Monday, September 5, 2011

This Old Building

Alhambra Theater, circa 1906
Courtesy of Martins West GP
It is not often that we have very old buildings in the West Coast of USA. California is a young state with a short architectural and a vigorous geological history. The earliest buildings were the Spanish missions which established the western-most edge of the Spanish Empire in the 18th century. Many other buildings have been torn down for new constructions or destroyed in earthquakes famous in this state. So it is fairly difficult to find an honestly old building, and that is why I've decided to write a quick blog post about my office building, the (former) Alhambra Theater.

One city that time forgot is Redwood City, the seat of the San Mateo county. Years ago the only reason to go to Redwood City was to go to court. Plethora of bail bond shops still dot the downtown area. In fact we jokingly call it "Deadwood City". As a result, many old buildings were left alone and were not demolished for shiny new ones.

However, during the 19th century, Redwood City was a major center for shipping California coastal redwood lumber (hence the name) and a place for wealthy San Franciscans to buy property for estates. It practically went from ranchos owned by old Spanish/Mexican families into a business center overnight.

Although not to the extent of the southerly neighbor Palo Alto or San Mateo to the north, in the past two years the town has picked up steam again and now it is a pretty happening place. It is nice enough (despite the junkies loitering a block away) that the tech startup I work for has moved downtown. In fact we moved into one of the most historical and famous buildings in Redwood City.

Wyatt Earp
My office building, originally called the Alhambra Theater, was built in 1895 and miraculously survived the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. It was billed as the finest theater south of San Francisco. It also included a bar and a restaurant that entertained fine ladies and gentlemen.

One such "gentleman" was none other than the famous lawman/outlaw Wyatt Earp. He was known to frequent the Alhambra quite a bit. His wife, Josie Earp, sang in the Alhambra and he would come to see her perform and have some whiskey later at the saloon.

What the 1906 earthquake couldn't do, the Prohibition did. The Alhambra closed it doors as a saloon in 1920 and it became the meeting hall of the local chapter of Freemasons. It remains so until 1950 when it fell into disrepair. An attempt in 2001 to fix up the building resulted in a catastrophic fire that left only the bricks. In fact, currently the bricks are fully exposed on the inside of the building, and you can easily see the smoke marks on the walls. It adds quite a lot of charm to the place.

Exposed brick walls and fire damage
Finally a few years ago the project restarted and now the entire building is occupied. On the ground floor is a very good gastropub called Martins West with a huge collection of scotch whiskey. Once again a saloon occupies the Alhambra. My company has some of the first floor and all of the second. Even our side reflects the history of the place. The staircase to the second floor is a narrow but beautiful marble staircase. It feels like going to the opera going up those stairs. Then it opens up to an airy 30-feet high ceiling with skylights and exposed brick walls. Perfect for musical theater.

I have a soft heart for stories of the West and it is quite amusing for me to know that everyday I sit in a place where one of the most famous characters of the West used to hang out. I like it when history flows forward.