Alonzo Horton usually gets credit for establishing this city’s New Town, which lured San Diego’s population from Old Town adobes to new buildings closer to the bay. But he wasn’t first with the idea.
Seventeen years earlier, in 1850, San Francisco merchant William Heath Davis founded a commercial and social center for San Diego on 160 acres near the waterfront.
An economic depression destroyed Davis’ dream, but one of his saltbox homes has survived the decades. The William Heath Davis House is a museum and headquarters for the Gaslamp Quarter Foundation, which has brought brighter times to San Diego’s original downtown.
The restored 139-year-old home is the starting point for guided walking tours of the Gaslamp Quarter, a 16-block area that was designated a National Historic District in 1980. Renovation is planned for dozens of commercial buildings built between the Civil War and World War I.
Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. volunteer guides describe the structures’ architecture and histories during two-hour tours. No reservations required; a $2-per-person donation is requested.
Visitors also can tour the Gaslamp Quarter on their own with an illustrated map available at the Davis House at 5th and Island avenues. It’s near the center of the district, which covers two blocks between 4th and 6th avenues and extends eight blocks from downtown’s main street, Broadway, to L Street.
Close by is the San Diego Convention Center, which is under construction and is expected to attract thousands of visitors to the area. The new convention hall and redevelopment along Harbor Drive have helped promote restoration of the decayed quarter.
Notorious Red-Light District
Earlier in the century it was San Diego’s notorious red-light district, called the Stingaree. Adult bookstores, transient hotels and vagrants are still evident.
About three dozen trendy eateries and bars attract an increasing number of San Diegans as well as tourists to the Gaslamp Quarter. Visitors are also drawn by art galleries, antique shops, stage theaters and a pair of hotels that recall Victorian times.
One of those hostelries occupies the first skyscraper in San Diego, the 10-story Watts-Robinson Building erected in 1913. Offices and shops with frosted-glass hall windows and doors have been turned into 66 guest suites (from $109, double occupancy) in the Horton Park Plaza Hotel, 5th Avenue at E Street.
Go into the small lobby to see the white marble walls and stairway, and consider having a drink or meal in its two-level restaurant, the Fifth Avenue Bistro. Lunch and dinner are served daily, with a special brunch menu on Sunday.
For room or restaurant reservations, call the Horton Park Plaza Hotel, toll-free (800) 443-8012 or (619) 232-9500.
On the opposite corner, Western Hat Works has been selling cowboy and other chapeaus for 42 years. Two doors along Fifth Avenue is the old-fashioned San Diego Hardware, which has been in business since 1892.
Gaslamp guides say that anyone who goes into the store for a minute often stays an hour, and they suggest that you come back to browse after the tour. Visit the basement, too.
On the other side of the street you’ll be impressed by the ornate Victorian facade of the Louis Bank of Commerce. Built in 1888, it was the first granite building in San Diego. On the ground floor a restaurant called Bonaparte’s Retreat has replaced a saloon that once was a hangout for gunfighter Wyatt Earp.
A popular spot for dining and musical entertainment is Croce’s in the 1890 Keating Building. It’s marked by a rounded bay-window corner at 5th Avenue and F Street.
A block away at 4th Avenue, the Golden Lion Tavern is easily identified by a statue of its namesake mounted on the corner of the 82-year-old building. Inside are vintage stained-glass walls and ceiling.
On 4th Avenue between Market and Island streets a 1920s dance hall has been turned into the small Gaslamp Quarter Theater. On stage through April 15 is a mystery, “The Business of Murder.” Call (619) 232-9608 for ticket information.
Another playhouse is a block away, the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theater, with additional performances by the Gaslamp Quarter Theater Company. Call the number above for play names and dates.
Around the corner on Island Avenue is the Horton Grand Hotel, a 110-room hostelry created from two century-old lodgings that faced demolition. A glass atrium connects the reassembled brick buildings and opens to a courtyard, where Sunday brunch is served from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; adults $14.95, children $7.50.
The Horton Grand is home to Ida Bailey’s, a restaurant named for the madam of Gaslamp Quarter’s most infamous brothel. The Palace Bar draws a crowd to the hotel at cocktail time, and English tea is served afternoons except Sunday and Monday.
Instant-On Gas Fireplace
Antiques decorate the guest rooms, and each features an instant-on gas fireplace. Double rates begin at $109. For room or Sunday brunch reservations, call toll-free (800) 544-1886 or (619) 544-1886.
On the opposite corner is the Davis House, with its downstairs museum that’s open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. when docents are available). For information about walking tours and maps, call (619) 233-5227.
Next door along Island Avenue, on a wall of the Callan Hotel, is the largest of six murals painted by local artists to decorate the Gaslamp Quarter. At 5th Avenue, drop in for corned beef and a Guinness at the newly opened Blarney Stone Pub.
The city’s oldest Chinese restaurant, unfancy Wong’s Nanking Cafe, stands on the opposite corner. Other eateries along 5th Avenue include the Old Spaghetti Factory and chic 515 Fifth.
To reach the Gaslamp Quarter from Los Angeles, drive south on Interstate 5 to San Diego’s downtown exit, Front Street (Civic Center). Continue south to Market Street, then go left to Fifth Avenue.
Round trip is 246 miles.