Downtown History Walk

Plaza park, now known as Plaza de Cesar Chavez, is part of the original plaza of the 1797 Pueblo de San Jose and is the oldest continuously used public open space in the city. The plaza served as the hub of the old Spanish settlement. It was the site of the Juzgado (town hall) and the church, and it was a focus for the public life of the pueblo. After the U.S. takeover, surveyor Chester Lyman laid out the present elliptical park at the southern edge of the plaza. This became the primary civic open space of the new American city and, in 1849, the first State Capitol was situated on its eastern edge. Plaza Park continued to serve the functions of the original Latino plaza – parade ground, cock-pit, racetrack – but a new American use for it as a site for public hangings was introduced. The park was less used in the 1870s, when San Jose’s large Chinese population established itself along the eastern side of Market Street. City leaders contemplated closing the park and running Market Street through it, but public protest quashed this idea. After a fire destroyed the adjacent Chinatown in 1887, the park was selected as a site for the new City Hall. Until its demolition in 1958, the elaborate brick and stone building dominated the park. With the emergence of St. James Park as a site for public buildings and the destruction of the City Hall, Plaza Park lost much of its public prominence. Used today as a gathering place for downtown events and activities, it also remains an important reminder of San Jose’s past.

2. CHINATOWN (East side of Market Street, from San Fernando to San Carlos streets)
From 1872 to 1887, a large Chinese population occupied and thrived along this block of Market Street. But by the late 1880s, downtown businesses were also burgeoning, and many hoped to locate in Chinatown, seeing it as interference to their expansion. Efforts by some to move the Chinese were unsuccessful. But on May 4, 1887, a fire of suspicious origin raced through the dense brick and wooden buildings of Chinatown, destroying the entire community in a matter of hours. Ruined and homeless, the Chinese were forced to relocate.

3. FIRST STATE CAPITAL (site of the Fairmont Hotel)
The first California State Legislature met on this site in 1849. Strenuous lobbying by Charles White and James F. Reed at the Constitutional Convention in Monterey had persuaded the delegates to locate the capital in San Jose. Because city residents saw the capital as crucial to their community’s future, the town council agreed to provide a suitable building to house the state government. They purchased a two-story adobe hotel that was under construction on this site.

San Jose’s tenure as state capital was brief, however. While the town made every effort to accommodate the legislature, initial senate sessions were held in private residences until the statehouse was ready. Hotel facilities were inadequate. An unusually wet winter caused flooding, making downtown streets impassable. The behavior of the legislators themselves earned the 1849 session the title “The Legislature of One Thousand Drinks.” This inauspicious start, and pressure from other communities eager to gain the status of the capital for themselves led to the legislators’ decision to move to Vallejo following their second and final meeting in San Jose in 1851. The vacated building housed the Santa Clara County Courthouse until its destruction by fire in 1853.

4. U.S. POST OFFICE (SE corner Market and San Fernando streets)
This Romanesque-style structure was the city’s first federal building. It was designed by Willoughby Edbrooke and built in 1892 using sandstone from the nearby Goodrich Quarry in New Almaden. An upper portion of the corner tower was lost in the 1906 earthquake. In 1933, the post office operations were moved to a new facility near St. James Park after the old quarters were determined to be too small. From 1937 to 1970, the building served as a public library and, in 1970, became home to the San Jose Museum of Art.

5. ST. JOSEPH’S CATHEDRAL (NE corner Market and San Fernando streets)
St. Joseph’s was the first church of the Pueblo de San Jose. The original adobe structure was built on the present site in 1803. It was replaced by a second adobe in 1845, which was replaced by a wooden building in 1869. After this structure was destroyed by fire in 1875, the present building was erected. Designed by architect Bryan J. Clinch, this grand edifice continues to house San Jose’s oldest seat of Christian worship.

6. THE JUZGADO (NW corner Market and Post streets)
On this site stood the Juzgado, or town hall, of the Pueblo de San Jose. Constructed of adobe in 1798, it housed the jail, the court and the offices of the comisionado and alcalde, and was the pueblo’s primary governmental building. When Capt. Thomas Fallon took possession of the town during the Mexican War, he signaled victory on July 14, 1846, by raising the U.S. flag over the Juzgado.

When completed in 1881, the 237-foot electric light tower that once spanned the intersection of Market and Santa Clara streets was the largest single source of electric light in the country. The brainchild of J.J. Owen, founder of the San Jose Mercury News, it was designed to illuminate the entire downtown. While the tower received tremendous national and international publicity, local reactions were mixed. The tower remained in operation until it blew over in a storm in 1915.

8. SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS (North side of Santa Clara between Market and First)
The San Jose Mercury News was first published on this site on June 20, 1851. Known as the San Jose Weekly Visitor, it was the city’s first permanent newspaper. The paper changed owners and mastheads several times before becoming the San Jose Weekly Mercury in 1861. In 1901, E.A. and J.O. Hayes bought the paper, merging it with the San Jose Herald. Brothers whose vast wealth derived from their Ashland iron mine, they saw the press as a vehicle for political reform. The Hayes family controlled the paper until 1952, when Ridder Publications purchased it. In 1974, Knight Newspapers merged with Ridder to form a new company, Knight Ridder. The Mercury News is now controlled by MediaNews Group.

9. FARMERS UNION BUILDING (NW corner Santa Clara and San Pedro streets)
The Farmers Union Corp., established in this building in 1874, was once indispensable to San Jose’s farming community. It served as an agricultural cooperative and bank, and, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was the chief general merchandiser to rural Santa Clara County. The hardware store weathered the depression by expanding its scope, selling “everything for the home, garden and farm.” In 1961, with the waning of agriculture in the valley, farmers union President John P. McEnery made the decision to develop the corporation’s holdings as the new San Pedro Square.

10. LYNDON BUILDING (Santa Clara and Terraine streets)
John W. Lyndon, a leading Los Gatos businessman, built this structure in 1862. It became the headquarters of the San Jose Mercury in 1885, when publisher Charles Shortridge moved into offices especially designed for newspaper operation. The vast, loft-like upper floor, which once housed the presses, has since accommodated the Balconades Ballroom and, the Pacific Fish Co. Restaurant and most recently Club Miami.

11. COLLEGE OF NOTRE DAME (North side of Santa Clara between Notre Dame and Almaden)
The sisters of Notre dame de Namur founded their college on this site in 1851. The facility began modestly but eventually expanded to occupy the entire north side of Santa Clara Street. A boarding school for young ladies, the College of Notre dame was known for its high academic standards. In 1868, it became California’s first chartered women’s college. In the 1920s, encroaching commercial development began to threaten the college’s bucolic isolation; the campus was moved to Belmont in 1923.

Amadeo Peter Giannini, founder of the Bank of Italy – now the Bank of America – was born at 79 N. Market St. on May 6, 1870. Perhaps San Jose’s most famous native, Giannini is considered by many to be the greatest figure in American banking. A liberal in a conservative field, he revolutionized and humanized banking practices, creating the world’s largest and most powerful branch-banking system while maintaining his commitment to the ideal of equal treatment and opportunity for all people.

13. THOMAS FALLON HOUSE (St. John between Terraine and San Pedro streets)
This house was built by Thomas Fallon in 1854. A handsome, charismatic figure, Fallon was one of San Jose’s most prominent citizens. He captained the volunteer company that seized San Jose from the Mexicans, served in the California Battalion of John C. Fremont and was elected mayor (1959). His house, surrounded by an extensive pear orchard and gardens, was one of San Jose’s most impressive residences. The building was enlarged at the turn of the 20th century and adapted for commercial use.

14. PERALTA ADOBE (St. John between Terraine and San Pedro streets)
The Peralta adobe is the oldest Spanish structure in the downtown and the last tangible remnant of the Pueblo de San Jose. Purchased by the City of San Jose in 1966, the building was restored and the surrounding park completed in 1976. It is treasured for its rich architectural heritage and historical significance.

15. SANTA CLARA COUNTY COURTHOUSE (First Street, north of St. John Street)
Completed in 1867, this imposing building was constructed in the hope of attracting the state legislature back to San Jose. Levi Goodrich, a noted local architect, designed the building. The original building was a two-storied with a central dome. After its collapse in a fire in 1931, the dome was replaced by the present third story. The courthouse was renovated and restored in 1973.

16. MAIN POST OFFICE (First and St. John streets)
This beautiful building was designed by Ralph Wyckoff to house San Jose’s Main Post Office. Built in 1933, it is a prime example of Depression-era federal construction. The terra cotta work on the building’s exterior is particularly fine. Although the Main Post Office has since moved, this building continues to serve as downtown’s branch post office.

17. EAGLES HALL (Third Street, north of St. John Street)
Local Scottish Rite Masons built their hall on this site in 1909. Designed by George Page, it was a simple rectangular structure with a severe Greek Revival façade. The Fraternal Order of Eagles took it over and occupied it until 1982. The building was demolished in 1984 to make way for new construction; only the entry portico, with its fine Doric columns, remains.

18. FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH (Third Street, north of Eagles Hall)
San Jose’s First Unitarian Church was organized in 1867. The congregation met in City Hall, with a minister riding on horseback from Santa Cruz once a month to conduct services. By 1869, the church had its own minister and, in 1891, the present building was erected. While at the time of its construction the church housed a congregation of only 100, the building’s prominence reflects the status of its early members. Designed by George M. Page, a well-known local architect, the building has served its congregation continually since its completion.

19. SCOTTISH RITE TEMPLE (Third Street, north of First Unitarian Church)
Built as the Scottish Rite Temple in 1924-5, this distinguished structure was designed by architect Carl Werner. The entry portico, with its six Ionic columns and unusual Egyptian ornamentation, lends the building a special grandeur. In 1981, the building was rehabilitated and reopened as San Jose Athletic Club.

20. SAINTE CLAIRE CLUB (NE corner St. James and Second streets)
The Sainte Claire Club was organized in 1888 by a group of distinguished local citizens, including James Phelan, banker, U.S. Senator and former mayor of San Francisco. San Jose’s oldest men’s club has occupied this handsome structure since its construction in 1893. Designed by A. Page Brown, the building has unusual ornamental brick detailing. It was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and restored in 1907.

21. FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST SCIENTIST (St. James Street, between First and Second streets)
The First Church of Christ Scientist was designed by Willis Polk and built in 1905. The plan of the building is a Greek cross. Four Ionic columns dominate the entry portico. Since the construction of a new church in 1946, the building has been used for a variety of purposes. Its scale and dignity make it an important contributor to the city’s architectural heritage. High-rise housing is now planned around the vacant building.

St. James Park and its environs were the heart of 19th century San Jose. While the Plaza had been the center of an older Latino settlement, St. James Park and its surrounding buildings reflected the aspirations of an emerging American city. Plotted by Chester Lyman in his 1848 survey, the park evolved over the next half century as the focus of many of San Jose’s most important civic and religious buildings. It remains the city’s most significant urban open space.

While the site had been considered as a possible future plaza by Spanish and Mexican authorities, it was not formally developed until after the U.S. takeover. In the years following the official survey, the park served a variety of purposes but remained unlandscaped until 1868. With the building of what is now Santa Clara County Courthouse, the park came of age as a grand public open space. A major landscaping plan was initiated and the square became known as St. James Park.

Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, the park took on increasing importance. Major public and private buildings – the Post Office, several churches, club and lodge headquarters – were built along its perimeter and it became a site for public gatherings and demonstrations. Major labor rallies took place in the park in 1931 and 1933. California’s last lynching occurred here in 1933 – John Holmes and Thomas Thurmond, accused of kidnapping and killing the son of the Hart Department Store president, were taken from the county jail by a mob and hanged. Monuments commemorate speeches made here by President William McKinley and Senator Robert Kennedy, both assassinated shortly after their visits to San Jose.

In 1955, the character of the park was altered when it was bisected by North Second Street. The gracious scale of the surrounding buildings remains intact, and the park is a welcome counterpart to San Jose’s busy downtown.

23. TRINITY EPISCOPAL CHURCH (SW corner St. John and Second streets)
This Carpenter Gothic church was constructed in 1863 and is the oldest church building in San Jose. John W. Hammond, a sea captain and member of the parish, built the structure to his own design. A simple rectangle with a steeply pitched roof, it was constructed largely of redwood logged in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In 1876, the church was cut in half and the front was shifted to face North Second Street, increasing the building’s capacity two-fold. A bell tower was also added in 1876; the top story and steeple were added in 1887.

The San Jose Labor Temple, located at 72 N. Second St., was a hub of the city’s turn-of-the-century labor movement. It was established informally between 1901 and 1903 by Harry Ryan, an early San Jose labor leader, and Jack London, the famous California author. Jack London wrote the last portion of his classic, The Call of the Wild, as well as parts of The Sea Wolf, in Harry Ryan’s office. The building became the official San Jose labor temple in 1911 and served this purpose until 1948. It was demolished in the early 1950s.

25. NEW CENTURY BLOCK (Second Street between St. John and Santa Clara streets)
This splendid structure was built in 1880 by Adolf Pfister, a prominent San Jose businessman who served three times as the city’s mayor. The building received two additions in later years. A fine example of 19th century commercial architecture, it has undergone several interior remodelings and its exterior was substantially renovated in 1984-5.

26. BANK OF AMERICA BUILDING (SE corner of First and Santa Clara streets)
One of the San Jose’s earliest skyscrapers, this building has served as a local landmark since its construction in 1925-6. The Bank of America, originally known as the Bank of Italy, was founded by San Jose native A.P. Giannini in 1904. Although the bank was based in San Francisco, Giannini, mindful of his origins, established his first out-of-town branch in San Jose. This structure was designed by architect H. A. Minton.

27. KNOX-GOODRICH BUILDING (East side South First Street between Santa Clara and San Fernando streets)
This charming commercial structure was build in 1889 by Sarah Knox-Goodrich on property left to her by her first husband, Dr. William Knox, using sandstone from the quarry owned by her second husband, Levi Goodrich. Both men were important to San Jose citizens. Knox worked with his brother in-law, T. Ellard Beans, to establish San Jose’s first bank. Goodrich was the architect of the Santa Clara Country Courthouse. Sarah Knox-Goodrich, a strong advocate of women’s rights, organized San Jose’s first Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. She died in 1903 and was buried between her two husbands in Oak Hill Cemetery.

28. LETITIA BUILDING (East side South First Street between Santa Clara and San Fernando streets)
This commercial building was named for Letitia Burnett Ryland, daughter of the first American governor of California, Peter Hardeman Burnett, and wife of San Jose councilman C.T. Ryland. Some have speculated that Peter Burnett’s election was ensured, in what was then a predominantly bachelor state, by the existence of his three beautiful daughters. Letitia remained in San Jose for most of her life, long after her father had resigned governorship. The building that bears her name was designed by Jacob Lenzen and was constructed in 1890.

29. BICKUR CHOLIM (East side South First Street between Santa Clara and San Fernando streets)
San Jose’s first Hebrew Congregation – Bickur Cholim – was founded Aug. 5, 1861. The congregation met in City Hall and at various locations in the downtown prior to building its first facility on this site in 1870. Used continuously until 1940, the building was rendered unsafe by a fire that broke out in the sanctuary. Kurt Opper, a member of the congregation and a refugee from Nazi Germany, saved the Torah from burning. In 1948, a new facility called Temple Emanu-El was built at Myrtle and University.

30. SAN JOSE ACADAMY (SE corner Second and San Fernando streets)
The San Jose Academy was founded in 1850 as Edward Bannister’s English and Classical School. It held it’s first graduation ceremony – the earliest in the state – in December 1851. A private, non-sectarian preparatory school teaching English and the classics, The Academy was Methodist in tone, though not under the direct control of the Methodist Church. Its principal, the Rev. Edward Bannister, later became the president of the University of the Pacific, making The San Jose Academy a forerunner of California’s oldest chartered college.

Charles Herrold, a pioneer in radio, was the first person to transmit radio programs of music and news to a listening audience. Beginning in 1909, three years before Congress’ Radio Act of 1912, Herrold broadcast from his College of Engineering and Wireless location in the Garden City Bank Building at First and San Fernando streets. His wife, Sybil, was the first woman disc jockey in the country. Together, they initiated commercial radio advertising. A tireless experimenter, Charles Herrold developed more than 50 radio-related inventions.