By James Mills
The hotels of Old San Diego were not known for their excellence, even in their heyday. George Derby, who did more to publicize the village than any other single man, was the cause, having declared in a letter to the Daily Alta California that the Exchange Hotel and Billiard Saloon, a leading hostelry of the early fifties, was infested with fleas. (His recommended remedy, by the way, was a pot of boiling water, into which the bite and the flea could be plunged for the dual purpose of discommoding the flea and causing the bite to be forgotten.) With the publication of Phoenixiana the stigma attached itself, perhaps unfairly, to the town’s hotels in general.
Information about the old Exchange is hard to come by. There are no pictures of it known. There are no descriptions of what it looked like. No old timer could even tell where it stood. Its location was only determined in recent years when Orion Zink found the following item in the November 3rd, 1855, issue of the San Diego Herald:
“. . . On the Plaza and its vicinity are several operations just completed or in progress, one of the most important of which is the raising and enlargement of the Exchange estate by Messrs. Franklin, who intend to devote it to their large and increasing business. The lower story is to be of brick, fronted by a handsome veranda, which will be carried up three stories, the height of the building.”
The mystery was solved emphatically, for the Franklin House was Old Town’s first and, for many years, its only three story building, as well as its foremost hotel. It stood next door but one to the Machado House, on the southwest side of the Plaza. Lewis A. Franklin, who opened it, came to San Diego in the summer of 1851 with George Davis, to found a retail business, The Tienda California (California Shop). In October they were joined by their San Francisco representative, Thomas Whaley. In April 1852 Franklin withdrew from the firm. The Herald item shows that his building was erected not in 1852, as has been occasionally stated, but in ’55. The wording also indicates that the Exchange Hotel and Billiard Saloon was not torn down to make room for the Franklin, as is commonly believed. Despite the brick work the lower story was probably still partly adobe; although the upper two were entirely frame.
Lewis Franklin used the building not only as a hotel but also as a place of business. Just after it was finished he was advertising himself in the Herald as an attorney and counsellor at law and a notary public under the Law of 1853. Time passed and filled along with his the place of many more. The Herald for May 8, 1858, carried only one advertisement for a San Diego hotel, and that was for the re-opening of the Franklin House under the management of Joseph Reiner. The refurbishing of the billiard table was emphasized, as well as a complete replacement of the furniture and bedding. This should have made the old place very nice indeed, for just three months before, the Herald had asserted that the Franklin was the finest hotel in Southern California. At the same time Lewis A. and his brother Maurice A. Franklin had advertised that theirs was the equal of any hotel on the Pacific Coast. The Franklins also mentioned an interesting “first” in that February ad: “A passenger stage is dispatched on the arrival and departure of each steamer, thus affording facilities hitherto unknown in San Diego.”
Billiards did not form the only contribution of the Franklin to the social life of the community. In 1931 Mrs. Lottie Mustain told Winifred Davidson, our Historian. that: “The Franklin House is where my Aunt Rosita Stewart and Mrs. Serafino Serrano used to attend balls, very fashionable balls, where the ladies wore evening dresses.” Then too during the year that the building was owned by Joseph Manasse, an active Mason, San Diego Lodge 35 held many of their banquets and celebrations there. It was only appropriate that it should have been so, for it was in the old Exchange Hotel that, on the evening of July 20, 1851, the first meeting of San Diego’s Masons took place. It was there that the petition was drawn up requesting permission to form a lodge here. (The lodge, San Diego 35, is the oldest in Southern California.)
During the last two years before Horton, William Flinn was the proprietor. That the operation of hostelries changes with the growing age is confirmed by the recollection of William Flinn’s granddaughter, Julia Flinn DeFrate. She recalled stories of how fat beeves were driven up to the willow or pepper tree behind the hotel where they were butchered on the spot for use in the kitchen.
It was, of course, on April 20, 1872, that Old San Diego’s biggest building and most noted hotel joined the Colorado House next door and the court house beyond in providing the tinder for the great Old Town fire, which started on the corner in the Schiller house. With the passing of those three buildings on the southwest side of the Plaza the hope of the little town at the foot of Presidio Hill to maintain its position against the competition of Horton’s Addition passed too, forever.