Downtown Modesto encompasses one square mile and within that boundary beats the heart of Modesto’s history, culture and festivities. From the McHenry Mansion to delectable dining options and art venues to Graffiti cruising, Downtown Modesto has plenty of possibilities to spend an afternoon or evening.
“We believe that the downtown needs to be a brand and a brand identity of a city is one that is constantly evolving,” said Josh Bridegroom, the president and CEO of the Downtown Modesto Partnership. “It changes with history, time, art, culture and the people. We want to make our downtown a representation of all the people who are here. Right now, Downtown Modesto’s brand is comfortable cosmopolitan setting. It’s where culture, cuisine and community connect. We have a higher concentration of art, food and social gatherings than anywhere else in the city.”
The Downtown Modesto Partnership, also known as DoMo, began has a grassroots effort to improve the image of the downtown region, which stretches from Needham Avenue to the north and the Tuolumne River at the southern end. In September of 2015, the assessment district was formed by vote of a weighted majority of property owners, and the group incorporated as the Downtown Modesto Partnership. Their efforts to boost downtown has included creating new community events, like the International Mural Festival and DoMo First Fridays and products like the RAD Card, which helps support locally-owned and small businesses by matching the funds people place on their RAD Card, up to $100, that can be used at those businesses.
DoMo also works to improve public spaces and plazas within downtown through projects like a cleaning crew, creating the parklets program, and commissioning and sponsoring public art, among many other efforts.
Downtown Modesto has plenty of attractions to fit a variety of interests, from history buffs to theater-goers.
The grand dame of Downtown Modesto is the McHenry Mansion, located at 906 15th St. The Victorian-Italianate mansion was built in 1883 as the residence for Robert McHenry and his family. The mansion remained a family residence until 1919, when it became the Elmwood Sanitarium. In 1923 it was transformed into an apartment building and stayed in that formation until 1976, when it was put on the market and purchased by the Julio R. Gallo Foundation to preserve it. It was restored to its historical roots and opened for public tours in 1983.
The McHenry Mansion Foundation is the nonprofit organization that oversees the landmark home and offers free guided tours with their knowledgeable docents. Just a few spots down, at 924 15th St. is the organization’s visitor’s center and gift store. Tours are available from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Sundays and Mondays.
More of Modesto’s early history can be explored at the McHenry Museum at 1402 I St. From the Yokuts Native American Tribe to Modesto during the Gold Rush days, the museum paints a picture of the formative years of the town.
For those whose interest lies in the history of more recent times, Downtown Modesto is home to the “American Graffiti” walking tour. Starting and ending at the 10th Street plaza, where the Cruise Route Walk of Fame is located, the walking tour features various points of interest in downtown related to the cruising heydeys captured in George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti.”
The Walk of Fame recognizes the cruisers, hot rod racers, teeny boppers, and unforgettable personalities that left an indelible mark on Modesto and Lucas, and inspired “American Graffiti.” The self-guided tour of sidewalk markers celebrating the Legends of the Cruise. It traverses the path cars used to drag on 10th and 11th streets. The markers explore topics from Lucas’ biography to car clubs of the 1950s and 1960s to some of the hometown heroes. The Walk has a total of 25 stops.
For movie lovers, Downtown Modesto is home to two options - Brenden Theatres and The State Theatre. Brenden Theatres shows all the latest releases on 18 movie screens, with fully reclining luxury leather chairs, and a beer and wine bar.
The State Theatre caters to those looking for independent, art-house and classic movies. The State Theatre was designed by architect S. Charles Lee, who during the 1930s and ‘40s was the leading designer of movie houses and theatres. He was an early proponent of the Art Deco movement, which is reflected in the design of The State, from the graceful greyhounds and gazelles bedecking the walls to the marquee. Lee believed the show started on the sidewalk and wanted the outside design to reflect that belief.
In 1994, the Downtown Arts Project took over The State Theatre and added live music concerts, guest artists and foreign and art films to boost revenue. In 2005, the current operators, the nonprofit State Theatre of Modesto Inc., took over running the theatre.
The State Theatre opened their newest addition — The Jewel — which added a second theatre and screen. The new space seats 25, compared to the 550 in the main room and shares the same concession stand. It is primarily used to show movies after opening weekend and for private rentals and events.
Downtown Modesto is home to the Modesto Certified Farmers Market, located on 16th Street between H and I streets. The market is a spot where consumers can get some of the freshest fruits, vegetables, breads, meats, cheeses and other food products direct from the growers and producers. The market is open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays between January to December and on Thursdays between April to November.
Anyone wanting to explore their inner artist will want to check out The Dragonfly-Art for Life at 1210 J St. The working art studio offers small classes and Zoom memberships in subjects like painting, drawing, sewing and other artistic endeavors.
To test puzzle-solving skills, logic and teamwork, turn to Escape Modesto at 912 11th St. At this escape room players are locked inside a room for an hour with just their wits, problem-solving abilities, and teamwork to help them escape. In order to escape, participants must decode clues, solve puzzles, and unlock mysteries to make their way out.
Downtown Modesto is home to Modesto on Ice, the city’s only ice skating rink. Set up at 1131 11th St. at the corner of 11th and K Streets offers lots of wintertime fun from mid-November to mid-January. The rink is an outdoor tent-covered venue and it’s generally just a few degrees colder on the ice than it is outside. There are a couple fire pits and patio heaters to keep skaters and onlookers warm. The Save Mart Snack Shack located next to the rink offers concessions, including hot beverages.
Cuisine is an integral part of Downtown Modesto’s brand and the area has a multitude of options to tempt diners of all tastes, from street tacos on 8th Street to fine dining restaurants.
“I think we are at 65 restaurants in Downtown Modesto,” Bridegroom said. “So there’s really a little bit of everything.”
One way to explore all these restaurants is through DoMo’s Back of the House - Downtown Modesto Food Tour.
“It takes you to four different restaurants and a market,” Bridegroom explained. “You get to taste and you get to learn some of the history about the culture. The chef or the owner usually comes out to meet the guests and will tell them about the food and maybe what inspired them to open a restaurant and the region from which the dish comes from.”
The tour lasts about three hours and can be scheduled online athttps://bit.ly/3qdjbMJ.
Downtown Modesto also has several nightlife options for dancing, live music, billiards, and comedy.
A vital part of Downtown Modesto is the art scene, which includes stage shows, art galleries and music concerts.
Modesto is home to more than a dozen unique murals around downtown. DoMo hosts the International Mural Festival in October. The artists come to Downtown Modesto to install brand new large-scale murals and it culminates with a celebration at the DoMo First Friday event. Other murals were painted with an eye towards celebrating the region’s agricultural heritage and American Graffiti car culture. Throughout the city follow the mural trail down side streets, behind shops and even on the public trails.
Throughout the year, downtown Modesto has a free Art Walk tour on every third Thursday of the month. The Art Walk is a free event that features art galleries, as well as businesses and organizations that display art for the evening, working together to showcase the best of the arts. There’s also a chance to listen to local musicians, enjoy food and beverage from one of the downtown eateries and if a piece of art really hits home, it can be purchased. The venues on the self-guided tour can be visited in any order. For a map of locations and dates visit http://modestoartwalk.com.
The Prospect Theater Project is located at 1214 K St. and routinely brings insightful and innovative works of theater to the stage. It is Modesto’s longest-running resident theater company, producing season after season of high-quality plays. The intimate setting has been the site of original plays and adaptions staged by a dedicated group of community actors and directors.
The Gallo Center for the Arts, at 1000 I St., is the home theater for Modesto Symphony Orchestra, Central West Ballet, Opera Modesto and Modesto Performing Arts. It also routinely brings in large scale Broadway shows and high-caliber performers. The Gallo Center for the Arts is the focus of arts, entertainment, multicultural programming and social activities, not just for downtown, but for the entire Central Valley.
Downtown Modesto is the site of annual events like the Fourth of July parade, the Christmas Light Parade, the Graffiti Festival cruise and DoMo’s First Fridays. Located in and around the 10th Street plaza, the First Fridays have a bit of everything, from games to chef demonstrations to pop-up dance workshops. Bridegroom explained it’s open to those in the community that want to share some positivity with Downtown Modesto.
“There is a lot to like about Downtown Modesto,” Bridegroom said. “There’s something for everyone.”