MODESTO — A number of people would love to see the old Cote dOro building on Yosemite Boulevard spared from the wrecking ball.
As The Bees Kevin Valine reported last week, the 88-year-old restaurant likely will be torn down to make way for a Dollar General store which, of course, means yet another one of the citys more architecturally pleasing places will disappear in favor of a chain enterprise.
The Cote, as longtime Modestans affectionately call it, will exist only in photographs and memories, along with the original Stanislaus County Courthouse, the hotels Covell and Hughson, and so many other significant buildings from the citys past.
Some people now want the Cote added to Modestos list of historic places. But that isnt going to happen. Theyre way too late and a Dollar General store short.
First, building owner Sally Lara said, she tried for six years to sell it, with no takers before the retailer stepped up.
No one during that time approached her about applying for historic landmark status, some members of the citys Landmark Preservation Commission past and present told me. The commission wont add to the list unless the building or property owner is completely on board and, in most cases, is the one who makes the request. Approval requires plenty of documentation and can take many months to obtain.
Yes, there are minor tax advantages for landmarks, but more so for historic homes than businesses, commission members said.
Second, the Cote building has sat vacant for many years. Its been vandalized, including metal theft, and trashed by vagrants. Restoring 88-year-old buildings for public use is never cheap and rarely profitable for private landowners.
Its easy to tell someone what they should do with their property using their money, of course.
Finally, Id argue that theyre trying to save the wrong building, from a historical standpoint. The old Tower Club next door since 1950 the Eagles Hall is far more significant.
In fact, the Cote was built as an accessory to the crime that went on at the Tower Club during Prohibition (1920-33). Indeed, the intriguing stuff happened across the driveway inside the Tower Club, a veritable fortress created to circumvent the law of the land by selling booze when booze was taboo. Speakeasies, they called such establishments, because patrons needed to quietly utter the proper password to enter.
A lookout manned the crows nest in the tower, watching for law enforcement coming to raid the place. Spotting them was easy, Eagles member Gary Carlucci said, because the intersection of Yosemite Boulevard and Camellia Way was still out in the country in 1920s and 30s.
The city hadnt grown out that way yet, he said.
When authorities approached, the lookout would blow his whistle. Another lookout watched through two-way mirrors from a loft above the lobby. When he heard the whistle from above, hed drop two doors into place to block access to the interior of the club. The cables and concrete counterweights used to operate the doors still hang in that room.
The doors merely stalled the cops long enough to allow customers to wiggle through the Lilliputian- sized doorway and into a narrow tunnel system connecting the Tower Club and the Cote dOro. The tunnel stretched about 30 yards from the entry points inside the Tower Club to the secret doorway in the restaurant, where the escapees would be seated immediately. If the cops came into the restaurant, theyd find it packed with diners chatting and clinking flatware against fine china, acting as if theyd been there all along.
If the place was really packed when the authorities raided, some patrons would scale a narrow staircase that led to the caretakers quarters. Then theyd crawl through a short passageway to hide in a secret room above the dance floor.
So much of what went on inside the Tower Club went to the graves with the owners and patrons of the Prohibition era. They left behind mostly lore, like the stories passed down from generation to generation in primitive cultures, spoken and rarely written.
This week, I received a call from a longtime area resident who said one of the restaurants owners many years ago told him that a cave-in caused by a paving machine exposed a copper still that once operated beneath the parking lot of the Cote dOro. The owner simply encased it in sand or gravel and continued with the paving project.
Tony Cardoza, who owned the Cote dOro from 1977 until 1987, told a Bee reporter in 1993 that a car belonging to one of his waitresses fell into a tunnel. We needed a tow truck to pull her out.
He didnt mention the still, though. In fact, I found no one who could verify that the still is still there or ever was. The tunnel, Carlucci said, is blocked by sand and gravel somewhere between the two buildings.
Those who want the restaurant building preserved point out it has a secret room in the attic, accessible through a hidden staircase.
No matter. The Tower Club is the better story and has better ghosts than the Cote. Of the two, and if both cant be preserved, the Tower Club gets my vote.
Whats more important the scene of the crime or the getaway car?
So, why isnt the old Tower Club on the preservation list?
We looked into that about 15 years ago, Carlucci said. As I recall, there would have been too many restrictions on how we could use it, so we dropped it.
The Eagles, a service club with about 100 members, rent the hall to a multitude of groups in order to pay for its upkeep. Already a nonprofit, the club wouldnt benefit from the tax breaks. But it would be good to know that if the Eagles ever needed to sell the building, another owner would be obligated to maintain its historical value.
Denzil Walker, who heads the Landmark Preservation Commission, said it is more concerned with historical integrity than in dictating who or which group gets to use it.
And unlike Cote building owner Lara, the Eagles arent trying to sell the old Tower Club. So theres time to negotiate a deal.
Call it wiggle room into a tunnel of preservation, no secret password required.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.
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