Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: At a Crossroads

Making a French Connection at an abandoned Greyhound station
NEW ARRIVAL Laying the groundwork for the Greyhound station in 1957.File Photo

As I scoped out the parking lot behind the abandoned Greyhound Station in downtown San Jose, global dimensions of history washed over me, ranging from the French Connection to the Istanbul Hilton.

The parcel in question, surrounded by Almaden Avenue, Post Street, San Pedro and the buildings along San Fernando, exudes a gorgeously convoluted backstory. At this location, the Greyhound Station opened to huge fanfare in 1957, after spending 33 years at a previous location two blocks over on Market Street. In pure San Jose fashion, millions were spent to smash one building and create another one staggering distance away.

If one time-travels back to the early '50s, an entire retail ecosystem populated the blocks of Market Street just south of Santa Clara Street. Taverns, restaurants, pharmacies, jewelers, shoe stores, cutlery, a few barbers and a theater all contributed to the economy. The Greyhound Station anchored the whole shooting match at 25 S. Market, on the west side of the street.

In order to expand a growing business, Greyhound needed a new terminal with more ingress and egress, which meant a new splotch of land. Thus began the French Connection, to which we now turn.

The de Saissets were among the pioneer French immigrant families of Santa Clara Valley. Pedro de Saisset arrived in California in 1849 and became a local tycoon. He owned land all over downtown San Jose and he served as a French consular agent for more than 30 years. He even started the power company that took over the San Jose Electric Light Tower. The de Saisset family home was a legendary three-story mansion right where The Tech Interactive now sits. Pedro and his wife Maria had four offspring, one of whom was Ernest de Saisset, a local painter who briefly went to study in Paris before returning to San Jose, where he died at age 35.

Isabel de Saisset was the last remaining offspring when she passed away in 1950. However, she'd prepared for departure by bequeathing the family's holdings, including a few parcels of land, to Santa Clara University so the land could then be sold and the money used to fund a new art museum in honor of Ernest, her brother. This is how the de Saisset Museum began.

If we can believe a 1955 Mercury-News article, one of the parcels bequeathed to SCU was then sold to Greyhound. As a result, thanks to Isabel, we got a new art museum and a new bus station. What a deal.

After Greyhound acquired the land, it hired the world-renowned architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the station. Among numerous other illustrious projects, the firm had just completed the landmark Istanbul Hilton in 1955, a game-changing 500-room property and the first modern hotel built in Europe after World War II. An international sensation when it was constructed, the Istanbul Hilton was inseparable from Cold War politics, the Marshall Plan and the opening up of Turkey to the West. To this day, it's the oldest continuously operating Hilton in the world outside the US.

Unlike the Istanbul Hilton, the San Jose Greyhound Station did not attract celebrities, heads of state, sheiks, oligarchs and spies, but after the million-dollar facility opened on Almaden Avenue, 6,000 people a day used the station, taking advantage of over 260 schedules that included Greyhound, Peerless Stages and the San Jose to Alviso line. We didn't have the ancient transportation crossroads of Constantinople, but at least we had Alviso.

Now the station is shuttered. C'est la vie, as say the French.

Upon my visit, no activity remained except for a white RV sitting next to an old beat-up Dodge van in the parking lot near the opposite corner, right next to a building that in living memory was various dive bars-Kleidon's, Cat's Alley and the Dugout, to name but a few. A closer look revealed that someone was indeed living in the RV. It wasn't the Istanbul Hilton, but it was enough.

At that point, all of this was enough for me too. I bid adieu to the history and shuffled off down Post Street with the ghosts of French consulates and dive bars forever etched in my brain.