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Central California Life Magazine

John Rupe: Preserving history through art

Sep 10, 2015 08:35AM ● By Kevin

John Rupe with a few of his models on Fulton Mall, including, from left to right, the Grand Central Hotel and the Fiske Block, Helm and Griffith buildings.

In the right hands, some cardboard, acrylic paint and a little glue can help transport a city into the past and uncover histories long forgotten. Fresno artist John Rupe does just that. His intricate model work of downtown Fresno landmarks propels us into exciting new territory to both remember and physically preserve where we came from.

Born in Auburn and raised in Fresno, Rupe’s fascination with Fresno architecture began at a very early age. At 11 years old, he explored the many old abandoned buildings on Fulton Street with his older brother. Their true destination was their aunt and uncle’s home nearby, but their many side adventures in between proved to be formative for him.

They started unearthing some interesting finds. 

“I actually went into the Fresno Brewery Company,” Rupe said. “In the 1920s and ’30s, it was used as a storage area during Prohibition. We found boxes people never claimed and a bar stool from a diner.” 

What became of the building or any of the items since then, he doesn’t know.

An artist and historian is born

Five years later, his interest in old buildings materialized into hands-on model projects that began with a historical recreation of a Victorian home. In 2010, he began work on modeling the Fresno Water Tower. Rupe decided to share this first piece with the community and displayed the model in the Water Tower Art Gallery, but when it didn’t sell or attract much attention, he brought it back to his home.

In the years following, more structures grabbed his attention. 

“I decided to do the [Fresno County] Courthouse and then try to do the buildings up to it,” he said, but this required much more research to depict it accurately. “I started leapfrogging everywhere, looking at older photos, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps and local library archives.”

Rupe got his hands on Sanborn Maps, a commonly used historical resource that dates back to the mid-1800s. His research gave him glimpses of what the layouts and features of these buildings were like before the turn of the 20th century. 

“Then I discovered a lot of them were still here,” he said.

This eventually led to a more dramatic finding. 

In October 2014, led in part by Rupe, The Fresno Bee reported on the discovery of the Expositor building. The structure housed the city’s first newspaper, the Fresno Daily Expositor, until 1898. It is also currently the oldest known commercial building in the city. 

The old Fresno County Courthouse was demolished in 1966 but survives as a prominent feature in Rupe’s cardboard city.

“I decided to do the [Fresno County] Courthouse and then try to do the buildings up to it.” But this required much more research to depict it accurately.

“Once I found it on the Sanborn map,” Rupe said, “I found it was still there, covered over. Now I know the parapet was removed, the windows were bricked in, stucco was placed over it, and tension rods were put in to support a wooden structure.” 

He continued to model more sections of the building as he went along in the research. He knew this was an important finding that needed to be handled well.

Earlier this year, the Historic Preservation Commission proposed to the Fresno City Council that the building be recognized by the Local Register of Historic Resources. Today, the building holds this distinction as a historical building. Rupe has since talked with the Downtown Fresno Partnership to lead the way in the restoration plans that will run concurrently with the Fulton Mall Corridor project.

“He almost single-handedly exposed the Expository building,” said Karana Hattersley-Drayton, historic preservation project manager for the City of Fresno. 

“He has become the super-sleuth along with others,” she added, referring to Rupe’s invaluable research work that led to the restoration. 

In April, Rupe received a Horizon Award, which is given annually to individuals who have done significant and outstanding work to enrich the community of Fresno.

“It’s much bigger than the models he is building,” said Craig Scharton, former downtown and community revitalization director for the City of Fresno. “Not only is it a cool thing for our city, but it’s an interesting journey for him.”

'A big psychological healing for the community'

Scharton, owner of Peeve’s Public House and Local Market in the Fulton Mall, currently displays several of Rupe’s models in his business. Among them are the Fulton Hotel, the Fresno Undertaker Parlor and The Fiske Block. 

“I’m such a fan of his,” he said. “It’s a big psychological healing for the community.” 

The city is like a person, Scharton added — when it’s still growing, it tries to avoid being too ethnic, too distinct, and attempts to blend in and assimilate instead. But with age, it starts to become proud of who and what it is. 

Scharton attributes this change to people like Rupe, who have recognized the potential in the city and have boldly gone forward in making it a tangible reality. The Downtown Fresno Partnership has recently begun gathering resources and volunteers for the preservation, Scharton said, and plans are underway for an interior facade demonstration during the summer to begin physically assessing the work needed to be done.

“John’s a perfect example of someone jumping in and getting it started,” he said, something that he feels is one of Fresno’s strengths — the freedom of individuals to start community-driven projects. The ambition Rupe demonstrates is a rare quality, Scharton said, and a great asset to the future of the city.

This determined spirit is also apparent in the models themselves. Salvaging materials is routine, said Rupe about his process. As a retail manager, he has easy access to the heavy cardboard pieces that best suit the structures he is trying to depict. 

“For the fine painting, I use an X-Acto knife,” he said. “I don’t think they make fine enough brushes for what I need.”

In his home office, a desk is dedicated to construction, his computer is nearby for referencing, and another table holds his models in progress. Among the upcoming models are the Helm Block, Temple Bar, Fresno Savings and Loan, and the Farmers Bank Block. He’s even begun work on a building in the Tower District, none other than the historic Tower Theatre. 

“It’s a very tiny office, getting smaller everyday, he said.”

Rupe hopes his work will make researching Fresno’s history easier on the next explorers. For him, the models are more than a way to complete the vivid images in his mind, they are also a way to give back to the community.

Written by Andrew Veihmeyer, who was news editor of the campus newspaper while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in communication at Fresno State. Most recently, he has worked as a marketing intern for several companies and nonprofits in the Central Valley.

Photos by Dan and Roberta Minkler.