About the Colony

Future still unclear for Atascadero’s 100-year-old Printery building

The Printery building in Atascadero was badly damaged by the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake and remains fenced off an unused.
The Printery building in Atascadero was badly damaged by the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake and remains fenced off an unused. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Atascadero’s annual Colony Days celebration, which takes place Oct. 9 through 15, is less than a month away. I like to use this time of year to slip in a little bit of history of E.G. Lewis’ colony when I can.

The city of Atascadero celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. That was a celebration of when Lewis purchased the 23,000-acre cattle ranch. Aside from a few exceptions, he didn’t allow any residential buildings here until 1915.

The Printery building on Olmeda Avenue is 100 years old this year, as is the Atascadero News. Actually, the Printery was finished in December of 1915 but wasn’t pressed into service until a month later. Although Lewis started construction on the Administration Building in June 1914, it wasn’t finished until the summer of 1918.

But he needed a way to get income for his utopian community. His cash cow was the Printery.

Lewis himself wrote that, “Probably no other single factor of the Atascadero Plan of Development is quite so important as the publishing end, with its ability to reach the consuming public throughout the United States direct.”

It was how he told the world what he was doing on the Central Coast of California, having left University City, Missouri, in 1912 to start over after defending himself against fraud charges from the U.S. Post Office. All charges against him were eventually dropped by the feds.

The first issue of the Atascadero News rolled off the press in January 1916, followed a few months later by The Illustrated Review, a photo magazine similar to Life magazine. Ironically, it was a promotion scheme involving The Illustrated Review that ended up sending Lewis to federal prison in 1928. He was convicted of 14 counts of mail fraud.

Lewis’ hold on the Printery ended when he was forced into involuntary receivership in December 1924.

The structure subsequently served as part of three different private schools, a national education program for at-risk youths, Atascadero Unified School District’s office, a substation of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, a gymnastics school, a karate school and even a photographer’s studio. The city also owned it for a brief period to use as a recreation center.

The Masonic Lodge owned the building from 1950 and eventually gave the building to developer Kelly Gearhart, who built the Masons a new meeting hall on Traffic Way.

The Printery building was severely damaged in the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake and is being held together by large wood and steel beams, which are keeping the ends of the building from falling out.

A local group is working furiously to find a way to save the building.

Lon Allan’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Atascadero for five decades and his column appears here every week. Reach Allan at 805-466-8529 or leallan@tcsn.net.