment agency was moving forward with plans for east Bakersfield’s revitalization. But reportedly that did not include investors stepping forward to acquire and “repurpose” the landmark railroad station.
“Currently we use the building as office space for several dozen people, some of whom are train crews that pick up their trains out of our yard in Bakersfield,” said Aaron Hunt, Union Pacific’s director of corporate communications and media. “We will continue using the building in this capacity for the foreseeable future.
“The depot sits on railroad right-of-way and is near our line. As such, safety is a primary concern for us. In that context we plan to continue using the building as office space for railroad employees,” he said. “We work hard to be accessible to the communities where we operate trains. If a party is interested in purchasing the depot, we would be willing to have a conversation about it.”
But like city officials, Hunt has not heard of any investors interested in buying and renovating the building.
Construction of the depot began in 1888, when the Southern Pacific Co. expanded into the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Residents and business owners in Sumner applied pressure on the company to expand railroad facilities east of Bakersfield.
First to be constructed was a machine shop. Later the company’s maintenance facilities in Tulare were shifted to Bakersfield. Shortly after the move, work on the brick depot and a hotel was started. The depot was officially opened on June 27, 1889.
In his analysis of the building that is on file with Bakersfield Economic and Community Development Department, historian Chris Brewer called the depot an architectural “disaster.”
The building has been severely altered numerous times over its more than 100-year existence. Alterations included spraying gunite over its brick exterior. Despite these changes, Brewer concluded the building “is significant to the area both economically and to a lesser extent architecturally.”
And it is this “significance” that bugs Montgomery the most about old buildings, and how they are regarded in Bakersfield.
The son of Stephen H. Montgomery, a Bakersfield doctor, Montgomery was born in Bakersfield and graduated from Bakersfield High School. Even as a child, Montgomery said he had an interest in architecture and a sense of history. He recalls, for example, being in the audience as Bakersfield’s Civic Auditorium on Truxtun Avenue was officially opened.
He studied architecture-related classes at Bakersfield College and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. But a stint in the military ended his college education. Needing a job after his discharge, he signed on with the Southern Pacific Railroad.
That was in 1969. Montgomery was 24 years old. The Sumner depot was a beehive of activity, serving as the headquarters for the San Joaquin Division’s superintendent. Much of the rail’s coordination that is now automated was being done manually.
Changes in railroading have taken its toll on the building. Passenger service transferred to Amtrak. Much of the building was converted to storage. Portions of the once ornate portico promenade were enclosed to expand office space. The entire complex became emeshed in chain-link security fencing.
Montgomery is now 65. He has watched and fretted over the building’s four decades of decay. Even on a recent tour of the building, he was quick to point out the shingles and boards that were peeled away by the wind of a recent spring storm.
On July 12, Montgomery will retire from railroading. He is going back to school, taking classes at Bakersfield College in building codes and materials of construction. He’s getting serious about his historical preservation mission.
A long-time union officer, Montgomery says he is used to butting heads with railroad officials. He’s now preparing to butt heads with city officials.
“I have a few attitudes to overcome,” he said.
He believes Bakersfield should have a historical preservation ordinance based on the age of a building, not on its standing on a “historical register.”
To demolish any building over a certain age – perhaps the cutoff being 50 years old – should require a study of its historical significance.
Like the Sumner Street railroad depot, a building might not be an architectural work of art. But it may be significant for other reasons and worth saving.
This article by John Hardisty -- a Bakersfield court mediator and planning consultant – first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on July 11, 2010. John Hardisty writes the newspaper’s occasional column “If these walls could talk.”