Architectural Ambler: Gaslamp Quarter Historic District

San Diego, California

Gaslamp Quarter streetscape with the Yuma Building at the center

Gaslamp Quarter streetscape with the Yuma Building at the center

It may be “America’s Finest City” today, but San Diego wasn’t always that way.

In the 1880s and ‘90s, the city’s wharf-side commercial strip was known as the “Stingaree” – a redlight district where one could get “stung” (robbed, abducted, etc.) just as badly as in the stingray-swarming San Diego Bay, or so it was said.

There was gambling, drinking and prostitution – lots of lawlessness and vice. The police looked the other way so long as the vice was contained to the dozen or so blocks along Fifth Avenue between Market Street and the wharf.

San Diego had grown up quickly. In 1867, San Franciscan Alonzo Horton purchased about 1,000 acres of land by the natural harbor of San Diego Bay, and built the wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue two years later. By 1870, “wild western”-style wooden buildings with false fronts lined the wooden sidewalks of Fifth Avenue – a dirt street hosed down periodically to keep the dust clouds from kicking up.

Larger, grander buildings soon followed – banks, brothels, hotels and saloons with names like Oasis and Old Tub of Blood. For a brief time, when it looked like San Diego might become the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad, real estate values skyrocketed. A short-lived gold mine nearby kept things going for a while, too. A second building boom started in 1912, in anticipation of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego the following year.

Spencer Ogden Building, detail

Spencer Ogden Building, detail

The 17 blocks along Fifth Street from the wharf north to Broadway certainly made for a lively hub back in the day – saloons, Stinagree and all. After some decades of neglect and urban decay following World War II, and with the support of preservation-minded locals, the neighborhood was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 as the Gaslamp Quarter Historic District, in reference to the Victorian-era street lights that once lit its streets. There are over 90 historic buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter.

One of the oldest is the Spencer Ogden Building (770 Fifth Ave.), whose first floor was built in 1874. Seven years later, business partners Spencer and Ogden purchased the building and added a second floor. The brick corbelling at the cornice, smooth pilasters separating the windows, triangular window lintels and small brackets supporting the molding between the two stories are classic Italianate features.

Old City Hall

Old City Hall

A block south is the Old City Hall (664 Fifth Ave.), also constructed in 1874 in the Italianate style, but on a grander scale, with pairs of rusticated corner-quoin Corinthian pilasters, a giant corbelled cornice and arched windows. In the 1950s, the building was covered with stucco, which was carefully removed in the 1980s.

Keating Building

Keating Building

Across the street from the Spencer Ogden Building is the Keating Building (432 F St.), a Romanesque Revival building that boasted steam heat and an iron cage elevator when it was completed in 1890 – making it one of the most structurally advanced buildings in the district at the time. The rusticated façade of the bottom two stories, the large stone archway entrance and the double-storied window arcade at the third and fourth floors are typical elements of the Romanesque Revival – a style popularized by East-coast architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who considered the original European Romanesque architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries to be a fittingly powerful and grand architectural style for the United States.

Louis Bank of Commerce

Louis Bank of Commerce

One block north of the Keating Building is the Baroque Revival-style Louis Bank of Commerce (835 Fifth Ave.), commissioned by Prussian immigrant and former cobbler Isidor Louis, and completed in 1888. Besides housing a state bank, the building was also home to an oyster bar and San Diego’s first ice cream parlor. In the early 20th century, the upper floors were home to the Golden Poppy Hotel, which once vied for the position of No. 1 brothel in town.

St. James Hotel

St. James Hotel

Behind the bank building is the St. James Hotel (844 Sixth Ave.), built in 1912 for the Panama-California Exposition. The tallest building in San Diego at the time it was built, it was considered a first-class hotel, with hot and cold running water in every room and two full-speed elevators. (Construction of the St. James Hotel also coincided with an unsuccessful raid on the prostitutes, 136 of whom were put on a train to Los Angeles, all but two purchasing round-trip tickets.)

A couple of blocks south on Fifth Avenue is the Yuma Building (631 Fifth Ave.), one of the oldest brick buildings in the district. San Francisco ship captain Alfred Henry Wilcox commissioned it in 1888, probably naming it after his shipping activities in Yuma, about 50 miles up the Colorado River from the nearby Gulf of California. The building’s boldly colored and exuberantly detailed window treatments – including the arched pediments over the second-floor windows and the triangular pediments over the windows of the third floor – are Italianate in style, while the twin spires at the top suggest Baroque churches. The Yuma’s brothel was the first to be closed down in the 1912 raid.

International Order of Odd Fellows Building

International Order of Odd Fellows Building

Around the corner is the International Order of Odd Fellows Building (526 Market St.), begun in 1873 for the local chapters of the I.O.O.F. and the Masonic Lodge (both civic organizations). It was completed in 1882 in the elegant and symmetrical Palladian Revival style, named after Andrea Palladio, a 16th-century architect from northern Italy.

Grand Pacific Hotel

Grand Pacific Hotel

A few blocks further south is the Grand Pacific Hotel (366 Fifth Ave.) of 1887, the only Victorian hotel in the district still occupying its original site. The cornice and ground floor columns are made of cast iron – a material that makes the intricate details of the Victorian style easy to mass-produce.

For a taste of post-World War I architecture in the Gaslamp Quarter, head back up Fifth Avenue to the Manila Café (515 Fifth Ave.), built in 1930 with a distinctive Chinese-style tile roof, and occupied by Chinese restaurants for much of its history. Four blocks of the Gaslamp Quarter are part of an eight-block Asian Pacific Thematic Historic District established by the city in 1987 to recognize the early Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian and Japanese communities of the area.

Manila Cafe

Manila Cafe

And at the very northern edge of the Gaslamp Quarter is the Art Deco Samuel I. Fox Building (531 Broadway) of 1929, which housed Fox’s Lion Clothing Company for 55 years. (Note the lions crouching behind the shields between the windows of the fourth floor.) The structural engineering technology that went into making the giant windows and pilasters of the upper floors contrasts sharply with the comparatively simple cast-iron Victorian-era technology of the Grand Pacific Hotel.

Samuel I. Fox Building

Samuel I. Fox Building

Although the Stingaree days of the Gaslamp Quarter are no longer with us, the buildings are. Rest assured that you won’t be stung or smuggled off should you ever get the chance to visit these and the other 80 or so carefully preserved buildings in the district – just don’t forget your camera for a photo “shoot!”

Photography by Dan Reardon.

To learn more please visit the following websites, which were consulted in the preparation of this e-newsletter:

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