The Historic Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC) met August 26 to discuss the future of the Odell-Mor building. But at the end of the public hearing it appeared that there was little the committee could do to prevent its demolition.
The Odell-Mor building was built in 1914 and is located directly across from Taylor’s Hot Dog stand on Encina. It was allegedly Visalia’s first apartment building offering four upscale one bedroom units. According to local historian Terry Ommen’s Historic Happening Newsletter, “No one seems to know how it got its name. Jane Higgins Nash told me her parents, Decatur “Dick” and Mabel Higgins, were the first occupants of the apartments. It was considered the ‘nicest place in Visalia’ when it opened.”
The building was constructed in the Bungalow architectural style with features such as raised entry porch, roofs with wide overhangs and exposed rafters and open gabled roofs.
Though the building is on the Local Historic Registry it is not in Visalia’s Historic District. It also has the lowest of three historic designations. If a building is designated as “Focus” or “Exceptional” as is the Darling Hotel, the HPAC would have more say over the fate of the building. But because the building is designated as “Background” a demolition request cannot be denied.
The only option available was to place a six month moratorium on the demolition. The goal of the moratorium is to allow time for the owners, the Toor family, and the historical committee, to find “alternative uses or development options to prevent demolition of the structure,” according to the staff report.
“If no solutions are found after the six-month moratorium has expired, the committee shall approve the demolition request.”
One of the HPAC members asked if the building could be re-designated as “Exceptional.”
According to Cristobal Carrillo, Associate Planner, “A change to a Local Register designation would require HPAC, the Planning Commission, and City Council approval.” But, he added, the designation of the Odell-Mor building could not be changed after approval of a moratorium.” Carrillo said that city staff was in the process of verifying this fact with the city attorney.
In 2018 the building was owned by JR Shannon, who pulled a permit for a remodel, but then decided to sell. The Toor family bought the building and initially planned on renovating it but changed course and decided to rebuild.
Santokh Toor requested to have the building demolished immediately due to the fact that their hired engineer firm deemed the structure was a public hazard. A City of Visalia engineer inspected the building and said the structure was sound and his request was denied.
About a dozen members of the public through letters, emails, calls and public comment voiced their opposition to demolishing the building. Skip Barwick, a Tulare resident, was the lone supporter to demolish the building.
Tyler Davis, a Visalia resident who lives in a house in the historic district, said during public comment that “our sense of home will be changed forever if we demolish the Odell-Mor building.”
He said that the exterior is the same as it was 106 year ago and is a blend of architectural elements such as Tudor and Bungalow. He said there is no other building like it and it represents a transitional time in Visalia.
Andy Chamberlain, a city planner, said that the building’s unique characteristics is what makes the building so special.
Risa, a Visalia resident, said that she was a walker and was very upset to hear about the possible demolition. “It’s been here for 106 years. I think that is worth being creative.”
Davis said that up until just 18 months ago people lived in the apartments.
“Regrets only goes one way. Once the building is gone part of our collective memory will be gone.”
Richard Mangini, owner of a Visalia architectural firm, expressed his regrets that the Toors applied for a permit to take out the drywall but ended up taking the interior “down to the studs.” He said that no one would be able to restore the interior because there is no one around who could replicate the wainscoting or French doors.
Carrillo’s report backed up Mangini’s comments. It said, “the building is currently vacant and in disrepair due to the occurrence of unpermitted remodel activity which resulted in the removal of a interior improvements from the structure.
“The building is basically gutted,” Carrillo said.
The city’s report continues, saying that the Toors did not attempt to conduct further interior remodel work and “as a result the building fell into further disrepair and was eventually boarded up and fenced off at the demand of Code Enforcement staff.”
Nevertheless, the HPAC would not have had the authority to prevent the removal of the interior. The committee is only authorized to review exterior alterations to historic structures. The city’s report says that “the exterior remains largely unchanged.”
A spokesperson for the Toor family, Arun Toor, said that someone had broken into the building and set a fire, adding to the damage already caused by transients.
In hopes that the Toor family would work with the committee members to save the building, Mangini brought architectural drawings that included adding four new apartments in the back of the property along with a remodel of the four original units. Mangini said that the Toors had made an investment into Visalia and that it was important that the historic committee work with them the best they can.
One committee member asked Toor directly if his family intended working with the community to find alternative solutions to demolition. The Toor family is being requested to work with the community but is not required to do so.
Toor responded by saying that they had already researched other possibilities and had spent a lot of time on this building. He said that the previous owners had done the same and that is why they decided to sell.
He said that the family’s first choice was to renovate the building and rent it out but that was too challenging.
Toor also pointed out that Visalia has 200 other residential structures in the Historic District of much more architectural significance than the Odell-Mor building. He added that the building does not have as much redeeming value as the others, and in fact had become an eyesore.
None of the HPAC members were in favor of the demolition and were verbally upset about their lack of options.
One member said that these old buildings had been through earthquakes and floods and that “it’s something they are still standing.” He stated that it was a one-of-a-kind building and that it could be retrofitted easily.
Another member said that Encina was the gateway to Visalia’s Historic District and that the Odell-Mor house was part of a community of buildings that created an historic ambiance. In fact the Odell-Mor building is right across the street from the historic district.
“The real tragedy would be if the building gets torn down and then the city does not approve the Toor’s family’s plan to build their 14 unit building. “
“So we ought to work together and make a better project. We are not saying you are stuck with just four apartments,” the committee member said.
The HPAC voted 6 -0 for a six month moratorium upon the processing of a demolition permit.
The six months started the night of the committee’s decision.