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March 26, 2008 > Celebrating the heritage of Niles

Celebrating the heritage of Niles

By Bosky Panjvani
Photos By courtesy of Paul Welschmeyer, PW Architects

If you happen to walk down Niles Main Street these days and you have an eye for detail, then you will not miss the colorful banners decked out on the lamp posts. This delightful district is pumping up its charm with an educational walking tour using these colorful banners to reveal its history, one as colorful as the banners.

The Niles Cultural Banners Program is the brainchild of Paul Welschmeyer, Niles resident and architect, and Barry Jennings. It all began with a conversation outside the post office six months ago. "It is an effort to create awareness and celebrate the rich heritage and present day culture of Niles," said Welschmeyer, who serves as curator, editor, and manages design production. Jennings is handling the cultural liaison and banner installation.

Sixty-two banners have been planned as a part of the Niles Cultural Banner program, with strategic positions on Niles Boulevard. The banners will be changed periodically. Welschmeyer and Jennings are also planning to create a catalogue with graphics of the banners and an essay on Niles with a bibliography for people interested in further information. It will serve as a written documentation of the banner program.

Niles has quite a history to tell. In the past, it was home to the silent film industry and beloved comedic star Charlie Chaplin. Niles has also been home to steel mills, clay factories and a famous railroad junction of the Transcontinental Railroad. People who were traveling to San Francisco by train during the Gold Rush days knew about Niles.

Today, Niles is a district of Fremont but retains its unique character. A stroll down the main street can easily transport visitors to a bygone era as many of the buildings and antique and collectible businesses still retain the character of a bygone era. Interspersed with the nostalgic past are modern businesses that invite shoppers to step in and out of the past and present to enjoy an eclectic experience. An architect's delight, Niles includes enticing alleyways and significant structures such as the Ellsworth building, a Moorish structure adorned with beautiful tiles, built by Wythe Blaine and Olson in 1926, who went on to construct buildings in Carmel.

This historic town also has three buildings designed by William Wurster, former dean of MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, who was hired by Dr Eugene Grau from 1941 to 1943. He designed Shuckl & Co Cannery, Grau's hospital at the west end of Niles Main Street and the Grau's residence at Shinn Pitt, which is now Shinn Lake in Niles. Grau was working as a doctor with Pacific States Steel Mills in Niles and his wife, Ethel, a trained nurse, was an accomplished watercolor artist who created watercolor works on the Sheen Pit, and a few others in the 40s when cameras were a luxury. She also mentored Nathan Oliviera, the head of arts department in Stanford University.

A wealth of historical and cultural surprises is waiting for first time visitors to this singular town. Niles is a fun and interesting destination for an afternoon of shopping, dining and discovery - from unique shops to a historic silent film theatre and a train depot that greeted and continues to view trains that travel Niles Canyon, once part of the great Transcontinental Railroad. Colorful banners will begin the story and as visitors explore Niles, they will be able to fill in the rich background of this historic and vibrant town. Come to Niles and see a crown jewel of the Fremont story.

The main street of Niles is located on Niles Boulevard in Fremont. It can be found at the Fremont terminus of Niles Canyon (Rte. 84) off Mission Boulevard or as an extension of Alvarado-Niles Road in Union City. For more information about the historic banner project, contact Barry Jennings (510) 794-7544.

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