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Fate of E.G. Lewis’ home offers Atascadero a lesson as it ponders Printery’s future

The E.G. Lewis house, home of Atascadero’s founder since 1913, was burned in 1965 by the Fire Department to make way for a shopping mall that was not built for another 15 years.
The E.G. Lewis house, home of Atascadero’s founder since 1913, was burned in 1965 by the Fire Department to make way for a shopping mall that was not built for another 15 years. Telegram-Tribune

Californians are good at looking to the future, but they’re often not good at preserving the past.

Between rapacious development, earthquakes, fires, floods, bankruptcy and garden-variety indifference, a building here is lucky to survive 50 years.

Fans of history have a chance to make a save with the Printery building in Atascadero. Compare the cost of restoration with the price of building a new community facility from scratch, and the sticker shock is not bad.

As Tribune staff writer Lindsey Holden wrote Dec. 23: “The Atascadero Printery Foundation is trying to raise $350,000 by Jan. 5, which members hope will convince the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to object to the building’s sale and prevent it from going to auction in May.”

Fundraising and grant writing could fund restoration of the structure into a community center, which would likely be a positive turning point in the revitalization of downtown Atascadero.

Once something is lost, there is no way to recover it.

An example is the E.G. Lewis home in Atascadero.

As Tribune columnist Lon Allan wrote Aug. 23, 2010: “It was destroyed in a practice burn by the local Fire Department in 1965 to make way for a market that didn’t get built for 15 years.”

If you are keeping score, the structure fell to fire, rapacious development and indifference.

Perhaps it was karmic irony that a developer’s home was destroyed by another developer.

During Lewis’ boom days in Atascadero, old oak trees were dynamited to make way for his vision of a colony.

Lewis bought the home in 1913 along with the 23,000-acre Jason H. Henry cattle ranch. Henry had built it for his daughter.

Chuck Yoakum wrote about the end of the Lewis home in the Telegram-Tribune on Jan. 27, 1965:

‘Old Lewis house’ consigned to fire

Progress claimed one of Atascadero’s oldest landmarks Tuesday night.

The old Lewis home of E.G. Lewis, the founder of Atascadero, burned into ashes and memories while a handful of firemen and a vast crowd of spectators watched the controlled burn.

The burning of the old mansion ended several days of land clearing and razing on the property, which at one time boasted the first house in the community.

Progress, in the form of a shopping center, will replace the rambling old structure at the site above El Camino Real.

Firemen started the blaze at 7 p.m. and then stood back to watch. Within 30 minutes, the flames had reached all four corners of the house.

A large cluster of people from the surrounding area were on hand to watch from the beginning.

As the flames grew brighter, cars began stopping along the freeway and old Highway 101 to watch the famous landmark disappear in flames.

To many of the motorists who stopped to watch the huge two-story house burn, it was just another fire.

To many Atascadero residents, it was more.

E.G. Lewis came to what was later to be Atascadero in 1913.

He purchased the rambling house the same year. It was on the property known as the Henry Ranch.

Under Lewis’ direction, Atascadero went from a “tent city” in 1915 to a full-fledged community.

He was to call the towering house his home until his death.

His wife died in 1936, but Lewis remained living in the house.

In his later years, he became an invalid but refused to leave the old two-story building. He died in 1950.

The “old Lewis house” is gone, and at least part of the town its owner founded turned out to see it go.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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