A 1930s view of downtown Modesto. Facebook/Modesto Art Museum

Modesto, California, was once ranked the nation's least livable city. That spurred one man to uncover its forgotten contributions to 20th-century architectural history.

Historically, Modesto, California has had few of the outward-facing cultural amenities you'd associate with a town of over 200,000 residents—like, say, an art museum. When Bob Barzan moved there from San Francisco in 2000, there was the McHenry Museum, filled with bits of local lore, and a room of natural history housed in the junior college.

"Compared to other cities of its size, it had almost nothing," Barzan says. "The community just had no interest in the arts."

And that was on top of a laundry list of social ills weighing on the food-manufacturing center (it's home to Gallo Winery, Foster Farms Dairy, and other giants): High unemployment, poverty, pollution, and crime; poor transit and health care access; and a whole lot of brain drain.

Grain storage in Modesto. (Flickr/Tom Hilton)

Having retired from career counseling at San Francisco state, Barzan had resettled in his childhood hometown (or one of them; by birth he hails from Ontario) to be close to his aging parents. But retirement turned out to be short. Trained in social justice, the onetime writer, publisher, and former Jesuit priest saw Modesto's gaping need for community strengthening. Barzan responded by building an art museum—only without walls.

"It started as a joke," he says. "We did a Joseph Cornell mail art event in 2003"—where contributors from around the world sent in Surrealist-inspired assemblages, which Barzan displayed in local shops and galleries—"and on the exhibit brochures, we wrote it was sponsored by the Modesto Art Museum, as part of the surreal effect. But there was this reaction of people saying, 'I didn’t know we had museum! Where is it?' And I thought, maybe there’s actually interest here."

Barzan assembled a board of directors, and began putting on more art events in downtown Modesto under the MAM name: More mail-in exhibits, movie nights, a food festival."We couldn't afford a building," he says. "We always wanted to bring art out to where people could get to it."  

A one-time vision of Modesto.
Facebook/Modesto Art Museum

But the museum's mission really clarified in 2007,  when Sperling's ranked Modesto the least livable among the 373 largest U.S. cities. "We thought hard about how to respond to that," Barzan says. "As a museum, we couldn't directly address some of the core issues, like go out and feed the hungry or clean up pollution. What we could do was try to use the arts to improve the quality of life in this city."

But how, beyond gallery walks and film screenings? Barzan looked to what was already in the streets of Modesto: A particular strain of modernist architecture. With the help of the local AIA chapter and a handful of design students, Barzan uncovered Modesto's prominent role in a forgotten chapter in 20th-century architectural history: Central Valley Modernism. "In the '40s, '50s, and '60s, the Fosters and the Gallos had the wealth and status to bring in Frank Lloyd Wright, Christopher Alexander, John Funk, Thomas Church, these high-caliber designers," says Barzan. "Until the 1970s, this city was on the cutting edge of architecture, and had its own unique style."

An early example of Central California Modernism
(Facebook/Modesto Art Museum)

Now the museum offers architecture guides to the city's modernist gems on its website, as well as regular walking tours and lectures. And since 2008, it's hosted an annual fall architecture festival, which started as a single screening of The Fountainhead, and became, as of this September, a nine-day affair of some 135 events highlighting local and global architecture. "Virtually everything is free," says Barzan. He estimates at least 5,000 visits were made to various events at this year's festival. "The goal was just to get people to participate, and to grow a sense of awareness about their city."

It seems like that's worked. Barzan now shares stories of a neighbor bounding onto the street in his bathrobe to get Barzan, "the architecture guy," to take a look at some feature in his home. "Other people tell me they've never thought about architecture before, and now they're noticing design features everywhere they go," he says.

A tour of the recently restored Modesto Federal Building. (Bob Barzan)

Modesto's broadened awareness of the built environment has extended beyond local residents. Barzan points to civic improvements made in the downtown area as direct outgrowths of the work of the Art Museum. Past events have coincided with Parking Day, which inspired a number of soon-to-be-permanent parklets. And the city's resurrected architectural legacy played no small part in a newly designated downtown design district.

It helps that Barzan sits on the city's urban design committee, and has been recently appointed to a cultural commission. He'll keep up this work even after he retires from his Executive Directorship at the Museum at end of this month. This retirement, he says, will be a real one, but he has faith his successor will keep up the museum's work. "He has much the same values I do," Barzan says. "And the city has embraced this whole interest in improvement."

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