About the Colony

How the Printery became Atascadero's most important building

Special to The TribuneApril 7, 2014 

The Printery building on Olmeda Avenue in Atascadero.

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As someone who has written a lot about Atascadero’s history, the question I am most frequently asked is, “What about the Printery?”

The short answer is, I don’t know!

The building is a part of the tangled web of Kelly Gearhart’s involvement in local development and failed schemes, and perhaps some fraud. That will all be decided in an upcoming trial that, for some reason, keeps getting postponed. The Printery is a part of Gearhart’s assets.

In the meantime, the building stands at the corner of Olmeda and West Mall avenues, a two-story brick structure that, when it was completed, was the single most important building in Atascadero. The structure was heavily damaged in the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake. Large timbers and steel inside are holding up the two end walls.

It was Atascadero founder E.G. Lewis’ lifeblood. It was his source of money.

It was how he let people throughout the nation know what he was trying to do here on the Central Coast of California. It was where he printed a number of his progress “Bulletins” that were mailed throughout the United States.

Having a mailing list of that size was money in the pocket for Lewis. Prior to coming to California in 1913, Lewis used earlier publications such as the Woman’s National Magazine and the Woman’s National Weekly to reach potential buyers for the city he was building on the outskirts of St. Louis, University City.

Although Lewis began work on the City Administration Building first (the cornerstone was put down in June 1914), the Printery was the first of his civic center buildings to be completed.

The first publication to come out of this building was the Atascadero News in January 1916.

The building was erected at a cost of $34,000, not including the equipment. That equipment eventually included the largest rotogravure press complex west of the Mississippi River, and one of the first on the West Coast.

The Printery “complex” included one large stucco-covered building next to the brick structure you see today, a tin shed for storing rolls of newsprint and another stick-built building that became home to the newspaper staff.

The rest of the main building was devoted to smaller printing presses, book-binding machines and offices upstairs. The entire plant cost $250,000 for machinery and furniture.

Lewis’ brother, George B. Lewis, managed the Printery, which employed more than 100 men and women from 1916 to about 1923. The large presses were moved to Oakland after Lewis was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in December 1924.

Artist Ralph Holmes was invited by Lewis to paint murals on the walls of the entrance to the building. Formerly of the Chicago Art Institute, Holmes was known as a muralist even before coming to Atascadero. The murals are still there.

One of the most successful publications to be created here was The Illustrated Review, which I like to think was a forerunner of the Life magazine format. It was long on pictures and short on text. The Illustrated Review included pictures from throughout the world as well as advertising and stories about Lewis’ enterprises.

Next week: When the Printery was a part of three different private schools and a government-sponsored school for at-risk youth.

Lon Allan has lived in Atascadero for nearly five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 466-8529 or leallan@tcsn.net.

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