Walk around Civic Center Park, in the town of Hanford, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d time-machined to the 1920s: There’s a grand auditorium built in 1924, a Mission Revival–style movie theater from 1929, and an ice cream parlor that’s been operating since that decade too. It’s truly a town square—a term that conjures up images of a simpler time: horses and hitching posts, gas lamps, and music from a quartet wafting from a patriotically decorated pavilion.
That’s because town squares are of another era. An era when city planners constructed streets to converge on a community’s focal point—the city hall, perhaps, or a great lawn. In California, creation of these central areas usually occurred in conjunction with the towns’ settling, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And as discovery of the state’s treasures led to rapid investment and growth, grand structures arose around the town centers.
Then, of course, life started moving at a faster pace. People spread out, and city planners focused on connecting them with interstate highways. But the appeal of town squares never disappeared; fortunately, neither did much of the architecture that surrounded them. Forward-thinking preservationists saved some buildings in their original states and renovated others to maintain the flavor of a bygone era. Today, these central areas serve as a window into California’s early years.
Yet they’re more than historical relics. A number of California town squares remain true to their intended origin as community gathering places. Today they host farmer’s markets, festivals, and art shows while providing visitors with must-see destinations. Here’s how, and where, to discover California’s town-square past.