Gaslamp Quarter and Horton Plaza are popular parts of the downtown area. This historic San Diego neighborhood was referred to by many names—not all complimentary—before urban renewal and renovation of many of its victorian-era building made the Gaslamp Quarter a favorite for living shopping and entertainment.
The area of San Diego now known as the Gaslamp Quarter contains one of the most extensive collections of architecturally significant historic buildings in the country. These charming Victorian-style commercial Gaslamp Quarter buildings were constructed between 1873 and 1930. Restored Victorian-era buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter house restaurants, nightclubs, theaters and shops making the historic downtown district the hub of San Diego’s nightlife.
Stroll 4th and 5th avenues to visit the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. There over a dozen Inns and hotels in the Gaslamp Quarter. The Gaslamp Quarter has been known by many names including Davis’ Folly, Rabbitville (named for the main residents during an early unsuccessful period), Flea Town, Chinatown, Stingaree, New Town San Diego and others.
Development of the area, initially a failure, eventually pulled businesses and residents from even more historic Old Town as priorities shifted from the security provided by being on a hill to the commercial possibilities inherent in a bay side community.
The Gaslamp Quarter and Asian Historic District overlap between Market and J Street. Probably the most influencial Chinese person in early San Diego was a man by the name of Ah Quin. In 1885 Ah Quin’s son George was the first Chinese male born in San Diego. Ah Quin had 12 children, and his son Tom became the most influential inheriting his father’s title as “Mayor of Chinatown.”
Two men were predominately responsible for the eventual success of the Gaslamp Quarter, and indeed all of San Diego — William Heath Davis and Alonzo Horton. William Heath Davis was the first to try to develop what is now modern San Diego. Davis, born in Hawaii, was known as the richest man in California when he developed a plan to create a new city by the bay in San Diego shortly after marrying Maria Jesus Estudillo. Maria’s father owned a large land grant in San Leandro, California and her uncle, Jose Antonio Estudillo, owned much of Southern California including The Estudillo Hacienda which has been restored in Old Town.
Although Davis made considerable investment in his “New Town” he was ultimatly unsuccessful and eventually died a poor man in 1909.
One of the pre-fabricated houses he bought for the town (there were no trees in San Diego) still stands. The William Heath Davis House was shipped to San Diego around Cape Horn, has been moved twice and is now at the corner of 4th & Island Avenues. The house has quite a history of its own, serving as the home of Alonzo Horton, a hospital and more, and is the oldest wood frame structure still standing in San Diego.
In 1867, Alonzo E. Horton followed in William Heath Davis’ footsteps and even bought a 1/2 interest and moved into Davis’ house. Horton, who had previously started a town he called Hortonville in Wisconsin, planned to start a town near the bay and purchased the land surrounding Davis’ property. Locals expected Horton to fail like Davis had 17 years earlier. The difference between Davis and Horton was that Horton was very good at marketing his new town, setting up a land sales office in San Francisco boosting San Diego as the city of the future. Soon people were moving to San Diego from all over the country. Frequently referred to as “The father of San Diego,” Alonzo Horton could also be considered the “father of Southern California realestate speculation.” Most of the historic buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter are the results of Horton’s efforts to promote the town. Alonzo Horton is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery — Horton led the committee to select the location for the community cemetery in 1869 — along with many other notable notable San Diegans. Horton Plaza Park, featuring the first water fountain in the United States to have electric lights, is a tribute to Alonzo Horton.
Horton Plaza, which opened in 1985, was designed to resemble an European market place and to function like an amusement park for shoppers.
The Westfield Shoppingtown Horton Plaza occupies six and one-half blocks in downtown San Diego and includes elements of San Diego’s history in its design. Ornate lamps are replicas of the original gas lamps used in San Diego at the turn of the century and the Jessop’s Clock, built in 1907, has been a fixture in San Diego for almost one hundred years.
There are more than 130 stores and shops including Macy’s, Nordstroms and Mervyns, several restaurants and a multi-screen movie theater in Horton Plaza.
While Californios, Mexicans, settlers from the U.S. and people from many countries made San Diego their home a Harlem of the West also developed as escaped slaves and later Free Blacks settled in the area.
The Chinese Historical Museum at 404 Third Avenue Downtown is in an area that once was home to a lively Chinatown. The Museum is in a historic mission building that had been the first church and chool for Chinese immigrants to San Diego. In addition to historical photographs, artifacts, art and furniture the museum also features a tranquil Chinese garden.
John D. Spreckels came from San Francisco to visit San Diego in 1887 and decided to stay. Spreckels was responsible for a great deal of growth in the downtown area and in Coronado where he made his home. Spreckels once owned most of the land south of Broadway (for which he suggested the name). He bought the streetcar system and modernized it from horse-power to electricity. As owner of both the San Diego Union and The Tribune newspapers he was very influential.
Spreckels built a number of downtown San Diego landmarks including the Spreckels Theatre (the first modern commercial playhouse west of the Mississippi), San Diego Union Building and the Hotel San Diego. The Bank of America Building at Sixth and Broadway, built in 1927, was the last downtown building of any significant size built until the 1970s.