An Electrifying Look inside Old Mt. Whitney Power
Text and photos submitted by Terry Ommen
There is a two-story building in downtown Visalia that can be easily overlooked, especially by those on the hunt for architectural splendor. But today what the building lacks in design glitz, it more than makes up for in extraordinary history. It wasn’t always a “plain Jane.” In fact, when it was built 106 years ago, it was considered one of the “handsomest business structures” in town. The exterior façade and ground floor have changed a lot over the decades, however, many of the second-story interior elements remain in place.
Recently, I was able to visit the locked and abandoned upper floor and see some of the features of the stately building – many as they were during its glory days when it was the headquarters of the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company and later Southern California Edison.
But before I share a glimpse of my discoveries in this upstairs “time capsule,” let’s look at a little history of the building and the first company that occupied it.
In the 1890s, Tulare County in general and Visalia specifically were on the verge of a major technological breakthrough. The Mt. Whitney Power Company, as it was first called, had installed the necessary infrastructure to begin supplying widespread electricity, all generated from the water of the Kaweah River. Ben M. Maddox, one of the company organizers and visionaries, who at the same time was publisher of the Visalia-based “Tulare County Times” newspaper, predicted that the work of the company would become a major milestone in the development of Tulare County. And he was right. But it’s doubtful that even Maddox knew completely how important the company’s work would be.
Mt. Whitney Power, incorporated in 1899, held its first stockholder meeting in Visalia in 1900, and William Hammond, A. G. Wishon, R. P. Hammond, and Visalians Ben M. Maddox and Susman Mitchell were elected as directors of the company. For the next decade, the company leased office space in the
S. C. Brown Building on Court Street in Visalia. By 1911, the growing company needed more room, and it began making plans for a new building. The company contracted with Trewhitt & Shields, building contractors from Hanford, to build a new structure on West Main Street, now in the 200 block. The contract price for the brick building was $21,400, however, when the Mt. Whitney company was finished with it, the cost totaled about $30,000.
Upon the building’s completion in March 1912, the company hosted a “warming up” party for employees and special guests. The gala event included tours, a banquet catered by the Palace Hotel and a dance. It was a fitting beginning for an important building.
The new home of the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company was well-received by employees and the community. The “Visalia Morning Delta” newspaper quoted experts who claimed it “to be the best building structure of its class in the entire San Joaquin Valley,” and the newspaper added that the “handsome exterior … is perhaps [only] surpassed by the effective arrangement of the interior.” The building was truly a showcase.
Many of the features remain, so now let’s take a look at some that are still present in the second story. As one might expect in an electric company building, each office was wired for telephones and dictographs so, obviously, electrical wiring and lights were installed throughout the building.
It had an “indirect lighting system” with added ceiling lights. Each office had an electric heater with an individual control panel mounted in a lath-and-plaster wall. The common area upstairs had two dark wood electrical cabinets containing circuit-breaking levers.
One of the front Main Street-facing offices had a built-in fireplace. It had a rather small and narrow fire box, so I doubt that wood was used. However, there was an electrical outlet mounted inside the box, so there might have been an electric heater placed inside.
There is also strong evidence that the building had an elevator, although I can find no mention of one in my research. The area where it was located is boarded up now, and the upstairs landing is also covered.
The offices had generous amounts of beautiful wood trim. Although all the doors are missing, the trim around the openings and windows was nicely done. Beautiful wainscoting remains on some walls, and wide, rich-looking baseboards are present throughout. After I toured the upper floor, it was clear that the building was the pride of the company.
From here, widespread electricity was provided by the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company until 1920, and numerous companies, including Visalia Gas, Light & Heat; Porterville Light & Power; Tulare Gas & Light; Globe Light & Power, and Tulare County Power, were purchased.
In 1920, Southern California Edison bought the Mt. Whitney company and continued to own and occupy the building until 1955. Edison then built a much larger building at 701 W. Main St., contracting with Trewhitt, Shields & Fisher, a successor to the same contractor that built the 1912 structure.
Edison eventually sold the 1912 building, and the new owner remodeled the façade and the first floor, converting it into at least three retail spaces.
The second story was abandoned and boarded up, staying that way for many years.
Today, this often-forgotten landmark building in downtown Visalia is a great example of how the town, tired of classic building architectural elegance, stripped off façade design features and moved to a more modern design. With the passage of time, these building changes have become historical features in their own right.
By the way, Paul Heidenreich, owner of Quality Jewelers at 213 W. Main, a ground-floor business in the old Mt. Whitney building, has some wonderful photographs on display of the building before 1955. He’d love to have you come by and take a look.