Finding the right tenant for a nearly century-old brick home in north Fresno is second on the mind of developer Reza Assemi right now.
First, he must pull off what others have failed to do for decades.
Restore the historic Frank J. Craycroft home to its original glory.
Since 2017, Assemi has owned the Craycroft home, which stands peculiarly out amidst Fresno’s modern homes and office buildings along Palm Avenue just south of Herndon Avenue.
He acquired the property as the Fresno Historic Preservation Commission in 2016 was debating the delisting of the property. In other words, allow its then owner to demolish it.
“The goal for me was to save the building because it was getting slated for demo and it was in the process of getting delisted,” Assemi said. “I met my goal as soon as I was able to purchase it; then I knew the building was safe. I’ve always had an affinity towards that place.”
But a chain-link fence surrounding the 1-acre property hasn’t been enough to keep vandals away in the decades since it was abandoned in 1979.
Finally, after multiple failed attempts to bring the home back to life, Assemi has a plan to preserve this piece of Fresno history.
Fresno Built with Craycroft Name
Frank J. Craycroft — heir to Craycroft Brick Co. — built the two-story home in 1927, two years before his death. The home was intended to showcase the company’s product. Bricks from Craycroft’s father’s company supplied Fresno’s expansion. Local realtors say they distinguish between Craycroft bricks and others because those bearing the family name are larger and hold up better to Valley weather.
Craycroft’s father, Columbus Joel Craycroft, came to Fresno in 1886 to work as a contractor, according to Catherine Rehart’s “Valley Legends and Legacies Vol. III.” A year later, he opened his eponymous brick-making company.
Bricks from his company went into the Fresno Water Tower, Manchester Center, one of the former Fresno State Student Union buildings, and the old Fresno Courthouse, demolished in 1966, according to a Fresno Bee Article by Janice Stevens.
Columbus Craycroft had been a chairman of the Fresno Board of Trustees for eight years after another contractor, Joseph Spinney, was elected and resigned after only 10 minutes, making Spinney one of the shortest-termed leaders in Fresno history.
The chairman of the board acted as a sort-of mayor in the days before the town was big enough to warrant having a person with that title.
In 1915, Columbus fell from the roof of one of his buildings and died, leaving the company to 39-year-old Frank, according to Rehart.
Rumors abound about Frank’s death 14 years later, with some saying he died of a gunshot wound from a disgruntled employee. Assemi’s interviews with family members have led him to conclude that those rumors were untrue. While he was indeed shot, he didn’t die from the wounds, Assemi said.
Home Considered Historic Very Early On
In 1979, the home was vacated. Frank’s wife, Mae Tobin Craycroft, had inherited the property after his death.
Following her death, the surrounding 80 acres of fig orchards passed to their children, Kenneth Tobin Craycroft and Fannie Mae Craycroft Trask, under their company name Craymont Gardens.
Even then, the 1-acre of land with the Craycroft home had been designated separately from the fig orchards, according to Fresno County land records.
After the family exited the home, it changed hands several times. In 1981, it was supposed to become the headquarters for Fresno development company Penstar Group. The home passed to a physician from Los Angeles and then went to Linda East, a mortgage broker in Fresno, who had plans to rehabilitate it.
Dan Zack, a former member of the Fresno Historic Preservation Commission, said that East was having trouble making the project pencil financially.
In 2016, the commission considered delisting the Craycroft from the Historic Register. East had requested it be delisted after it proved too costly to restore, according to Fresno city staff. She intended to demolish it and sell the land.
“As we know, these projects are do-able, but they often require niche expertise,” Zack said.
Historic Deep Dive Makes Restoration Easier
In the years since the home became empty, it has become a haven for vandals. Windows were broken and graffiti covers the interior. But some remnants remain such as the original curtains, though they’ve been torn to shreds, Assemi said.
If the home had been properly sealed, it would have become a time capsule, Assemi said.
Armed with old photos and discussions with descendants, Assemi is preparing to restore the home to how it would have looked in 1927.
Photos tell him what the baseboards and crown molding looked like. Custom wood windows will restore the old feel as well. While the floors have been vandalized throughout the decades, once he gets through a few layers, they’re in pretty good shape, he says.
The carriage house in the back of the property lacked the solid foundation the home was built on and had to be torn down in 2017. Assemi salvaged the roof tiles and bricks, giving him a healthy inventory of the original building materials should he need them for the house.
One problem, oddly enough, is he never had a picture of the front door. So now, all he can do is venture a guess at its appearance.
When Assemi restored the former Pacific Gas and Electric building that now houses the Jeffrey Scott Agency marketing agency downtown, photos provided a guide for the custom mahogany doors. The recreated door was close enough that the original hardware fit.
The building does need to be reinforced for earthquake standards. The easiest way to do that is by changing the exterior, but that was the last thing Assemi wanted to do.
He worked with Paul Halajian Architects and BSE Engineering to come up with a design where the straps protecting the building won’t be seen from the outside.
“That’s the kind of stuff I’m really looking forward to with Craycroft, the attention to detail, that’s really fun on some of these,” Assemi said.
Plans for the Home
Assemi is no stranger to historic renovations. In addition to the PG&E building, he also recently renovated the 110-year-old Sun Stereo Warehouse, also in downtown.
Now zoned for commercial, Assemi sees the Craycroft home being used as boutique retail or office space. One of his ideas was for a restaurant. But, with only 10 parking spots, it limits the home’s uses.
Behind the home, Assemi is adding six studio apartments. Much like how the Craycroft home currently contrasts starkly against modern architecture, he didn’t want to try to replicate the look with the new apartments.
“What we tried to do is make a juxtaposition where Craycroft is right in front, that’s what you notice and the back looks completely different, not trying to mimic the 1920s,” Assemi said.
In June, the commission approved Assemi’s application for adaptive reuse.
“This is one of those things you just shouldn’t let go of,” said Assemi.