Like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter has experienced a renaissance after spending many decades as a seedy area populated by porno theaters, low-rent hotels, and boarded-up buildings.
Named for the gas lanterns that lit area streets during downtown’s formative years, the Gaslamp Quarter now enjoys the distinction of being the epicenter of downtown’s ritzy club and lounge scene. Today the streets are lit with neon and if you walk them at night you’ll hear the clink of glasses, the pounding bass, and the hoots and whistles emanating from the bars that blanket the district. On any given night throughout the year, smartly dressed couples and groups of singles on the prowl climb out of taxis and scurry into the throng of revelers that line up to gain access into some of the highest-profile clubs south of Hollywood.
In spite of the partying, the area hasn’t lost touch with its heritage and actually affords the quiet artsy type a lot to see during the day. Art galleries, boutiques, and fine restaurants are sprinkled in between the clubs. And of course, a relaxing afternoon drink can be had at many places without mortgaging your home to pay a cover charge.
The real show-stealers are the buildings that house all of these establishments. Within the nearly 17-block neighborhood there are over 90 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the most stunning structures in this neighborhood are between the 600 and 800 block of 5th Avenue. The neighborhood architecture is best experienced via a casual walking tour, but there is also a weekly guided walking tour ($10 for adults, $8 for seniors, students, and military) starting at the William Heath Davis Historic House Museum on Saturdays at 11 a.m.
William Heath Davis Historic House
Start on the south end at Island street to take a gander at the oldest of the buildings in the city, the William Heath Davis Historic House (410 Island Ave., 619/233 4692, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tue.–Sat., 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun., $5). This saltbox-style home was one of 14 prefabricated houses that were hauled all the way from New England and around Cape Horn by William Heath Davis in 1850 in order to jumpstart the development of New Town San Diego. At the time, the bay-front property was completely devoid of trees (and fresh water for that matter), making it necessary to import “modern” wood houses for potential buyers. Unfortunately, Davis’s initiative wasn’t matched by his promotional skills and it took seventeen years and the brash salesmanship of Alonzo Horton to make New Town a reality. The house on Island Avenue is the last remaining home imported by Davis and stands today as a symbol of the groundwork he laid to make today’s downtown a possibility.
Horton Grand Hotel
Kitty-corner to the Davis House is the Horton Grand Hotel (311 Island Ave., 619/544-1886), which is actually made up of two historic hotels that were moved to this spot in the 1980s to avoid demolition. Both constructed in 1886, they were two very different establishments. The Grand Horton was an elegant structure built as a replica of Innsbruck Inn in Vienna, Austria. The Brooklyn Hotel was casual, and eventually became known as the Kahle Saddlery Hotel for the saddle and harness shop that did business in the ground floor. They were painstakingly dismantled from what is now Horton Plaza and stored in a warehouse by the city until the opportunity arose to rebuild them together on their current lot.
The Yuma Building (631 5th Ave.), an Italianate-baroque beauty that was one of downtown’s first brick structures when it was built in 1888. At that time it was used for legitimate business, but by 1901 its upstairs “offices” had been transformed into dens of debauchery. When the police were pressured to crack down on prostitution in the area in 1912, the Yuma was the first building they raided.
Old City Hall and Llewelyn Building
Across the street from the Yuma on the corner of G and 5th stands Old City Hall. Built originally as a bank in 1874, this Florentine-Italianate structure was purchased by the city 1891 and housed City Hall until 1938. During the early years here, city leaders gave a wink and a nod to the illicit activities across the street at the Yuma and at many more prostitution parlors, opium dens, and gambling halls that flanked City Hall to comprise what was known widely as the Stingaree District. Keeping to the west side of 5th and crossing G, halfway down the block you’ll stumble across the Llewelyn Building (722 5th Ave.), which is probably one of the best examples of commercial Victorian architecture in the Gaslamp.
Nesmith-Greely Building and the Louis Bank of Commerce
The Romanesque Revival–style Nesmith-Greely Building (825 5th Ave.) displays a delightful combination of brick coursing and columns. Next door is the intricate and ornate Victorian-style Louis Bank of Commerce (835 5th Ave.). The twin mansard roof towers of the baroque revival Louis Bank of Commerce are the most recognizable features in the entire Gaslamp.
There are dozens of other historic buildings just like these scattered throughout the Gaslamp. Keep a lookout for the bronze placards that are affixed to buildings at street level. They’ll give you the date of construction and perhaps a tidbit or two on what makes that structure unique. And don’t forget to point that camera upward—you just might capture a one-of-a-kind architectural flourish that can’t be found anywhere else.