By Bertram B. Moore
It was May 3, 1869, and the sun was setting in golden splendor as the old side-wheeler Orizaba warped alongside the Horton wharf at the foot of Fifth Street.
One of the passengers was Garrett G. Bradt, my grandfather. He had booked accommodations at the Dunnels Hotel which the captain told him, pointing to the Army Barracks, “It’s two blocks the other side.” Little did he know that within a month he would be the new proprietor of San Diego’s finest hotel.
Some of the citizens of Old San Diego had agreed, some twenty years earlier, that a new city should be built closer to the waterfront, and in March of 1850 William Heath Davis and a few others had bought 160 acres of Alcalde property, bounded by what now is Broadway, Front Street and the bay.
Davis went to San Francisco, where he contacted the skipper of the brig Cybell. loaded with building material which he had brought around The Horn from Portland, Me. The brig came on to San Diego; Davis built a wharf at the foot of Atlantic Street (Pacific Highway) and constructed several buildings. Much of the material was pre-fabricated into panels 11 by 16, and 11 by 20 feet, and the panels could be erected into single or multiple buildings, with doors and window-frames in place.
The first house thus built was a residence at the northeast corner of State and F Streets, in 1850 To quote from Davis’ Seventy-five Years In California, 1831-1906, Page 334: “The first building in New San Diego was put up by myself, as a private residence. The building is still standing, being known as the San Diego Hotel. I also put up a number of other buildings.”
William E. Smythe states in his History of San Diego, and later historians have repeated, that the first house in New San Diego was one sold to Captain Knowles and moved to 227 Eleventh Street. But as Davis built both houses, we will take his word for it and recognize the “New San Diego Hotel” as the first house built in New San Diego.
The property was transferred to Alonzo E. Horton in 1867. On page 337 Smythe quotes Horton as saying: “There was an old building standing in New San Diego about State and F. It had been braced up to keep it from falling down, it belonged to a man named Wm. H. Davis, “Kanaka Davis”. I bought this building and lot for $100.”
After reconstructing the building, Horton states: “A man named Dunnells (Capt. S. S. Dunnells) came to me to ask about the chance of starting a hotel in San Diego … and I wanted to get a hotel started … so I sold it to him, with the lot, for $1,000.” Two years later Dunnells leased the hotel to G. G. Bradt and S. S. Gordon.
The hotel’s first ad appeared in The San Diego Union, Oct. 17, 1868 — “This splendid, new and first-class Hotel is now open with new furniture throughout — Stages leave for all parts of California, Arizona and Mexico.” On June 2, 1869 the Union said: “The New San Diego Hotel is leased to Messrs. Bradt and Gordon, who will keep a first class Hotel in San Diego … It is a two-story frame building with a piazza extending partly around and it is one of San Diego’s Palatial structures.”
In the next few years several larger hotels were built; the old landmark fell into rapid decay, and eventually it was condemned. About 1928 the owner replaced the ground floor with a brick store building. The upper floor, with the roof intact, was turned around facing F Street and re-set on top of the new brick walls. A few years ago the entire upper floor, including the windows, was covered with asbestos shingles.
Early this month, the owner let me go through the upper floor of the old building. Evidently the ground floor had contained the parlor, dining-room, kitchen, and proprietor’s quarters. On the upper floor were eight rather large rooms about 11 by 14 feet, and two small ones in the attic. The floor was tongue-and-groove, some eight or ten inches wide, while partitions and ceiling were 8-inch tongue-and-groove; ceiling height was about seven feet. The rooms faced on a wide, central hallway. Some of the partition boards had been papered several times, and underneath I found the original boards painted a solid light color, stippled in a very pretty flower design.
There was no bath in the building, and water had to be carried from the nearest well. Around 1868, Tasker & Hoke dug a well in the block east of the Court House, and delivered water from door to door at 25 cents a bucket.
No doubt in its heyday this, San Diego’s first “palatial” structure, was the object of pride and admiration. It is to be regretted that nearly all of our old, historical landmarks are being removed with the march of progress.