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  2006-05-17 Casa de Bandini/ Cosmopolitan Hotel 
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2006 blog


Restoration of Casa de Bandini wins 
support from religious, ethnic groups, May 17, 2006

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 stop.  

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 Alvarado. 

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 fact, Jews. 

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."

U.S. 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 and status."  

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 little community."

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 Town..." 

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 inestimable."

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 19th century."

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."