Thursday, May 31, 2012

Traveling Thursdays: Old Town in San Diego

Before you think that Disneyland has expanded Frontierland, I should tell you that these photos are from Old Town in San Diego. Considered the "birthplace" of California, it was established at the base of a hill in 1820’s as a small Mexican community of adobe buildings. By 1835 it had attained the status of El Pueblo de San Diego. In 1846, a U.S. Navy Lieutenant and a Marine Lieutenant, raised the American flag in the Old Town San Diego Plaza.

In 1968, the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation established Old Town State Historic Park to preserve the history of the 1821—1872 period. The park includes a main plaza, exhibits, museums, and living history demonstrations. On September 3, 1971, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Old Town San Diego Historic District.

Historic buildings include La Casa de Estudillo, La Casa de Bandini, La Casa de Altamirno Pedrorena and the Mason Street School, San Diego’s first one room schoolhouse. In 2005 and 2006, California State Parks listed Old Town San Diego as the most visited state park in California.

Here's Racine and Laramie Store, a reconstructed mid 19th century period general store:

A wooden indian, made of real wood!

For more than 30 years, the contractor for the retail stores/restaurants was Bazaar del Mundo ("bazaar of the world"), run by San Diego businesswoman Diane Powers. In 2005, the state park agency didn't renew her contract and awarded it to Plaza del Pasado (run by Delaware North Companies) instead, telling the public that they wanted to create a more authentic and historically correct Old Town.

When Powers left, she also took the town's anchor restaurant, Casa Bandini. Bandini may not have been "authentic," but for the typical San Diego tourist, the bright costumes of the staff, the gorgeous courtyard with bougainville, fountains, and the zesty margaritas made it one of the most popular restaurants around. "Reservations? We don't take no stink in' reservations!" The staff didn't actually say that, but it's true. The place was so popular you just had to wait in line. And people did.

Casa Bandini was usually the first stop for me when I had guests that flew in to visit San Diego, as it was only minutes from the airport.

Bandini was replaced by a bland restaurant (The Cosmopolitan) with "authentic" food of the period in an equally bland but historically authentic "restored" building. Despite their good intentions, revenue plunged under the new management. Typical annual revenue with Powers was $18 million; for Delaware North, they struggled to hit $8 million. One local resident wrote:

"The original Bazaar produced $27 million in annual gross sales and was the hub of the most profitable California State Park. Those resources are now lost to the state as a result of Ruth Coleman’s ineptitude. Ms. Coleman, the state director of Parks and Recreation, stated on numerous occasions that the Delaware operation was unquestionably the better choice. All actions and petitions from thousands of locals were denied. As a member of the California State Park Foundation, I suggest she should be held accountable for her actions, or lack thereof, and be fired."

In an article from the local San Diego Union Tribune:

Dave McGuire, co-owner of Bailey & McGuire Pottery, a retail shop within the state park, said the era the park is trying to recreate was not an especially romantic time. "If you read all the history books, it was not that appealing," he said. "It was dusty and dirty."...It is unclear whether people want a history lesson or just a tasty margarita when they visit Old Town.

In spring 2009, Delaware North withdrew from its contract with the state and management changed hands to the Old Town Family Hospitality Corporation, headed by local restaurateur Chuck Ross. The commercial area is now called Fiesta de Reyes ("festival of the kings").

Here are some photos of the "new" Cosmoplitan Hotel/Restaurant. The first floor adobe structure, built between 1827 and 1829, was once the family home of Juan Bandini, a colorful and important player in San Diego's early development. In 1869, under the ownership of Albert Seeley, the operator of the only stagecoach run from San Diego to Los Angeles, it was expanded with the 2nd floor to become The Cosmopolitan Hotel.

The Casa de Estudillo, also known as the Estudillo House, is a historic adobe house constructed in 1827 by José María Estudillo and his son José Antonio Estudillo, early settlers of San Diego, and was considered one of the finest houses in Mexican California.

Follow my Daveland updates on Twitter and view my most recent photos on Flickr. See more Old Town photos on my Old Town web page.


Robin's Egg Bleu said...

While it may not be the 'same old' Old Town it was under Diane Powers, it's finally crawling back bit by bit. Fiesta de Reyes has been steadily replacing the color removed by Delaware North, the food has improved dramatically as well.

It's "Ladies Day" in Old Town this weekend, and I know I'll be there with two little ladies in tow. We'll be decked out in our period finery dabbling in the drudgery of delights that faced the pioneer woman; washing with a washboard, quilting, cooking, spinning wool, having tea, etc.

It should be a fun day! Old Town is still my favorite place to be.

...But It Wasn't Always That Way! said...

As many times as I've been down to San Diego, how have I never seen this gem? I'll have to make a pick stop on Comic-Con weekend...

K. Martinez said...

It's been about 30 years since I last visited San Diego. These photos make me think it's time to visit again. Beautiful!

Anonymous said...

We'll be visiting San Diego for the first time this summer. Any suggestions on where to eat in Old Town?

Daveland said...

Although it's a bit touristy (like Casa Bandini), I do enjoy the festive Guadalajara Restaurant on the edge of Old Town.

Anonymous said...

This was fun to read. We visited SD years ago and had a meal at Casa Bandini, which we really enjoyed. Touristy or not.

A little sad to hear it closed.

We didnt get this far north on our last trip this spring, spent all our time on Fifth St. due to the conference I was attending.

I really like San Diego, and we plan to visit again soon, when our agenda will be all our own.

Thank you Dave.