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Past Present: Generations of innovation are on display at City Hall.

Hall of History

From daring cyclists to Dictaphones and panoramic views of the old days, the new City Hall features slices of the valley's past


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WHATEVER you think about the new San Jose City Hall—good or bad—at least they had enough wisdom to celebrate San Jose's past by installing a historical photo display on the second floor. "In Full View: Historic and Contemporary Panoramas" juxtaposes current life in Silicon Valley with how it was years ago. An elaborate photo of all the employees of Hart's Department Store at Market and Santa Clara streets, circa 1930, sits right next to a color shot of a Vietnamese family in front of the Asian Grand Century Mall, circa 2005.

A current panoramic image of lowrider car clubs in the parking lot of the Church on the Hill nicely accompanies a 1919 shot of the Garden City Wheelmen—a bicycle club that featured Clyde Arbuckle, who later penned San Jose's quintessential history book.

We've all seen photos from inside the Intel labs, where folks wear radiation suits. At this exhibit, you can see one deliberately placed right next to a shot from inside one of the old canneries, which used to be the valley's main commercial industry.

These huge panoramic photos line the walls as you walk through the curved hallway. Across from the council chambers, it is possible to check out a blown-up version of the original results from the very first election of the Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe in 1849. The History San José folks threw all this together.

In the other wing, the one nearest the dome construction, are some additional interesting tidbits. Huge artifacts that History San José was never able to publicly display grace the walls as you follow the curve: old computer relics, typewriters, radio equipment, Dictaphones and historical circus paraphernalia make for a splendid accompaniment to the noise and construction outside.

This exhibit, "San Jose: Generations of Innovation and Diversity," celebrates (you guessed it) innovation, from agriculture all the way to high tech. You can view a reproduction of Charles "Doc" Herrold's broadcast radio station—the first one in the country—that originally sat where the Knight Ridder Building is now. There is also a fire alarm from the 1887 City Hall and a MILSAT 100 LB Satellite mockup, circa 1962, courtesy of History San José's Perham Collection of Early Electronics.

Also on display are artifacts and ephemera from the Frances Dainty Company, a crazed cyclist act based in Willow Glen. One of the old advertisements explains it this way: "The World's Greatest Cyclists in Extraordinary Feats of Cycling Riding and Balancing. Whirling, twirling, twisting, turning, circling cyclists in a whirlwind of thrills, quicker than shots fired from a rapid fire gun."

Back in the 1920s, Dainty "defied all power of gravitation" and performed bicycle stunts on a slack wire, which is different than a tightrope in the sense that it has slack, i.e., no tension. Geer was his real last name and generations of his family lived in the same house in Willow Glen's Palm Haven neighborhood from 1886 to 1999.

Original bicycles, relics, wires and several promotional fliers from his shows are on display. The company traveled all over the United States, Europe and Asia but was based right here in San Jose, Calif. Dainty would alternate the spellings of his name between Francis and Frances because he would occasionally do the act in drag. He thought folks might rather see a female cyclist act instead.

One flier had this to say about the Dainty Company: "This aggregation of vaudeville is sure death to the blues. It changes dull hours into minutes of pleasure. They are the most sensational and daring artists of the 20th century." There still exist old-timers in Willow Glen who remember Frances Dainty from when they were younger.

So if you're over in City Hall and fed up with the permitting process, let off some steam by investigating these exhibits. You'll never see crazed cyclist acts in San Jose ever again.

The History San José exhibits show through next year at San Jose City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 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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