By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO, Calif.—When the California Cultural and Historic Endowment reserved
slightly more than $1.8 million last month for the restoration of the Casa de
Bandini/ Cosmopolitan Hotel, it did so knowing that this building located in Old
Town San Diego State Historic Park represented a unique opportunity to tell
"a multitude of stories from overlapping cultures."
The 10-member board, chaired by State Librarian Susan Hildreth, did not have to
look very far for proof that a large variety of historic, ethnic and religious
groups, including Jews, felt a warm sense of connection to the building
originally erected as a one-story hacienda for Don Juan Bandini about 1827, and
converted by Alfred Seeley after 1869 into a two-story hotel and stage
An information packet assembled for the CCHE board's April 27-28 hearing
in Sacramento contained letters of support for the project from 26 businesses,
organizations and individuals. Bill Mennell, technical director at Old
Town San Diego State Park, led the successful presentation. As a matter of disclosure, I should report
that I served on Old Town San Diego State Park's advisory committee, chaired by
former state Sen. James R. Mills (D-San Diego), whose members liaised with many
of the people and organizations who sent these letters.
Allocated from a fund created by the California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe
Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002, better known as
Proposition 40, the $1.8 million grant will be used to strip from the building
more than a century of non-historic additions and to bring the structure
back to its historic configuration as a hotel and stage coach depot.
The $1.8 million public grant will be matched by Delaware North Corp., which
recently won from the State Parks a long-term lease to operate the two-story
building as a restaurant and hotel while facilitating its use for the
interpretation of history.
And what a history the building has had, according to a paper prepared for the
CCHE board by Victor Walsh, the state historian at Old Town. Bandini, a
Peruvian who became related to San Diego's oldest families by marriage, was an
opponent of Mexican rule in San Diego, joining in uprisings in 1831 against
Governor Manuel Victoria and in 1836 against Governor Juan Bautista
When the village of San Diego was occupied by a small American force commanded
by Commodore Robert Stockton, the Bandinis made their home available for his
headquarters. Bandini's daughters are credited with sewing from their petticoats
the first American flag to fly over Old Town. You might call them, the Betsy
Ross sisters of the west.
Like other landholders, Bandini protested the expropriation of Mexican grant
lands by the Americans, eventually transferring his property to his son-in-law,
Abel Stearns, another well-known California pioneer. Stearns by 1856
leased the Casa de Bandini to Jacob Elias, a merchant who was successful
enough to purchase four years later the 36,000-acre Rancho San Rafael,
site of the present-day City of Glendale. To run the store selling
"ready-made clothing, fancy goods, hats, boots and trunks," according
to historian Walsh, .Elias hired Heyman Mannasse.
Of interest to the Jewish community, Mannasse was the brother of Joseph
S. Mannasse, who along with his partner Marcus
Schiller, followed in the footsteps of San Diego's first Jewish settler, Louis
Rose, and became actively involved in the city's civic life. J.S.
Mannasse was on the city Board of Trustees that proposed setting aside land for
a large city park—later to become Balboa Park—and Schiller was on the
successor three-member board that designated the land for permanent public use.
Schiller also was the first president of Temple Beth Israel, a Reform
congregation which opened its doors for High Holidays 1889.
One of the letters in the packet was from Norman
Greene, who co-founded with me the Louis Rose Society for the Preservation
of Jewish History. Greene noted that the street that extends
perpendicularly from the Cosmopolitan Hotel once was known as Avenida de
Judios, or Jews' Avenue, because so many merchants of the period were, in
California State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego) praised plans for
focusing in the building on the "'untold stories' of 19th century Old Town
San Diego's ethnic groups and social classes." Karla L. Shiminiski,
site administrator for the "Old Town Program" of San Diego City
Schools struck a similar note, saying "The histories of those people—the
leather-jacketed soldiers from the presidio, the Indians from the nearby
mission, wealthy Spanish-speaking ranchers like Bandini, vaqueros and servants,
Mormon soldiers, American tradesmen and settlers, and Jewish merchants—needs
to be told because it is both meaningful and relevant to the children of today
and future unborn generations."
Bruce G. Gallagher, board president of the San Diego Archaeological Center,
said: "The work regimens, social activities and songs of servants, stage
hands and other workers—many of whom were California Indians and Mexicanos—is
the "untold story" of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. It is a
story that State Parks intends to tell through historic reenactments, story
telling, games and musical performances."
Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) suggested in another letter that the
"building's design— a Mexican adobe on the first floor and an American
wood-frame addition on the second—symbolizes Old Town San Diego's history
during the 19th Century." Lloyd Schwartz, chairman of the City of San
Diego's Historical Resources Board, on which I'm also privileged to serve, noted
that "the building has considerable historic fabric and integrity that
include the original adobe walls on the first floor, the tongue-and-groove
wainscoting and window seats in the dining areas on the first floor, the
stairway banister in the entrance area, and many of the doors, window sashes and
cornices on the second-floor balcony."
Msgr. Mark A Campbell, pastor of the Catholic Church of The Immaculate
Conception across the street from the state park, pointed out that in its first
configuration, the "U-shaped single-story was an adobe brick casa grande
with twelve to fourteen rooms and rear walled courtyard by 1840s of thick
adobe walls, clay tile sloped roof, deep set windows with shutters, tiled floors
(originally earthen), and muslin-covered ceilings—symbol of family's wealth
Furthermore, the clergyman noted, "The home was the pueblo's social and
political center: a place where Bandini and other town leaders met to discuss
politics, trade, and the missions, which Bandini wanted to see secularized. It
was also the scene of elaborate Catholic weddings and community festivities,
like the reenactment of La Pastorela..." His reference was to
a Mexican folk play in which the devil tries to win the souls of shepherds on
their way to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus...."
Jeanne L. Ferrell, president of the Boosters of Old Town, wrote
to the Endowment board, "When you walk into the Casa de Bandini, one can
almost hear the Californio music and hear the laughter of those who came
to dance the evenings away. It was the social and political hub of the
Tom Vilicich, president of the San Pasqual Battlefield Volunteer
Association which reenacts one of the few battles in San Diego County
during the Mexican-American War—a battle won by the Californios—observed
that "many of the Californios who fought in the battle at San
Pasqual had casas in Old Town. The San Pascual Indian Pueblo had
ties to Missin San Diego. And the U.S. Dragoons (who lost to the Californios
at San Pasqual) were rescued by Commodore Stockton's men who had taken over Old
Dale Gubler, director of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site located close
to Old Town San Diego State Park, wrote another of the letters. The Mormon
Battalion, marched overland from Kansas to California in one of the longest
recorded marches in history, arriving in San Diego after warfare was
concluded. Thereupon, members of the battalion "built the first
kiln-fired brick building in California (the Old San Diego Courthouse)"
along with other projects. Gubler noted that the Casa de Bandini "was here
in 1847 when the Battalion was here. The historic value of the building is
Marsha Snelling, vice chairperson of Descendants of Old Town, wrote:
"Although our personal preference would be to see the adobe restored to its
earliest use as a family home of the Californio Bandini family, which wwe
think is the era under represented in the interpretive program of the park, we
still can and do wholeheartedly support the restoration of the adobe as the
Cosmpolitan Hotel. It is a bonafide historical landmark from 1869 and as such,
represents a real phase of San Diego's Old Town's history."
Similarly, Mimi Lozano, president of the Society of Hispanic Historical and
Ancestral Research, wrote: "So many historical renovations in California
seem to concentrate on much later periods, neglecting or minimizing the
wonderful contributions of Hispanic citizens, such as Don Juan Bandini. It
appears that the Casa de Bandini historic building is a perfect structure to
give public awareness concerning the Mexican and U.S. transition periods in the
Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO),
said restoration of the structure to its former incarnation as the Cosmopolitan
Hotel—while stripping away evidence of later periods as "an olive packing
plant, lodging house, tourist motel and restaurant"— would permit the
public "for the first time in San Diego to visit a fully operational
19th-century hotel and stage stop. The building is an invaluable historic
link to San Diego's frontier heritage under Mexican and early U.S. rule."
Geoffrey Mogilner, chief of Racine & Laramie, an old-time tobacco store in
the State Park, described the Cosmopolitan Hotel as "the most significant
stage stop in the county" When Albert Seeley made the Casa de Bandini into
a hotel and stage shop, he "owned the only stage company to make the rough
route to Los Angeles pay," commented Mike Dillon, president of the
Encinitas Historical Society—located in a coastal area through which stage
coach service could have passed.
Many stage companies before Seeley's attempted to make a profit, Dillon said.
"An assumption is the ticket cost of $16 was not as profitable and the
Cosmopolitan Hotel would be. The addition improved the bottom line. Mr.
Seeley was in the transportation business for well into the 80's. This
project is a part of the hisotry of a struggling young city."
Others who sent letters supporting the project included Lynne Newell
Christensen, the historian of the County of San Diego Department of Parks and
Recreation; Jim Vann, president of the Gaslamp Quarter (San Diego)
Historical Foundation; Joseph Ditler, executive director of the Coronado
Historical Association, Ronald V. May, board chair of the Fort Guijarros (San
Diego) Museum Foundation; John Rotsart, executive director of the San Diego
Model Railroad Museum; Walter Nelson, president of the Lively Arts History
Association, and Redecinda Lo Buglio, chairman of Los Californianos Publications.
Business representatives inside and near the State Park who likewise urged the
grant included Consuelo Puente of El Fandango Restaurant; Dennis and Heidi
Toler of Toler's (Leather), Inc,; Leroy Brown, owner of San Diego House of
Coffees and Tea, and Lorin Stewart, director of San Diego Operations for Old
Town Trolley Tours of Historic Tours of America.
"Old Town San Diego is an important part of history, not only of San Diego,
but of California, the United States and Mexico, as well," Stewart
wrote. "As the 'Birthplace of California,' Old Town has a story that
should be actively and accurately for all to enjoy and to learn from. The
State Park's original mission is pure in that vision, and the historic
restoration of the Casa de Bandini/ Cosmopolitan Hotel is a significant and
important project towards realizing that mission."