Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour, San Diego

Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Diego

The Gaslamp Quarter is a lively 16½-block neighborhood in downtown San Diego, known for its nightlife, diverse entertainment and, just as importantly, historical appeal.

Back in the 1860s, the area was known as New Town, in contrast to Old Town, the original Spanish colonial settlement. After a period of decay, the neighborhood underwent redevelopment during the 1980s and 1990s, and was rebranded the "Gaslamp Quarter", whilst its streets became lit mostly by arc lights, rather than gaslamps. In 1992, Gaslamp Quarter Archway was installed and dedicated.

Locals, however, keep generally referring to the area as "the Gaslamp", rather than "Gaslamp Quarter", as stated on the entryway arch and official city signage and banners.

San Diego has taken extra efforts to preserve its architectural beauties of the times gone by, and the Gaslamp Quarter particularly deserves its due for a job well done. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the district features one of the largest collections of Victorian Era commercial architecture in the western US, comprising 94 historic buildings, many of which are in still use as restaurants, shops, entertainment venues, and nightclubs.

There are some great museums worth visiting, like the Gaslamp Museum and San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, old hotels (like the Horton Grand Hotel) with a history to tour, and other heritage buildings that have taken on a new attitude and life. Particularly notable in this respect is the Louis Bank of Commerce building (the "Queen of the Gaslamp"). While the local clubs, dive bars and cocktail lounges draw a young crowd, places like the Balboa Theatre offer programs of music, comedy and drama.

The Gaslamp Quarter has successfully transformed into a premier shopping, dining, and entertainment destination, establishing itself both as the playground of hip, eclectic San Diegans and as an elite urban haunt. For a more detailed acquaintance with this charming district, follow our self-guided walk and explore the life and vitality of urban San Diego.
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Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Diego (See other walking tours in San Diego)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.5 Km or 0.9 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Gaslamp Quarter Archway
  • Gaslamp Museum
  • Horton Grand Hotel
  • San Diego Chinese Historical Museum
  • Old City Hall
  • Keating Building
  • Louis Bank of Commerce
  • Balboa Theatre
1
Gaslamp Quarter Archway

1) Gaslamp Quarter Archway

The idea of the Gaslamp Quarter Archway was first conceived in 1986. Designed by Harmon Nelson and David Ford of David Robinson Design, Inc, this six-ton structure was installed in 1990, and was officially completed and dedicated a year later.

The archway was symbolic as a declaration that the City of San Diego was committed to continuing the redevelopment of Downtown, while also serving as an icon for other cities to look to the Gaslamp Quarter as an example of successful redevelopment.

The Archway sign is significant in that it uses neon, incandescent, and fluorescent light fixtures to present a beautiful, vibrant night-time display.

In 2012-2013, having lasted practically without repair or repainting for 20+ years, the Archway underwent a complete rehabilitation work to restore its pristine appearance and full functionality. The refurbishment work included structural evaluation, re-painting, energy efficient electrical upgrades and replacement of the original incandescent light bulbs to more efficient and durable neon lighting.

Curiously enough, despite being on the entryway arch and all official city signage/banners, the term "Gaslamp Quarter" is rarely used by the locals. In fact, they stick with the simple "the Gaslamp" so pervasively that it has become a shibboleth to determine who is a San Diegan and who isn't. Upon a first visit here, you'll see many of the big city downtown things. The feeling itself, with all of the people and lights, resembles a walk down the Vegas Strip (though, admittedly, nothing compares to the actual Strip).
2
Gaslamp Museum

2) Gaslamp Museum

The tour of the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House covers two floors of the grand historic home where the concept for the "New San Diego" began. Touring the location takes ~30 to 60 minutes, but in that time you can see exhibits that retell the story of the downtown area's early settlers and get a glimpse of what the dream was to be for San Diego.

Looking at the 1st-floor parlor and seeing the small keyboard against the wall speaks of the paucity of entertainment and how families made do with what they had. Life was so much simpler in the 1850s – but then, with gas lamps and no electricity, the household pretty much got up with the rising sun and retired with its setting.

The distillery upstairs – whose intended purpose was to circumvent prohibition regulations – is an intricate affair, with quite an elaborate system which presumably was highly effective. One may also have a sneak peek of the attic access where a German WWII spy allegedly sent signals (carrying logistical information) to the off-shore submarines.

The saltbox-style house had been a Civil War (Union side) headquarters in its early past, as well as a hospital (1873) with five beds upstairs; the then-owner had a county contract for $1 a patient (daily) and treated TB cases mostly. The bathroom and kitchen always tell such interesting stories about how these centers of the home's most important functions were utilized.

Outside, the shady little courtyard pays tribute to famous dogs recognized for their role in the community (they were loved for sure), and there is also a lower-level gift shop that will allow a chance to enjoy some unique souvenirs.

Tip:
Entry price varies by whether an audio guide is requested and includes admission to the Chinese Historical Museum nearby.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 10am–4:30pm; Sun: 12–3:30pm
3
Horton Grand Hotel

3) Horton Grand Hotel

Located across the street from the Gaslamp Museum, this brick building is so worth a drop-by and look-see. A restoration of two historic hotels – the Grand Horton and the Brooklyn-Kahle Saddlery – that were joined together in a truly seamless manner, while the courtyard between them is brick-paved and tree-lined, evoking a New Orleans vibe.

Built in 1887 as part of a building boom that followed the opening of the city's first transcontinental railroad connection, the Grand Horton was a luxury hotel with a design based on Vienna's Innsbruck Inn and featuring an Italianate Victorian style. Built around the same time as the Grand Horton, the Brooklyn-Kahle Saddlery was a less formal hotel that combined Western/Cowboy and Victorian styles.

Both hotels were scheduled for demolition in the 1970s when the City of San Diego purchased them to build the Horton Plaza shopping center on the site. They were dismantled brick by brick, with each brick numbered, catalogued, and stored. In 1986 they were rebuilt into an entirely new hotel at the present location at Fourth Street and Island Avenue.
4
San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

4) San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

One of a kind in San Diego, the Chinese Historical Museum does a great job of telling the story of the people who came to Chinatown in the 1800s to work in gold mines, fish for tuna, and build railroads. The Museum’s permanent exhibition is housed in a mission-style building that had previously, for 30 years, accommodated the Chinese Community Church (formerly the Chinese Mission). Here, among other things, the English language classes were offered to new immigrants who often resided in adjacent dormitories.

By 1960, the Chinese community had relocated from downtown San Diego and the adobe building on First Avenue had fallen into disuse. It was slated for demolition in the late 1980s, but thanks to the efforts of The Chinese Historical Society of Greater San Diego and Baja California (established in 1986 to preserve and uphold Chinese and Chinese American history and culture) was rescued and eventually relocated to 404 Third Avenue.

Following relocation and renovation, the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum (SDCHM) was finally born in 1996. Presently encompassing three downtown facilities and a Chinese-style courtyard garden with sculptures and a koi pond, SDCHM boasts thousands of ethnographic artifacts. The museum’s exhibits share the heritage of San Diego’s Chinese community and the essence of Chinese arts and culture through historic photographs, miniature models, ancient items and explanatory text. Special events also celebrate holidays like the Chinese New Year, the Moon Festival, and Veterans Day.

At 9am on Saturdays all are welcome to a free Tai Chi/Qi Gong class. There's also an active monthly lecture program at a nearby building and a special exhibit, plus small gift counter, in the annex across the street. Admission is a real deal and includes all three venues. On a side note, they offer tours in English and Mandarin, which can be a nice choice for some.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 10:30am–4pm; Sun: 12–4pm
5
Old City Hall

5) Old City Hall

This old beauty in the heart of Gaslamp Quarter is a classic example of Florentine-Italianate architecture, originally developed back in the 1860s by the City of Florence, which this location does so well to capture. The building features ornate 16-foot ceilings, 12-foot windows framed with brick arches, antique columns, and a wrought-iron cage elevator.

Originally two-story structure was built in 1874, but 13 years later two more floors were added to accommodate the San Diego Public Library.

The City of San Diego purchased the property in 1891 and turned it into governmental offices. The entire city government moved in in 1900, with the upper floors taken up by the Mayor and staff, while the Police Department took the first floor and the Council Chambers the fourth.

Notably, the ladies room on the lower level includes a stall with quite unusual décor. As it turns out, when a wall was removed, they decided to leave the secret exit (used by former officials) in place and dressed it up. In 1955 stucco was applied to “modernize’ the exterior.

Years later, the building was restored to its original beauty. Presently, this is a privately-owned building which is a home to a restaurant and bar, some retail locations, and loft apartments on the top floors. It turns into a full-on club around 10:30pm, so if you're looking for a leisurely dinner, give yourself ample time.
6
Keating Building

6) Keating Building

Throughout its over 100-year long history, the Keating Building has served various purposes. From 1893 until about 1912, the corner space in the building was occupied by the San Diego Savings Bank.

This five-story structure was designed by George J. Keating – one of the principle owners of Smith and Keating, the famous 19th-century farm equipment supply company – and was completed by the Reid Brothers after Keating's death, in 1890, commissioned by Fannie Keating as a tribute to her late husband. A classic example of Romanesque Revival style, the building had all the modern amenities for the time, such as spacious floor plans, steam heat, and a wire cage elevator (the first, and still longest running, elevator in San Diego), making it one of the most prestigious and sought after office spaces.

In the 2000s the interior was redesigned by Pininfarina, being the first hotel venture by the master designer behind Ferrari and Maserati, and in 2007 the property was re-opened as the luxury boutique Keating Hotel, boasting 35 loft-style guest rooms and a nightclub/lounge (SWAY) downstairs. The latter still has the original steel vault used by the former bank – a fun historical perk.

In 2012, the hotel was featured on the FOX reality series Hotel Hell starring Gordon Ramsay.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
7
Louis Bank of Commerce

7) Louis Bank of Commerce

The Louis Bank of Commerce is a historic building which dates back to 1887. During San Diego’s boom years of the 1880s, German-born real estate entrepreneur Isidor Louis commissioned well-known architect John Bills Stannard to design headquarters for his bank of commerce. The bank specialized in business loans, so this granite edifice, the first of its kind in the city, proved to be a perfect fit.

On the ground floor, Louis opened the Maison Dorée, featuring an oyster bar and an ice-cream parlor. As San Diego did not have an ice plant at the time, ice for the parlor had to be brought in from Lake Tahoe.

The oyster bar was said to be the favorite hangout of Wyatt Earp, a famed lawman and gambler in the American West, and his wife Josie. The Maison Dorée was touted as the finest restaurant in San Diego, and as such was frequented by all the wealthy folk, providing Wyatt with a cadre of future patrons for his gambling enterprises.

Reputed to be the most photographed building in the Gaslamp, this stately, four-story, twin-towered Queen Anne (Baroque Revival)-style structure possesses so many noteworthy and elaborate architectural features that it has been nicknamed “The Queen of the Gaslamp.”

What sets it apart from the rest is the rather ornate nature of the trim work. Of special note are the four large, three-sided bay window projections on the second and third level façades elaborately decorated in cast terra cotta and wood. Stone spandril panels between the second and third floors have a carved radiating motif.

The bank left the building in 1893. At the turn of the 20th century, the upper floors, consisting of 33 rooms, were rented out as lodging quarters and offices. Among them was the so-called Golden Poppy Hotel, a famous house of ill repute that was run by fortune teller and psychic Madame Cora. Part of what made it so famous was that the girls would wear dresses that matched the color of the room they used to service their clients.

In 1971, the building housed Ratner’s Electric store owned by Seymour and Woodrow Ratner, selling TV sets, radios, lamps and lighting fixtures, which earned it the nickname, “House of 1,000 Lights.”

Prior to 1971, the two grand towers extending above the parapet were taken down, but were later replaced.
8
Balboa Theatre

8) Balboa Theatre

The Balboa Theatre is a historic vaudeville/movie theatre, a real gem of San Diego's Downtown area.

Combining Moorish and Spanish Revival styles, this venue was built in 1924, during a time in American history when people loved grandiose-style movie houses – this one has waterfalls flanking the stage to provide air cooling! Spanning two streets, the single-balcony theatre originally had a seating capacity of 1,513, which is almost unheard of in modern-style venues – just try and find an IMAX that big.

As part of the Fox West Coast circuit, the Balboa featured live vaudeville and movies, accompanied by orchestra and organ. In 1930 it was upgraded for sound pictures and a new neon marquee was added. In 1934 the theatre was remodeled, reopening as Teatro Balboa, featuring Spanish-language films. During World War II, the theatre's office space was converted into temporary accommodation for the U.S. Navy.

After the war, it did not do well and almost fell into disrepair. Local attempts were made during the 1970s to bring some attention to the old building by listing it on the municipal list of historic locations. It was opened for a few years as a movie house, but then again had to be closed for lack of business. In 1985, at long last, the City of San Diego purchased the building and restored it.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996, the Balboa was refurbished (beginning in 2005) and reopened as a performing arts venue in 2008 fitted for live musical concerts. In 2009, after another extensive renovation, the Balboa Theatre Foundation rededicated a 1929 Wonder Morton organ, one of only four such organs in the world. Today the theatre hosts the Mainly Mozart Festival, special events, and touring companies of Broadway productions.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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