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Just Memories

Old City Hall
Photograph courtesy of Bill Wulf

Old City Hall
Cesar Chavez Park, San Jose
In the middle of Cesar Chavez Park, where 22 fountains spurt gayly out of the pavement, the movement to save San Jose's historic buildings was born. There stood City Hall, a red-brick gingerbread Victorian designed by Theodore and Jacob Lenzen, that once housed every function of city government from public library to municipal jail. The building resembled a multilayered wedding cake with arched windows, faux columns and a haunted house cupola. For years the old city hall had decayed, and in the earthquake of 1906 its elevator shafts were jarred out of plumb. Prisoners rattled tin cups against the bars of the jail, disrupting city council meetings above. Finally, the smelly, creaky old city hall got on the wrong side of too many powerful people, including the City Council, the mayor and many city employees. "It was a dump," wrote Harry Farrell, who covered city hall for the Mercury News, "a block of bastard-baroque masonry adorned with multiple cornices and surmounted by an overpowering Victorian cupola of no utilitarian value whatsoever." Farrell also wrote about a "shrill" activist, Lenore Fowler, who led a petition drive to save the old city hall. She accused city councilmen of "railroading" the demolition. In the end, Fowler wiped tears from her eyes as she watched the wrecking ball crash into its 71-year-old walls. Mayor Louis Solari presented to her the first brick removed from the building, on which he wrote, "To a game fighter." That year, in keeping with the promise of the suburban utopia, city hall moved out to a broccoli field on the edge of town. In 1958, Fowler was written off as eccentric. But her ideas about what makes a livable, interesting city proved to be ahead of her time. Ironically, the Redevelopment Agency now hopes to undo the mistake by moving city hall back downtown into a 17-story structure to be constructed on E. Santa Clara Street between Fourth and Sixth streets.

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

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