San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter
April 1, 1977
An idea quickly gaining recognition, is that a city’s physical appearance affects the way people feel about it. Typically, the architecture and urban design of any particular historical era will reflect much about the feelings, ideas, and character of the people of that era.
Among the X-rated “adult” book stores and cheap hotels located in San Diego’s Fifth Avenue Gaslamp Quarter, a good number of architecture, art and design students may be seen utilizing single lens reflex cameras. They are preserving at least on film, the only significant remnants of turn -of-the-century commercial buildings in San Diego. Structures like the Nesmith-Greely Building, the Grand-Horton Hotel, and the Louis Bank Building, all built in 1888, reflect the boldness, desire for sophistication, and even some of the pioneer innocence of the commercial entrepreneurs. These men transformed San Diego from a frontier town into a true commercial urban center, between the years 1889 and 1910.
The first of these commercial pioneers was Alonzo E. Horton. In 1867, a mere three and one-half weeks after migrating to the area from Wisconsin [error-see note***], he purchased all the land between Front, “A” Street and Commercial. Horton completed a wharf at the foot of Fifth Avenue in March of 1869, further encouraging such investment as the 1867 purchase by Dr. Backesto of the entire block between 4th, 5th, Market and “G” Street. (The results of this particular purchase may still be seen today. Two remnants include Old Backesto Building, now housing a Bank of America at the corner of Market and Fifth and the new Backesto Building, today’s Bamboo House Restaurant at Market and 4th).
Another pioneer entrepreneur, encouraged by the promise of Horton’s wharf was Joseph E. Jessop. An English silversmith and watchmaker, Jessop was forced by poor health to move to San Diego from his native country in 1890. Following a rugged ranch life in the Kearny Mesa area, the English craftsman established J. Jessop and Son Watchmaker on “F” Street between 4th and 5th, in a modest wood frame building. The business grew with the new city and Jessop moved his location three times to remain nearer to the center of the expanding business district. He finally settled at the present location of Jessop Jewelers at 1041 5th Avenue. His large sidewalk clock still reflects the Jules Verne wonderment which that former period held toward the new industrial age.
By 1900, 5th Avenue between Market and Broadway-replete with electric street cars, towering arc lamps, and extremely bold yet elegant architecture-stood as the commercial hub of the new city in that new age. South of Market and west to Front Street was the Stingaree and the Redlight District. The four blocks in the southwest corner of the Stingaree district — between Island, K, First and Third — were almost entirely occupied by Chinese. The flavor of that first urban period in San Diego is worthy of preservation.1
City government, taxpayers and/or private property owners cannot be expected to pay for the necessary preservation of an economically decaying area. Mayor Wilson has reflected on this problem: “It appears clearly that acquisition of old structures just for the sake of nostalgia… is a luxury we are simply unable to afford… We must take the time to give thoughtful consideration to whether preservation makes historical sense as well as social and economic sense.”2 Besides historic consideration, San Diego must solve the social and economic problems of the district. To this extent, the Gaslamp District Plan seeks to accomplish historical preservation by making the period flavor of the Gaslamp Era an economic asset, for both the District and the City. San Diego may follow the successful lead of Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco, Seattle and others in making a disintegrating district economically sound and architecturally interesting.
San Diego has already successfully accomplished historical preservation by establishing a commercial tourist district in Old Town. This was the site of the original plaza of San Diego, the oldest community in California. The Mexican rancheros built their adobe homes around this plaza, but when city growth shifted toward the waterfront and a devastating fire occurred in 1872, Old Town became forgotten and dilapidated and the emphasis of urban development shifted to New Town. Today, however, Old Town thrives as a State Historic Park and a City-administered Historic District, combining commercial shops and restaurants with the four original adobe structures and the first site of the San Diego Union Newspaper. San Diegans and tourists alike have the opportunity to view the lives and ways of California’s first settlers.
Like the Old Town experiences, natives and tourists should also have the opportunity to see and reflect on the aspirations of San Diego’s first city builders in Horton’s New Town. The Gaslamp District could stand as an architectural oasis in the shadow of today’s high-rise buildings, providing historical and cultural perspective to both eras and reviving an economically decayed area. The effect would be similar to that achieved with Jackson Square in San Francisco, Pioneer Square in Seattle, or Gastown in Vancouver. Put simply, “old buildings must have a present need or functional purpose in order to survive just as new buildings are erected for economic reasons… This type of preservation, or better called ‘adaptive use,’ is the main thrust of preservation in the United States today.”3 An adaptive use permits the economic and functional utilization of an old building for a new, contemporary purpose that relates to the modern city while retaining the fabric of the city’s unique past history and culture… There remain the additional side benefits, such as education for future generations and encouragement of tourism, as a catalyst for economic regeneration and as a contribution to the social life of the neighborhood community.
On March 21, 1974, Mr. Tom Hom, President of the Gaslamp Quarter Association submitted petitions to the City Council requesting assistance in “preservation of the Gaslamp Quarter as a living, exciting office and visitor oriented commercial area reflecting the history and architectural heritage of San Diego at the turn of the century.” The Council referred this request to the Planning Department to prepare appropriate implementation tools, including a Planned District Ordinance, specific development controls tailored to meet the needs of the Gaslamp Quarter.
The emphasis of the proposed Planned District is to foster economic revitalization, retain the unique turn of the century architectural character of the area, and encourage pedestrian oriented uses, including boutiques, galleries, street vendors, cultural facilities, and apartments and offices on the upper floors.
THE PRESERVATION OF THE RICHNESS OF PAST DEVELOPMENT is the principal objective of the Gaslamp Quarter Planned District. To achieve this principal objective, the following additional objectives were developed for the Gaslamp Quarter:
THE PRESERVATION OF THIS NOTABLE AREA CONTAINING LANDMARKS OF HISTORIC, ARCHITECTURAL AND AESTHETIC VALUE AND THE PRESERVATION OF OTHER BUILDINGS AND FEATURES THAT PROVIDE CONTINUITY WITH PAST DEVELOPMENT.
Many of the buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter have significant historical associations as well as distinctive design characteristics exemplifying an important period in San Diego’s history. Criteria for judgment of historic value and design excellence should be more fully developed, with attention to both individual buildings and the entire district. Preservation efforts should extend beyond landmarks to their surroundings as well. Preservation measures should not, however, be entirely bound by hard and fast rules and labels, since to some degree all older buildings of merit are worthy of preservation and public attention. Therefore, various kinds and degrees of recognition are required, and the success of the Gaslamp Quarter Planned District will depend upon the broad interest and involvement of property owners, improvement associations and the public at large.
CARE MUST BE TAKEN IN REMODELING OLDER BUILDINGS, IN ORDER TO ENHANCE RATHER THAN WEAKEN THE ORIGINAL CHARACTER OF SUCH BUILDINGS.
The signs placed on building facades should be in keeping with the style and scale of the building and street and should not interfere with architectural lines and details. Compatible signs require the skills of architects and graphic designers. The interest and participation of property owners and occupants should be enlisted in these efforts to retain and improve design quality.
RESPECT THE CHARACTER OF OLDER DEVELOPMENT NEARBY IN THE DESIGN OF NEW BUILDINGS.
Care should be exercised in the design of new buildings to be constructed near historic landmarks. The new and old can stand next to one another with pleasing effects, but only if there is a similarity or successful transition in scale, building form and proportion. The detail, texture, color and materials of the old should be repeated or complemented by the new. Existing buildings provide strong facades that give continuous enclosure to the street space.
This established character should be respected. The Planned District Ordinance offers specific development guidelines to insure that the existing structures are maintained and restored to their original character. New development must be sensitive to those existing buildings typifying the desired character. This does not mean slavish copies of older structures, a sort of Disneyland south, but it does require that new structures incorporate the design features found in the older structures and keep the same bulk and scale relationships. To this end thirty structures in the Gaslarnp Quarter considered to be historically and architecturally significant are offered here as a guide. This list also includes historic sites designated by the City of San Diego Historical Site Board.
Michael Stepner received his Bachelors Degree from the University of Illinois in 1964 and is presently a Senior Planner with the City of San Diego. He is a member of the Centre City Planning Team and is Project Planner, for the Gaslamp Quarter.
Historic And Architecturally Significant Buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter
* BACKESTO BLOCK, Northwest corner Fifth and Market, two story, built 1884, addition 1887-88. 1873 brick bldg. on corner built for Dr. Backesto; 1884 building built around it. Klauber occupied corner store 1879-87.
BRICK WAREHOUSES, Six Story, Circa 1920.
BRUNSWICK DRUG COMPANY, 363 Fifth Ave., Southeast corner Fifth and J. Three story brick, built 1888. Cast iron ornamentation of Fifth Ave. facade.
CAFE BUILDING, next to southeast corner, Fifth and Island. (Chinese) Kabayon Cafe.
CITY RESCUE MISSION. 527 Fifth Ave. Three story brick, built 1873.
* COLE BLOCK, Northwest corner Fifth and G. Three story brick, built 1889-1890. Cast iron on eaves. Was Lion Clothiers in 1890’s.
* FIRST NATIONAL BANK BUILDING, Northwest corner Fifth Ave. and E. Built as one story, approx. 1883 for First National Bank, and later Coronado Beach Company. Two stories added in late 1880’s.
GEORGE HILL BUILDING, Southwest Corner, Sixth & F. 3 Story, Brick. Site of First Normal School in San Diego.
GRAND PACIFIC HOTEL, Southwest corner Fifth and J. Three story, built 1887.
GRANGER BUILDING, Southwest corner of Fifth and Broadway, 5 story, built 1904.
* HUBBELL BUILDING, 815 Fifth Ave. Three story, built 1887.
* I.O.O.F. BUILDING, Northwest corner Sixth and Market, two story, built 1882. Masonic Building (International Order of Odd Fellows).
* KEATING BUILDING, Northwest corner, Fifth and F. Five story, built 1890. George J. Keating (Designer) Generally Romanesque Revival in style, this was the contemporary American architecture in 1890. The Reid Brothers carried out the construction of the project, after Mr. Keating’s death, and produced a five story office building with all the modern conveniences of steam heat and wire cage elevator (later removed) and spacious offices. Once open, the arch entrance is noteworthy. First of “modern” style business buildings. San Diego Savings Bank (now San Diego Trust and Savings Bank) occupied corner in Keating Building from 1893-1912 (approx.). Old safe still in building.
* LLEWELYN BUILDING, 722-728 Fifth Ave. Three story, built 1886.
* LOUIS BANK OF COMMERCE (RATNERS) 835-837 Fifth, Four Story, built 1888. Clement & Stannard Architects. This Baroque Revival or Second Empire Building was noted in the Sept. 1888, San Diego Illustrated as “the first granite building in the city, sound and substantial in its structure, handsome and imposing in appearance and credit to the whole city as well as to the enterprise and judgment of the owners.” Victorian architectural influence can be seen in window detail. Originally the structure had a pair of domed towers over the bay windows capped by spread winged eagles and a flag mast over the central element. The interior features a four-story loft with great skylight which has, unfortunately, been covered.
MANILA CAFE, 515 Fifth Ave. Owl Room Upstairs, Chinese Architecture.
MARIN HOTEL, 554 Fifth Ave., four story built 1888.
* MARSTON BUILDING, 809 Fifth. Two story, built 1881. Was George W. Marston’s store, 1881 to 1898. Marston’s store also occupied part of Hubbell Building. First office of San Diego Federal Savings & Loan was at 809 Fifth Street — 1885. Marston Building in 1977 houses a nightclub.
McGURK BLOCK, Northeast corner Fifth and Market, 3 story, built 1887. Ferris & Ferris drugstore since 1887.
* NESMITH-GREELEY BUILDING, 825 Fifth Ave. Four story, built 1888, Comstock & Trotsche, Architects. This office block housed the San Diego Illustrated as well as notable professional San Diego businessmen who were drawn to the fashionable Romanesque Revival style. The brick coursing is of note as well as the circular lower elements capped by “stone” towers of coated sheet metal. Only the addition of the fire escape and some unfortunate signs mar its original beauty. The interior has been remodeled to accommodate its present hotel use.
RIO HOTEL, 536 Fifth, four story, brick, built 1913. Adaptive Art Nouveau facade.
ROBINSON BUILDING, Northeast corner Fifth and E. Ten stories, built by Nathan Watts, approx. 1912.
ROYAL PIE BAKERY
SAMUEL I. FOX BUILDING, 531 Broadway. Four story, built 1929. William Templeton Johnson, Architect. Influence of the Mission Revival style and Mediterranean with cast iron decorative grillage, terra cotta sculpted spandrel between the 3rd and 4th floors and overhanging tile roof. Interior remodeled and fire escapes added later to accommodate its present use as clothing store.
* SPENCER OGDEN BUILDING, Southwest corner Fifth and F. Two story-built in 1874 by Charles Delaval Ogden Spencer. I. Levi had “Golden Eagle Bazaar” here 1890-94.
THEATER BUILDING, Southwest corner Fifth and G. Originally built about 1874 as a two story building for Consolidated National Bank, successor to Bank of San Diego, San Diego’s first bank. Two stories added in late 1880’s. Public Library there in 1889. Became City Hall in early 1900’s until Civic Center on waterfront built.
UNIVERSAL BOOT SHOP, 939 Fifth. 3 Story, Circa 1925. Good example of Art Deco.
VAN WATERS & ROGERS BUILDING, Southeast corner Fifth and K. Two story brick, built 1897, Architects Hebbard and Gill. Interesting details are the arched corner entrance, the brick corbelled cornice and the flat arched bay window in the reception area. The three-story portion, farther south on Fifth, has unusual rusticated stone on the upper stories, framing arch wall patterns.
* YUMA BUILDING, 631 Fifth Ave. Three story, built 1886 by Col. Wilcox. Top ornamentation has been removed. In almost original condition from front.
*Historical Site Board Designation.
1. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego”: The Little Known Story of San Diego’s ‘Restricted’ District,” The Journal of San Diego History, Volume 20 (Spring, 1974).
2. San Diego Union, May 26, 1974.
3. John D. Henderson in the San Diego Evening Tribune, March 30, 1973.
*** Editor’s note: Horton built the city now known as Hortonville, near Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin, but left to seek gold in San Francisco around 1850, where he eventually opened a used furniture store.