Features & Columns

Downtown San Jose's Historic Hotels

Exhibition at MLK Library explores heyday of Downtown San Jose's historic hotels
Cubberley Community Center POST PARCEL: Facing St. James Park, the St. James Hotel stood on the land now occupied by the San Jose main post office.

The fifth floor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Main Library, already comes fully packed with historical treasure troves. Now, thanks to the Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, one hundred straight years of San Jose hotel history presents itself upon arrival. "A Century of Hospitality: San Jose Hotels 1840-1930," covers the entire foyer area, that is, past the doors and in front of Special Collections.

A mammoth amount of information and secret history are revealed. Even if it's just to see what Downtown looked like at the turn of the century—with a hotel on seemingly every corner, that is, when San Jose was both a supply hub and a transportation center with a thriving tourist industry and effective ways to brand itself for leisure travelers—then visitors will walk away from the exhibit wholly satisfied. Or sad-isfied.

Upon entry, beyond the opening placard, one sees period costumes behind a glass case. Victorian and Edwardian get-ups present a view of what people in San Jose wore during those eras. From there, viewers can travel through the exhibit, viewing placards for different decades from 1840 to 1930. A comprehensive amount of text and information should keep participants occupied for quite a while.

Forgotten landmarks like the St. James Hotel, the Pacific Hotel, the Auzerais House and the Hotel Vendome are no longer with us, but through their photos we receive cosmic transmissions of an older, more jubilant San Jose. Filled with retail and service industry workers, tourists, theater-goers and trolleys before the tracks were ripped up, the streets of San Jo during that era were lively. People came here from all over the California universe. The St. James Hotel sat right across from the park of the same name, right where the post office is now. The Auzerais House occupied part of the block on Santa Clara between Market and First Street. The Vendome was a Queen Anne Victorian mansion farther up on North First Street.

Some of these buildings do still exist and the stories can be transdimensionally experienced by shattering the space-time continuum today in 2013. Right now, for example, the building housing the Starbucks on Santa Clara Street at San Pedro Square used to be the Lamolle House, a ritzy French accommodation and restaurant 100 years ago. This is one of the buildings still standing, one easily recognized in the exhibit. One glass case in particular even features period china and tableware originally used in the Lamolle House. Quite a sight.

Two hotels depicted in the exhibit are obviously still with us: The Montgomery and the De Anza. In the show, one can peer beneath and behind glass cases to see original guest registers, letterhead, postcards, flyers, brochures, maps and correspondence from both properties, 80 years ago in their heydays, before they fell into disrepair decades later.

Lick Observatory also plays a huge role in the exhibit, not just because it was the first permanently occupied observatory in the world, but also because there existed specifically designed stagecoaches to take tourists on a 26-mile route from the Vendome Stables, all the way up to the observatory. One of the stops was the Smith Creek Hotel operated by Mrs. Hattie Garnosset. If travelers in 1890 wanted to stay at the observatory after dark to view the sky through the new-fangled 36-inch refracting telescope, they could then spend the night at the Smith Hotel.

In another classic story, Amadeo Peter Giannini, founder of the Bank of Italy—now known as Bank of America—was born in the Swiss Hotel, on North Market Street, in 1870. His dad managed the hotel and the young A.P. eventually moved to San Francisco where he married into a banking family. He then opened the world's first branch bank, in San Jose, in 1909.

Likewise prominently featured in the show is the original incarnation of the Hotel Sainte Claire. As with other properties, we see decades-old correspondence, letterhead and brochures. Since the exhibit only covers the era through 1930, there's nothing from when the Dead Kennedys played there in 1982, after the hotel had fallen into disrepute. But all in all, two big thumbs up for this one. History rocks!