Then and now: the history of San Diego's first City Hall
by Johnny McDonald
Published - 06/29/11 - 05:30 PM | 2616 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Jimmy Love's currently operates out of the first floor of the building that once housed San Diego's first City Hall. Paul Hansen | Downtown News
Holding a long and somewhat loose leash on a town of brothels, saloons and gambling halls — still flourishing despite a boomtown bust — wasn’t an easy task for San Diego city government and its constables in the early 1900s.

A spectrum of order didn’t get into motion until 1891 when the city’s leaders moved into their fortress at the southwest corner of Fifth and G streets, hub of the Stingaree district now known as the Gaslamp Quarter. It was purchased from Ralph Granger after it had housed two banks.

The Police Department occupied the first two floors, including a jail. The city library’s 8,000 volumes filled the third floor and the Council Chambers occupied the fourth.

Although the architecture stems from the Italian Renaissance, the design was influenced by the styles of the decade. Windows were shaped in the form of Roman arches and pilasters contrasted with light-colored stucco walls.

It was named the Theater Building following completion in 1874. Though historian Sherry Linden of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation was not sure where the moniker originated, she said the first major occupant was in fact known: the National Bank.

Back then, city government was patterned by federal and state standards. The mayor was a powerful executive elected citywide who could veto legislation passed by the Common Council. This charter, with modifications, was maintained until 1931.

In those days, San Diego, as some well know, was not entirely squeaky clean. The first mayor, Edwin Capp, became involved in a scandal over profit making on the purchase of a smallpox vaccine intended for public use. In one incident involving the well-known red light district, the city’s gendarmes attempted to acquiesce to the public outcry about the neighborhood, gathering up 138 ladies of the evening on Nov. 10, 1912. A judge told them to get out of town on the next bus or train.

The Common Council consisted of two houses: a Board of Aldermen and a Board of Delegates. In 1905, the two houses were consolidated into nine members (one from each ward).

To keep close to the action, prominent attorneys leased space on the second floor of a nearby building on 4th Avenue, known as Lawyer’s Block. In the 1940s, an enclosed bridge was built across the 10-foot alley to city hall.

In 1995, this un-reinforced masonry building underwent major structural renovation and was completely retrofitted according to the seismic regulations of the then-applicable building code and city ordinance.

The city hall housed government offices for 35 years before moving to the Embarcadero. The police station also moved closer to the water, a place called Dead Man’s Point — a burial location for sailors. That old headquarters still stands near Seaport Village.

Today, the old city hall is owned privately and is a mixed-use occupancy, with Jimmy Love’s restaurant/bar on the first floor, retail on the second floor and live/work loft units on the third and fourth floors.

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