The literary ghost of William Saroyan roars whenever a reader opens one of the master’s aging texts. But his immortal muse inhabits more than bookshelves. It also abides, albeit more quietly, in the places he wrote about, often giving modern-day substance to stories created long ago.
Fresno supplied much of Saroyan’s formative experience and was the place where he spent much of the last 18 years of his life. Although the city has changed dramatically since he died in 1981, enough remains to give readers a chance to walk where he walked and see some of the buildings that were important to him.
Experiencing Saroyan’s life through his treasured landmarks is the theme of a new book by painter Pat Hunter and writer Janice Stevens.
"William Saroyan: Places in Time" (Linden Publishing, $26.95) covers the writer’s full-circle journey from his birth in Fresno to major cities around the world and back home again. Stevens’ text chronicles Saroyan’s life, and Hunter’s watercolor paintings provide windows that show where many of the key events took place.
Many of the buildings in the book are still standing, including Fresno landmarks such as the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe depots, the Holy Trinity Apostolic Armenian Church and the Rowell Building.
But the most important places from Saroyan’s early life are no longer standing. These include the home where he grew up, the First Armenian Presbyterian Church where he attended services, Emerson Elementary School, the Carnegie Public Library and Fresno Technical High School.
"So many of the old places are gone," Hunter says. "I had to use old photographs to paint them."
Hunter says the biggest challenge was painting the First Armenian Presbyterian Church. She couldn’t find any photographs of the building and had to rely on another painting to re-create the building’s unusual, octagon-shaped architecture.
Stevens and Hunter traveled to San Francisco to photograph the homes where Saroyan lived. Hunter used photographs to re-create scenes from Paris, Hollywood, New York and Armenia.
Some of the most interesting paintings are of Fresno buildings that Saroyan frequented in his later years. They include the Hotel Californian, where he stayed in a room on the eighth floor in the summer of 1963 and there decided to move back to Fresno; the two homes he owned on West Griffith Way, near Roeding Park; the Gillis Branch Library on West Dakota Avenue; the Veterans Administration Medical Center, where he died; and the McDonald’s restaurant at Shields and Blackstone avenues.
"It was his favorite restaurant," Hunter says. "He used to ride his bike there all the time."
Stevens says looking at Saroyan’s life through the lens of structural and physical landmarks gives her a greater appreciation for his writing.
"The more I read, the more I got caught up in his work," she says. "His stories are so autobiographical, and they reflect where he lived. He was a very complex, deep man who was devoted to his Armenian heritage."
"He’s writing about home," Hunter adds. "He’s writing about us and where we live."
In his memoir "Places Where I’ve Done Time," Saroyan writes fondly of Fresno’s Carnegie Public Library, describing it as a "depot" that enabled him to travel outside of Fresno by book before he was able to leave on his own. The building was built in 1902 at 1330 Broadway St. and was razed in 1959.
Hunter says the library is a building she wishes she could have painted on location.
"I like its classical architecture," she says, referring to its columns and arched windows, "It had that Greek and Roman’style. It had the feel of an educational institution; a place to study and learn."
If Stevens could travel back in time, she would like to visit the First Armenian Presbyterian Church building. The three-story, wooden structure was built in 1902 at 515 Fulton St. and burned down in 1985. "I wish I could see the church through Saroyan’s eyes," she says. "It would have represented the whole Armenian culture of the time."