San Jose's downtown Historic District

Typical streets cape of downtown San Jose, with the Pomerey Building in the center

Photograph by Judith Silva, courtesy of the City of Santa Clara

Quick Facts
San Jose ; E. Santa Clara, South First, Second, Third and E. San Fernando Sts.
As Santa Clara Valley's mercantile and financial center for the past 100 years, San Jose's downtown historic commercial district is significant both from a historic and an architectural perspective. The district includes buildings dating from the 1870s, reflecting the emergence of the American city; buildings from the 1890s, reflecting San Jose's boom years as an agricultural center; and buildings from the 1920s, showcasing the South Bay Area's first skyscraper. Thus, the district is unsurpassed in Santa Clara County in its broad representation of historic California commercial architecture. San Jose's history stretches back to the days of the Spanish colonial empire in North America. El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe, chartered by the King of Spain, founded in 1777, was Alta California's first civil settlement. Following the Mexican-American War, San Jose was ceded with the territory of California to the United States. Immediately, the city was surveyed first by Thomas Campbell in 1847 and later by Chester Lyman, in 1848, following the standard grid street pattern utilizing traditional Spanish pathways. This street pattern has remained virtually unaltered to this day. The development of American commercial areas in San Jose extended into this newly surveyed area, just east of the Spanish Pueblo site of 1797 (relocated from the original site after major flooding).

The best remaining example of downtown commercial architecture of the 1870s and 1880s within the district is the three-story Italianate Oddfellows Building at the corner of Santa Clara and Third streets (1883). Another building from this time period is located at 58 South First Street, today known as La Rosa Pharmacy. The building was built in 1870 and was known as the Pomeroy Building. Though the façade has been altered with the addition of stucco siding, an examination of the back of the building reveals the original brick construction. In the 1870s and mid-1880s, the heart of downtown commercial activity had moved northward along Market Street (immediately west of First Street and part of the Pueblo) to the Santa Clara Street intersection. However, by the latter part of the 1880s, Santa Clara and First streets became the new focus for downtown business activity. The early horse drawn railway systems reinforced the importance of this intersection with single and, later, double tracks located along both streets. During the 1890s, important commercial buildings were constructed down First Street reflecting the Romanesque Revival architecture of the East Coast. This streetscape represents a group of buildings designed by the finest local architects including Levi Goodrich and Jacob Lenzen, and built by the leading citizens of the time: James Phelan, F. Sourisseau, C. T. Ryland, Martin Murphy's descendants and the Auzerais family. Buildings such as the Knox-Goodrich Building at 34 South First Street, with its extreme rustication, reflect the qualities of the wealthy, orchard oriented, agricultural community of the turn-of-the-century. Other significant buildings include the Letitia Building (1890) and the Romanesque Revival Security Building (1892). The dominating building of the intersection is the Bank of America Building (1926), San Jose's first "skyscraper," built by H. A. Minton. The bank was featured in Architect and Engineering Record of California as one of the first earthquake-proof constructions in the area. The Bank of America has long been a "landmark" building, at 13 stories plus tower it locates the heart of downtown San Jose.

Following the great earthquake of 1906, Edwardian and Neo-Classical commercial buildings replaced the damaged Victorian and Romanesque businesses. Another significant building from this time period within the historic district is the Landmark Square built in 1907 at 87 South Second Street. This building and the streetscape of Santa Clara Boulevard between Third and Fourth streets represent excellent examples of the cleaner lines of the post-earthquake period design. The one building which defies the new 20th-century style of commercial architecture is the de Saisset property located at Santa Clara and South Second streets. This three-story Italianate building was built in 1900 and although representative of styles common for the previous two decades, was termed to be the "New Century Block." Mission Revival, California's first indigenous architecture, dominated smaller commercial architecture. Desimones Bike Shop (82 South Second Street) and the Jose Theater (64 South Second Street) perfectly reflect the design qualities of the city's new Hispanic influenced downtown architecture. Spanish Colonial Revival also provided California with a new historic architectural mode and the "El Paseo" shopping block on South First Street reflects the most popular commercial architecture of the 1920s in California.

During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, modernization and further consolidation characterized the downtown core. The Moderne Drug Company at 50 Santa Clara Street reflects the "machine age" streamline design of the 1930s, as does the Moyer Music Store at South Second and San Fernando streets. New Growth patterns to the west and south of the center of the city changed the commercial desirability of the downtown core area of San Jose. New construction was virtually nonexistent until the government sponsored redevelopment programs of the 1960s began razing of the entire center city blocks for planned new development. The historic downtown commercial district retains the highest concentration of older buildings in the downtown, which reflects the best examples of architecture from almost every period in the growth of the "American City." There is currently a movement on the part of many property owners to rehabilitate and reuse their older buildings. Designation of this area as a National Register of Historic Places district has promoted and encouraged renewed pride.

Last updated: January 30, 2018