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It's History

George Sakkestad

Old and in the Way: The century-old Buffalo Trading Company in Los Gatos was chomped by a bulldozer in March. A new retail area called the Plaza will take its place.

The Silicon Valley boom threatens to destroy what little is left of the valley's architectural heritage

By Michael Learmonth

One Tuesday last March, the sound of snorting diesel and cracking wood broke the mid-morning calm in Los Gatos. Groggy and rather surprised Los Gatans looked up from their sidewalk cafe tables to see a yellow bulldozer crash straight through the listing 100-year-old frame of the Los Gatos Soda Works at E. Main Street and College Avenue. News of the demolition spread quickly around town. Historian Bill Wulf heard the news shortly after noon and hurried to the corner with an album of photographs of the Soda Works and the historic Buffalo Building next door. He was not prepared for what he saw.

"They were still running back and forth over it with the bulldozer, chewing up the pieces so they could put it into a dumpster," Wulf remembers. "I didn't want to make any trouble and heck, what could I do, anyway?"

The following day, the Buffalo Building next door was knocked from its foundation and ground to rubble. Built by Louie Mariotti in the 1890s, the Soda Works in its day produced orange, lime, and cherry sodas until the 1930s. The Buffalo Building started life in 1881 as a women's hat store. The two had sat on that corner for decades, quaint if dilapidated reminders of Los Gatos' humble past.

But the unassuming wood relics--like numerous other old buildings throughout the valley--found themselves caught in the headlights of Silicon Valley's economic freight train. Conducting the train on this project was politically well-connected developer Dave Flick, who promises his new 12,878-square-foot Plaza will bring more foot traffic and commerce to the east side of Highway 17.

In with the New

Silicon Valley's real estate market is hot again, and its architectural heritage is taking a hit preservationists will never forget. Unlike recessions, where historic buildings typically lie fallow for lack of funds for restoration or razing, boom times bring a public and private largess that can either bring a building back to life or bring it tumbling down for new construction. And lately, the trend has been toward the latter.

Every year for the last three years, 40,000 new jobs have been created in Silicon Valley. That's 40,000 new people each year who need space to live, work and spend their money. Retail and office space is scarce, but developers know it won't last. They're looking at every available parcel, even the historic ones.

"Three years ago people were still talking about the death of Santa Clara Valley real estate," says SJSU finance professor Chuck Harper. "Now commercial real estate prices are going up fast. But people are debating how long that will last."

Developers aren't the only ones looking to get in while the getting's good. Flush with cash and facing the waning years of its mandate, San Jose's Redevelopment Agency is signing contracts and hiring staff at a breakneck pace. The agency has rolled out the red carpet for a housing development on South Second Street and a second tower for the Fairmont Hotel between South First and Market. If the two deals go ahead, San Jose will lose the Jose, its oldest theater, and the Montgomery, an elegant Spanish Revival hotel.

San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer maintains that both buildings are "economically unviable," that they will cost more to restore than to replace with new construction. The City Council agrees, but in light of public outcry, some are reconsidering their positions on the Jose Theater.

Razing Expectations

Courtney Damkroger of the National Trust for Historic Preservation argues that "economic viability" is a narrow way to look at a historic parcel. "The whole is greater than its parts," she says. "Historic downtown commercial districts are in demand. They provide opportunities for small investors and the kind of businesses that keep people downtown at night, like galleries, bookstores and entertainment."

The boom times have forced decision-making on historic buildings that sometimes puts the community at odds with developers and city hall.

"We shouldn't have to fight for every single old building," argues Franklin Maggi, former chair of the Historic Landmark Commission. "The underlying philosophy is how you want to build the city of the future. Cities should promote the old and the new mixed together."

The city of Palo Alto confronted the real estate boom with an emergency ordinance enacted last October that mandated a review before any home more than 40 years old could be demolished or altered. The move came after two landmark homes were razed on College Terrace and a rash of other properties were being torn down or "remodeled" to make way for new mansions. As a result of the ordinance, the city hired a historic-preservation architect to evaluate properties in order to protect the character of a community from being drastically changed by skyrocketing property values.

Shaky Ground

In the 1960s, cities such as San Jose and Santa Clara lost much or all of their downtowns when entire blocks were bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. A decade later, urban planners began to embrace the idea that a city should have buildings from as many eras as possible, and not just a few well-preserved museum pieces. They realized historic buildings, especially those built before the freeway system, were especially suited to pedestrians and the "walking downtowns" they were trying to promote. When they take their place amid structures of different eras, they link people to the history of a place, much like grandparents in a family or elders in a community.

But historic renovations can be messy and expensive. And every earthquake brings building code revisions that complicate the retrofit of unreinforced masonry.

"The private sector is more interested in making sure the investment is sound," David Cartnal of BFGC Architects says. "A lot of unreinforced masonry buildings throughout the state are real safety hazards."

When the public sector foots the bill, old buildings are sometimes placed on lighted pedestals as lone museum pieces. San Jose, for example, spent $6.5 million on the Fallon House and millions more on Kelley Park, which some refer to as the "preservation petting zoo." While both are worthwhile projects, neither contribute to the civic identity of a living, breathing community.

"It is the density of historic buildings that gives a city its character, not just the biggies," Damkroger argues. As the following list attests, many of Silicon Valley's "biggies" are already gone.

IN 1991, San Jose's Redevelopment Agency touted the Montgomery Hotel in a promotional pamphlet: "The once-grand Montgomery, strategically located on the Paseo de San Antonio, is slated for renovation and reuse as an inviting four-story retail/office center. Originally built in 1910 in a Mission Revival style, the Montgomery was considered one of the most elegant hotels on the West Coast in its heyday." What a difference six years makes. Now that the Fairmont Hotel has declared it won't expand unless it can raze the Montgomery, the agency and the San Jose City Council have declared the older hotel public enemy No. 1. The Montgomery and the Jose Theater are two downtown landmarks of undisputed historic significance that the city wants to tear down. The rest on the list either are on the block or in limbo or stand to be significantly altered to become part of a new development.

Every city must make decisions about preservation. But the fact that so much of Silicon Valley's heritage is already lost raises the stakes on those that remain.

"In 20 or 30 years, when the whole town is filled up with schlock skyscrapers, they are going to be looking for the jewels," warns Pauline Sorter, a San Jose shopkeeper.

Back in Los Gatos, residents are still trying to make sense of what they lost last March. Says Bergtold: "As a resident of 50-plus years, you become used to a landmark, and it's a shock to see it come down."

Metro's complete survey of the valley's threatened, lost and preserved historic buildings.

The Endangered List
Historic buildings whose days are numbered. Also threatened are the Jose Theater, the Montgomery Hotel and the Old Hoover School

Just Memories
Architectural gems that are gone, but not forgotten.

Spared the Axe
The few battles preservationists have won.

Get Historical
Who you can contact for more information and to get involved.

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From the July 2-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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