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Restoration Hard Wear

Swallowing 100 years of downtown history in four hours


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MOST FOLKS who gallivant around downtown San Jose couldn't care less about the history of the neighborhood--an oversight indeed. Last Saturday, the San Jose State University Alumni Association sponsored a walking tour led by local historians Beth Wyman and Jack Douglas. Wyman taught urban planning at SJSU for 18 years and is a heavyweight at the Preservation Action Council of San Jose. Douglas authored the wonderful Historic San Jose: Tales of Naglee Park.

About 35 members of the SJSU Alumni Association met at the Vigal Coffee Shop on Santa Clara Street at 8am Saturday for the tour. A No. 22 bus roared by while Douglas explained that Vigal Coffee sits in the place where a restaurant explosion killed several folks in the early 1960s.

With that fiery introduction, the group moved on to the corner of First and Santa Clara streets, where Douglas and Wyman waxed poetic about the city's first skyscraper, the Bank of America Building. Turns out that Bank of America--originally called the Bank of Italy--was established by San Josean Amadeo Peter Giannini. Giannini first opened a branch in San Francisco and then in San Jose. The entire concept of branch banking--Giannini invented it.

Next, the tour paraded past Fountain Alley, the Knox-Goodrich Building and the confused folks at the light rail station, who eyed us with bewilderment. While a street person in a gray beard accosted the group for a cigarette, Douglas explained that the newly renovated Letitia Building at 68 South First St. was a popular hangout for photographers around the turn of the last century.

Eastward, down San Fernando Street, Douglas revealed that the Cinebar was a popular haunt for left-wing SJSU faculty members in the late '50s and early '60s. Unfortunately, no mention was made of San Jose's old Kaleidoscope Bookstore, purveyor of Communist materials and Beat literature back in the day.

The group turned left at Fifth Street and headed up to the gargantuan hole where the new City Hall will soon sit. Wyman pointed across the hole at the Medico-Dental/Vintage Tower Building at Sixth and Santa Clara--San Jose's tallest residential complex at 11 stories--and told tales of its construction some 80 years ago.

After a stop at Tower Hall on the SJSU campus, the group walked south across San Carlos Street and congregated at the restored Scheller House. Both Douglas and Wyman debriefed the group on the battle they and others had with the university to save and restore this historical residence.

As the group began to tire, Wyman and Douglas took everyone back to Second Street for a gander at the Improv and then a walk on Santa Clara Street to discuss the history of the Saratoga Capital building and the Odd Fellows building, which houses Hank Coca's Downtown Furniture. The tour ended with Manuel Lima showing off the Wing House, a historic landmark in the Hensley district that Biter didn't know was there.

Is a four-hour tour of downtown history worth it? Yes, we cry. Hey--we never noticed the stamp reading, "City Iron Works San Francisco 1868" on the two iron columns surrounding the decrepit old building next to where Monomania used to be on First Street. We never knew that the first public library in San Jose was partly financed by Andrew Carnegie himself in 1903. And we had completely forgotten there was ever a Roos Atkins downtown.

Updates on future tours are available at www.sjsu.edu/alumni; 408.924.6515.

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From the July 3-9, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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