A once proud century-old downtown El Centro building that has suffered decades of decay is in line for a Renaissance due to a developer seeking to again make it a major destination.
The former Masonic Temple at the northeast corner of South Sixth and West State streets is undergoing the first stages of a restoration that will conclude with it housing two restaurants, an event center and offices, said Adriana Nava, a city of El Centro associate planner.
The three-story structure was erected in 1912, according to the engraving on its cornerstone. It was dedicated on May 1, 1913, states Otis B. Tout in his 1931 book “The First 30 Years in Imperial Valley, California.” Two other buildings went up near the intersection in 1912, Tout wrote, and several “building contractors were all busy in El Centro” that year, attesting to the booming downtown commerce of the day.
The Masonic location has now been vacant since about the early 1990s, coinciding with a decline that has seen numerous historic downtown buildings lie dormant.
“It’s a beautiful building,” Nava said. “They’ll (the owners) be maintaining the historical integrity. For them to go into our downtown area, it’s wonderful. We couldn’t be more grateful.”
Nava said city records identify the developer as Numa, Inc., which owns the La Resaca restaurants at 201 N. Imperial Ave. in El Centro, as well as locations in Calexico and Yuma.
The firm’s plans, Nava added, include two restaurants on the first floor—one a steak house and the other with Mexican cuisine—an event center on the second floor with two rooms available for rent, and offices on the third floor. Each room in the event center will have a stage and a bar, she said.
Work has begun cleaning the structure, but the renovation will not start until the permitting process is complete, Nava said.
“They have submitted building plans and there is a site-plan review. All city departments can submit comments,” Nava added. “They will need a lot of restrooms. There is an existing elevator and a lot of cleaning up is needed.”
Numa officials could not be reached for comment.
Masonic temples, local meeting sites for the global fraternal and philanthropic organization, have long been busy gathering places and that was certainly the case for the El Centro temple in the early- to mid-20th Century.
Today, its location at the intersection of Sixth and State has certainly seen better days. Its most recent publicity occurred when about 20 residents of the Mayan Hotel on its southeast corner were evicted after the low-income rooming house was deemed unhealthy by city officials. The Masonic building itself, while apparently structurally sound, is an ugly mosaic of peeling paint and weathered window boards. Its most frequent denizens are pigeons and an occasional transient camped out under its sidewalk ramadas.
Nearby, gaping wounds in the landscape once housed the El Centro Public Library and the defunct Lemons-Wiley Mortuary, both irreparably damaged by the 7.2 earthquake on Easter Sunday 2010 and since razed. Other buildings in the area are long vacant and in disrepair.
Still, downtown has pulses of commerce. Many salons and a few delis do a brisk business and mainstays such as Imperial Printers, Brooks and Green’s jewelry stores and Union Bank keep customers coming.
But in an interview in late 2017 as Bonnie Olesh prepared to close her Fifth Avenue Book Center after 20 years in business, she explained the nature of downtown commerce has changed since its heyday, becoming more transactional.
“I’m a destination point. People come downtown to go to my store. People don’t stroll Main Street anymore,” she said. “I won’t say the shape of downtown has a positive or a negative effect on me and I won’t say my leaving will have an impact.”
At a neighboring business, attorney James Graves of the Ewing, Johnson and Graves Professional Law Corp. at 636 W. State St., said he has some hope the Masonic Temple enterprise will buoy the long-blighted intersection. A drain, he said, is a clinic on the southwest corner that treats drug users.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. The fact they put a lot of money in it will encourage people to come down here and run these people off because they’re not going to have any places to hide,” Graves said.