Recently I found myself walking down Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia’s restored colonial capital. Their attention to detail has created a truly immersive environment, one that transports you back in time to when our country was contemplating independence. The horse-drawn carriages, the costumed characters speaking and acting as historical figures, and the craftspeople plying their trades using authentic colonial-area techniques, all contribute to the illusion and help you to forget that we are now in the twenty-first century. But it is the restored and recreated buildings of Williamsburg’s Historic Area that are the primary transporter through time. Gazing at those buildings, knowing that you are seeing Williamsburg as it looked to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others of their era, has a powerful effect on the observer.
Williamsburg is one of those rare places where you can truly immerse yourself in history and get away from our twenty-first century lifestyle, if only for a short while. But with a bit of imagination, and the aid of just a few historic buildings, other cities—including Redwood City—can also transport you back in time. Redwood City’s old Courthouse is probably our most well-known historic building, but if you are willing to take a short walk around our downtown area, as I recently did, you can find a number of old buildings that can take you back to Redwood City’s early days. Days when Redwood City was a very different place…
Back in 2010, Redwood City’s Historic Resources Advisory Committee (did you know we had one?) dedicated a kiosk and a sculpture on the Wells Fargo Bank plaza at the corner of Main and Broadway:
This kiosk lays out Redwood City’s own “Path of History”: a short loop walk that takes you through the heart of old Redwood City. The kiosk includes a map of the path plus descriptions of a dozen historical points of interest that you’ll find along the way. Later, in 2012, that same committee dedicated a set of twelve plaques along the path that describe each historical point of interest and show how it looked back in the day. If you’ve spent any time downtown you’ve probably seen one or two of them, but unless you know about the history walk you likely haven’t seen them all.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet you don’t actually have to visit the plaza to see the kiosk: a brochure containing the map and most of the interesting information about the twelve historical points is available online, so you can access it from your computer, tablet, or smartphone. For some reason the brochure is split into two separate PDFs: the front (with short descriptions of each sight) can be found here while the back (with the map of the walk) can be found here. Although all of the information is on the kiosk (which you will visit if you take the walk), unless you have a phenomenal memory I would highly recommend either printing the brochure or accessing it online as you go (or, use this blog post; I’ll take you step-by-step through the walk, and the plaques along the way will provide the history). For the less technically inclined, you should be able to get a copy of the brochure at the history museum in the old County Courthouse.
The “path of history” route is basically just a large loop, with arms sticking out in two places. The brochure notes that you can start anywhere, but unless you want to start at the kiosk, you may find it easiest to visit the sites in the order they are listed on the brochure, as I did. To give you an idea of what the walk involves, you begin in front of the Lathrop House (on Hamilton, near Marshall). You then walk down Hamilton to Broadway, where you turn left. Strolling down Broadway to Main, you turn left on Main (towards Veterans) for half a block. You then turn around and walk back along Main until you reach Middlefield, which you follow to the main library. The final plaque is located in front of the library (right by the driveway leading into the main parking lot); to complete the loop and return to your point of origin you simply walk up Theatre Way to Marshall.
Ready to travel back in time? Let’s get started!
California Square is your first stop. Unfortunately it is no longer there: the San Mateo County Government Center now occupies the space at Hamilton and Broadway. However, from the picture it seems that the public plaza created on this site from land donated by Simon Mezes was a beautiful spot, one that undoubtedly was enjoyed by the early residents of Redwood City. There is a bronze plaque on the wall of the modern courthouse marking the spot.
The Historic Resources Advisory Committee’s plaque, with picture and information, can be found on the corner of Hamilton and Marshall, diagonally opposite from the current-day courthouse.
Stop #2 on the path is the Lathrop-Connor-Mansfield House, also near the intersection of Hamilton and Marshall. You’ve likely seen this house before, although like me you may not have toured it. It doesn’t appear to be open much: only the first four Wednesdays and the third Saturday of every month, from 11:00am to 3:00pm (and it is closed in August). It is a beautiful old house, though, having been built in 1963. The plaque, with a brief description of the three principal owners of the house, is easy to find: it is located right near the house’s front steps.
The old San Mateo County Courthouse—now the San Mateo County History Museum—is next. Fronting onto the ever popular courthouse square, this is a well-known sight. When my wife and I first moved to Redwood City the old WPA-built addition that hid the old courthouse building was still in place; fortunately for all of us the addition was removed in 2005. I was amazed at how much of the original facade existed behind that ugly block addition, and cheered on the workers who restored it to what you see today. To find the history walk plaque for the old courthouse, simply cross Broadway; the plaque is positioned next to one of the large flower pots in front of the Le Boulanger bakery/cafe and is placed so that, as you read it, you are facing the courthouse. If you have time—and if it is open—the history museum is well worth a visit. Their gift shop (which is, of course, free to visit) has some great books about the history of the area, including Redwood City: A Hometown History which is a fascinating, comprehensive book about the history of Redwood City.
Next up is the New Sequoia Theatre, now known as the Fox Theatre. Originally the site of the “Redwood City Public School”—aka “Central Grammar School”, the theater was built in 1928. The plaque for this one is also among the flower pots, down Broadway just past the Fox Theatre marquee.
Crossing Theater Way, you’ll find the next plaque commemorating the site of Sequoia High School’s first dedicated building. The school moved to its current location in 1924, but actually began in 1895 on the third floor of the grammar school that was located where the Fox Theatre is now. In 1904 a dedicated high school building building was constructed on Broadway at what is now Theater Way. The plaque for the high school, which is the only plaque that is not free-standing, is mounted to the wall of the Five Guys restaurant (on the corner, facing Broadway). The plaque has a great picture of the old Sequoia High School building, which was finally torn down in 1949.
Continuing down Broadway, you next come to what is perhaps the most interesting of the sites: the Embarcadero Turning Basin. This one requires a great deal of imagination, but it’s worth the effort. Midway between Jefferson and Main is an alley where, if you go one way, you find yourself in the Main Street parking lot and, if you go the other way, you wind up in the Marshall Street parking garage. This intersection is where you’ll find the next Path of History plaque (on the corner, in front of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio):
Standing at this intersection, if you look carefully you’ll find that there is a street sign labeling this as “Redwood Creek Crossing”. Continue to look around: have you ever noticed how the stamped concrete on either side of Broadway is colored green? That was done to symbolize the creek that once was here (and still is here, in fact; it now flows underground). Very roughly the creek flowed from the bay through where the parking garage now stands and into where the Main Street parking lot is now. Where you are standing was once a bustling waterfront: ships came in from the bay and docked on either side of the creek, along the Embarcadero (“wharf”, in Spanish). Facing the parking garage, Broadway to your left was known as “A” Street. To the right—but only as far as Main—Broadway was known as Bridge Street (and today’s Main Street was known as “Mound Street”). The intersection you are standing at once consisted of a wooden drawbridge, allowing people to travel between the east and west sides of the creek while enabling ships and log rafts to travel up and down the creek. From this spot, in the mid-to-late 1800s, you would see wooden wharves, the back side of buildings that fronted onto Main, and ships of all sizes; some docked, some traversing the creek. Where you now stand is really the origin of Redwood City, for it was the discovery of this creek, and its proximity to the hills with their great stands of Redwood trees, that drew people to the area and caused Redwood City to form.
From the Embarcadero, walk to the intersection of Broadway and Main: the Wells Fargo plaza that houses the Path of History kiosk is here, as are the next four plaques (all four are mounted together, next to the kiosk). History-wise, this is a critical intersection for Redwood City! It contains the Fitzpatrick Building/Bank of San Mateo County building, on the northwest corner of Main and Broadway. The two adjacent buildings were originally constructed in 1900, and after the 1906 earthquake—which did considerable damage, as evidenced by the picture on the plaque—they were rebuilt and combined into one. Although it no longer houses a bank, today the building looks much as it did back in 1910.
The southwest corner houses the next historic site: the Sequoia Hotel. This building wasn’t constructed until 1912, but at the time of its construction it was a high-end hotel with elaborately decorated rooms. While it remains a hotel, unfortunately it is not one at which I would be willing to stay. It is more of a residence for transients, and appears to have had a recent history of drug activity. But the building is beautiful; perhaps it can be restored to its former glory someday…
You’ve seen this next one before, although you may not know of its significance in Redwood City history:
To the right of the Bank of San Mateo County building huddles a small brick building known as the “Diller-Chamberlain Store” or the “Quong Lee Laundry”. Built in 1859, the building is the oldest surviving commercial building in San Mateo County, and its first brick structure. It served many functions back in the day: it was originally constructed and operated as a general store, but from 1856-1858 it housed the first San Mateo County offices. The first meeting of the San Mateo County Supervisors may have been held in this store, on July 7, 1856 (Redwood City: A Hometown History says this, but one of the plaques claims that the meeting was held at an adjacent hotel). P.P. Chamberlain, who purchased the store in 1856, later became county treasurer: during his first 25 years in office he performed his official duties from this store. He also operated a Wells Fargo Express Agency within it. In 1938 the store was remodeled and became the Quong Lee Laundry (which later moved to 1681 Broadway, and, according to Yelp, only recently ceased operation). Remarkably, the building today still looks a lot like it did back when it was first built. At one time all the windows had metal shutters to protect the building from fire; nowadays you have to walk around to the rear of the building to see those that remain.
The American House is one building I wish still existed; it appears to have been a beautiful building. The Broadway/Main intersection used to be a “T”, with Broadway (then, “Bridge” Street) dead-ending into Main. The first hotel in Redwood City was built across the top of the T, and named “American Hotel.” It burned down in 1864, and was replaced by an imposing, three-story hotel known as “American House,” which lasted until 1878. Another building then stood there until 1931, when Broadway was extended. See the plaque for a nice picture of the American House, taken in 1870.
After you have read all the plaques and admired the buildings, its time to move on. Cross over to the Sequoia Hotel and head down Main Street. Across from Ralph’s Vacuum and Sewing Center you’ll find the plaque that describes both the building that houses Ralph’s (the Odd Fellow’s building, labeled “I.O.O.F. Building” across the top) and the Alhambra Theater building, which currently houses Martin’s West. The theater and its downstairs bar must have been quite a sight to see back in the day: it seated 1500 persons and was supposedly the finest between San Francisco and San Jose. For its part, the IOOF hall served as San Mateo County’s courtroom from 1906-1910, while the courthouse on Broadway was recovering from damage inflicted by the 1906 earthquake.
OK, last but not least. You’ve probably all been there, but continue down Main to Middlefield and make a right. And what do you see? Why, its the Redwood City main library! And it is the last stop on our magical history tour. As probably everyone knows (and can see, just by looking at it), our main library building was once Redwood City Fire Station No. 1. Built in 1921, it housed the Fire Department until 1984, when the building was damaged in the Coalinga earthquake. The Fire Department was moved to a new station (on Marshall), and the former fire station was remodeled and turned into our main library. Personally, I love looking at this building: the combination (in my mind, anyway) of books and fire trucks makes it a very special place. And preserving a beautiful old building by giving it a new purpose in life seems right to me.
This completes Redwood City’s “Path of History.” Redwood City has done a pretty good job of preserving little bits of history in its downtown, resulting in something that, while not nearly as immersive or important as Colonial Williamsburg, nevertheless allows us to travel back in time and see the genesis of our home, a place that is certainly important to us! If you haven’t gotten out there and walked Redwood City’s “Path of History,” do. It’s an easy, but enlightening walk, and one that can be fun for the whole family. As you do, imagine you are living back in the early days of our city, and picture what it must have been like. And if you have questions along the way, make note of them and then drop in on the good folks at the San Mateo County History Museum in the old Redwood City Courthouse; they have tons of good information and can supplement all you have just learned.