The Gaslamp Quarter
Start: Fourth Avenue and E Street, at Horton Plaza.
Finish: Fourth Avenue and F Street.
Time: Approximately 1 1/2 hours, not including shopping and dining.
Best Times: During the day.
Worst Times: Evenings, when the area's popular restaurants and nightspots attract big crowds.
A National Historic District covering 16 1/2 city blocks, the Gaslamp Quarter contains many Victorian and Edwardian commercial buildings built between the Civil War and World War I. The quarter -- featuring electric versions of old gas lamps -- lies between Fourth Avenue to the west, Sixth Avenue to the east, Broadway to the north, and L Street and the waterfront to the south. The blocks are not large; developer Alonzo Horton knew corner lots were desirable to buyers, so he created more of them. This tour hits some highlights along Fourth and Fifth avenues; Fifth Avenue, in fact, was named one of "America's Great Streets" by the nonprofit educational group the American Planning Association. If this whets your appetite for more, the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation, 410 Island Ave. (tel. 619/233-4692; www.gaslampquarter.org), offers guided walking tours every Saturday at 11am ($10, including museum admission, or $8 for seniors, students, and military; free for children 11 and under). The book San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, jointly produced by the GQHF, the San Diego Historical Society, and the Gaslamp Quarter Association, makes an excellent, lightweight walking companion; it has then-and-now photos and historical background.
The tour begins at:
1. Horton Plaza
It's a colorful conglomeration of shops, eateries, and architectural flourishes -- and a tourist attraction. Ernest W. Hahn, who planned and implemented the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown San Diego, built the plaza in 1985. This core project, which covers 12 acres and 6 1/2 blocks in the heart of downtown, represents the successful integration of public and private funding.
The ground floor at Horton Plaza is home to the Jessop Street Clock. The timepiece has 20 dials, 12 of which tell the time in places throughout the world. Designed by Joseph Jessop, Sr., and built primarily by Claude D. Ledger, the clock stood outside Jessop's Jewelry Store on Fifth Avenue from 1907 until being moved to Horton Plaza in 1985. Until recently, it had reportedly stopped only three times in its history: once after being hit by a team of horses, once after an earthquake, and again on the day in 1935 when Mr. Ledger died.
Exit Horton Plaza on the north side, street level, near Macy's. At the corner of Fourth and Broadway is:
2. Horton Plaza Park
Its centerpiece is a fountain designed by well-known local architect Irving Gill and modeled after the monument of Lysicrates in Athens. Dedicated October 15, 1910, it was the first successful attempt in the United States to combine electric lights with flowing water. On the fountain's base are bronze medallions of San Diego's "founding fathers": Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Father Junípero Serra, and Alonzo Horton.
Walk south along Fourth Avenue to the:
3. Balboa Theatre
Constructed in 1924, the Spanish Renaissance-style building, at the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and E Street, has a distinctive tile dome, striking tile work in the entry, and two 20-foot-high ornamental waterfalls inside. In the theater's heyday, plays and vaudeville took top billing. After years of sitting dormant and decrepit, the renovated Balboa (www.sandiegotheatres.org) is hosting live performances of dance, theater, music, and spoken word once again.
Cross Fourth Avenue and proceed along E Street to Fifth Avenue. The tall, striking building to your left at the northeast corner of Fifth and E is the:
4. Watts-Robinson Building
Built in 1913, this was one of San Diego's first skyscrapers. It once housed 70 jewelers and is now a boutique hotel. Take a minute to look inside at the marble wainscoting, tile floors, ornate ceiling, and brass ornamentation.
Return to the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and E Street. On the opposite side of the street, at 837 Fifth Ave., is the unmistakable "grand old lady of the Gaslamp," the twin-towered baroque revival:
5. Louis Bank of Commerce
You can admire the next few buildings from the west side of the street and then continue south from here. Built in 1888, this proud building was the first in San Diego made of granite. It once housed the city's first ice-cream parlor; an oyster bar frequented by legendary lawman Wyatt Earp (of OK Corral shootout fame); and the Golden Poppy Hotel, a brothel run by a fortuneteller, Madame Coara. After a fire in 1904, the original towers of the building were removed, and the iron eagles perched atop them disappeared. A 2002 renovation installed a new pair of eagles, cast at the same English foundry as the originals.
On the west side of Fifth Avenue, at no. 840, near E Street, you'll find the:
6. F. W. Woolworth Building
Built in 1910, this building had been the site of San Diego Hardware since 1922. Sadly, the store relocated to friendlier confines in 2006, and the space was most recently an outlet for American Apparel. Hopefully, the amazing hammered-tin ceiling and the rounded glass display windows will survive, whatever venture is coming in next.
Across the street, at 801 Fifth Ave., stands the two-story:
7. Marston Building
This Italianate Victorian-style building dates from 1881 and housed businessman and philanthropist George W. Marston's department store for 15 years. In 1885, San Diego Federal Savings' first office was here, and the Prohibition Temperance Union held its meetings here in the late 1880s. Ironically, the site was later occupied by a series of bars and strip clubs. After a fire in 1903, the building was remodeled extensively. The current restaurant/bar in residence, retro-themed Analog, features odes to albums, cassettes, and tall-boy beers.
The redbrick, Romanesque revival on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and F Street is the:
8. Keating Building
A San Diego landmark dating from 1890, this structure was nicknamed the "marriage building." It was developed by businessman George Keating, who died halfway through construction; his wife, Fannie, finished the project, changing some of the design along the way. She had her husband's name engraved in the top cornice as a tribute to him. Originally heralded as one of the city's most prestigious office buildings, it featured conveniences such as steam heat and a wire-cage elevator. A boutique hotel, the Keating Hotel, is now ensconced here.
Continuing south on Fifth Avenue, cross F Street and stand in front of the:
9. Spencer-Ogden Building
It's on the southwest corner at 770 Fifth Ave. Built in 1874, this is one of the oldest buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter -- and it's lucky to still be standing. It escaped major damage after an explosion in 1887 caused by a druggist who was making fireworks. Other tenants over the years included realtors, an import business, a home-furnishings business, and a "Painless Parker" dental office. Edgar Parker owned a chain of dental offices and legally changed his name to "Painless" in order to avoid claims of false advertising.
Directly across the street stands the:
10. William Penn Hotel
Built in 1913, it started out as the elegant Oxford Hotel; a double room with private bathroom and toilet cost $1.50. Note the restored glasswork that wraps around the building.
On the west side of the street, at 726 Fifth Ave., you'll find the:
11. Llewelyn Building
Built in 1887 by William Llewelyn, this building housed his family shoe store until 1906. Of architectural note are its arched windows, molding, and cornices. Through the decades, it has been home to a series of hotels, none of which had a particularly high standing among those in proper society; in 1917 charges were brought against the proprietor for operating a "cat house." Today the Llewelyn is a colorful hostel.
On the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and G Street is the:
12. Old City Hall
Dating from 1874, when it was a bank, this Florentine Italianate building features 16-foot ceilings, 12-foot windows framed with brick arches, antique columns, and a wrought-iron cage elevator. Notice the windows on each floor are different. (The top two stories were added in 1887, when it became the city's public library.) Incredibly, in a 1950s attempt at modernization, this beauty was completely encased in stucco. It was restored in the 1980s.
Across the street in the middle of the block, at 631-633 Fifth Ave., is the:
13. Yuma Building
The striking edifice was built in 1888 and was one of the first brick buildings downtown. The brothel at the Yuma was the first to be closed during the infamous 1912 cleanup of the area. In the end, 138 women (and no men) were arrested. They were given a choice: Join the Door of Hope charity and reform or take a one-way train ride to Los Angeles. One hundred thirty-six went to L.A. (many were back within days), one woman was pronounced insane, and the last became San Diego's first telephone operator.
Go left on Market Street; at no. 526 is the:
14. I.O.O.F. Building
Finally finished in 1882 after 9 years of construction, this handsome building served as a joint lodge for the Masons and Odd Fellows. Gaslamp lore has it that while watching a parade from the balcony, Kalakaua, Hawaii's last reigning king, caught cold and died shortly thereafter in San Francisco in 1891.
Head back toward Fifth Avenue. On the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Market Street is the:
15. Backesto Building
Built in 1873, this classical revival and Victorian-style building fills most of the block. Originally a one-story structure on the corner, it expanded to its present size and height over its first 15 years. At the turn of the 20th century, this part of the Gaslamp was known as the Stingaree, the city's notorious red-light district. Gambling, opium dens, and wild saloons were all part of the mix.
Across Market Street, on the east side of the street, is the former:
16. The Metropolitan
This building had bay windows and a cupola when it was built in 1886; now it looks decidedly contemporary -- until you spot the rugged 19th-century columns still visible on the street level. The Metropolitan also features arrestingly realistic trompe l'oeil effects painted on the facade. When the building was being renovated in the '80s, it was determined a faithful restoration would be too costly, so the owner was permitted to do the faux finish. Today the Metropolitan is another of San Diego's well-located hostels.
In the middle of the block, at 536 Fifth Ave., is the small but distinctive:
17. Lincoln Hotel
It dates from 1913 -- the date is cast in a grand concrete pediment two stories up. An equally grand stone lion's head once reigned atop the parapet, but tumbled to the street during an earthquake in 1986 and was quickly snatched by a passerby. The building's unusual green-and-white ceramic tile facade is thankfully intact. At one time, the block was comprised of primarily Japanese-owned businesses; Japanese residents ended up being held in the hotel during World War II before being sent to internment camps.
Proceed to Island Avenue and turn right. The saltbox house at the corner of Fourth Avenue is the:
18. William Heath Davis House
Downtown's oldest surviving structure, this prefabricated lumber home was shipped to San Diego around Cape Horn from New England in 1850. Alonzo Horton lived in the house in 1867, at its original location at the corner of Market and State streets. Around 1873 it was moved to 11th Avenue and K Street, where it served as the county hospital. It was relocated to this site in 1984 and completely refurbished. The entire house, now a museum and gift shop, and the small park next to it are open to the public. The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation is also headquartered here.
At the southwest corner of Island and Fourth avenues you'll see the bay windows of the winsome:
19. Horton Grand Hotel
Two 1886 hotels were moved here -- very gently -- from other sites, and then renovated and connected by an atrium; the original Grand Horton is to your left, the Brooklyn Hotel to your right. Now it's all one: the Horton Grand Hotel. The life-size papier-mâché horse (Sunshine), in the sitting area near reception, stood in front of the Brooklyn Hotel when the ground floor was a saddlery. Wyatt Earp lived upstairs at the Brooklyn for most of his 7 years in San Diego. The reception desk is a recycled pew from a choir loft, and old post-office boxes now hold guests' keys. In the Palace Bar, look for the portrait of Ida Bailey, a local madam whose establishment, the Canary Cottage, once stood nearby.
20. Take a Break
The Cheese Shop, 627 Fourth Ave. (tel. 619/232-2303), is open for breakfast or lunch with house-made corned beef hash, blueberry pancakes, fresh soups, and tasty pork sandwiches. After 4pm, try the Palace Bar (tel. 619/544-1886) in the Horton Grand Hotel; it's a good place to relax while surrounded by a bit of history. The bar is part of the same choir-loft pew that has been turned into the reception desk.
Around the corner from the Horton Grand, at 433 Third Ave., stands the:
21. Former Home of Ah Quin
One of the first Chinese merchants in San Diego, Ah Quin arrived in the 1880s and became known as the "Mayor of Chinatown" (an area bound by Market and J sts., and Third and Fifth aves.). He helped hundreds of Chinese immigrants find work on the railroad and owned a general merchandise store on Fifth Avenue. He was a respected father (of 12 children), and a leader and spokesperson for the city's Chinese population.
The Ah Quin home is not open to the public, but across the street at 404 Third Ave. is the:
22. Chinese Mission
Originally located on First Avenue, this charming brick building, built in 1927, was a place where Chinese immigrants (primarily men) could learn English and find employment. Religious instruction and living quarters were also provided. The building was rescued from demolition and moved to its present location, where it now contains the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. There's a gift shop with Chinese wares; a small Asian garden with a memorial to the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen; and a statue of Confucius. Admission is $2.
When you leave the museum, retrace your steps back to Fourth and Island and walk north; in the middle of the block on the west side you will come to the:
23. Royal Pie Bakery Building
Erected in 1911, this building was a bakery for most of its existence. Something else was cooking upstairs, though -- the second floor housed the Anchor Hotel, which was eventually closed because of "rampant immorality."
At the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and Market Street stands the:
24. Frey Block Building
Built in 1911, this was first a secondhand store, then a series of Chinese restaurants. But real fame arrived in the 1950s when it became the Crossroads, one of San Diego's most important jazz clubs. It was a venue for local and touring African-American artists.
Across the street on the southeast corner, at 401-417 Market St., is the:
25. Hotel Lester
This hotel dates from 1906. It housed a saloon, pool hall, and hotel of ill repute when this was a red-light district. It's still a hotel (cheap but not tawdry) upstairs, while the ground level supports retail businesses, including an upscale pet boutique.
On the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Market Street, at 402 Market St., stands the:
26. Brokers Building
Constructed in 1889, this building has 16-foot wood-beam ceilings and cast-iron columns. In recent years it was converted to artists' lofts, with the ground floor dedicated to the downtown branch of the Hooters chain. Due to the failure of many previous ventures here, as well as a fire and a structural collapse, this was thought of as a "cursed corner."
At the north end of this block, you will find the:
27. Carriage Works
Established in 1890, it once served as storage for wagons and carriages. It then segued to horseless carriages, serving as a Studebaker showroom and repair shop. The building now features restaurants and clubs.
Cross G Street and walk to the middle of the block to the:
28. Labor Temple Building
Dating from 1907, it has striking arched windows on the second floor. The inside was once used as a meeting hall for unions representing everyone from cigar makers to theatrical employees. Le Travel Store is now located here.
Continue north; at 801 Fourth Ave. is the:
29. Ingle Building
It dates from 1906 and now houses the Hard Rock Cafe. The mural on the F Street side of the building depicts a group of deceased rock stars (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, and Elvis) lounging at sidewalk tables. Original stained-glass windows from the old Golden Lion Tavern (1907-32) front Fourth Avenue. Inside, the colorful stained-glass ceiling was taken from an Elks Club in Stockton, California, and much of the floor is original.
30. Winding Down
Walk to bohemian Café Lulu, 419 F St. (tel. 619/238-0114), near Fourth Avenue, for coffee and sweets; or head back into Horton Plaza, where you can choose from many kinds of cuisine, from Chinese to Indian, along with good old American fast food.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.