By Sandee Wilhoit | Gaslamp Landmarks
On Dec. 23, 1867, Dr. John Pierre Backesto bought himself a Christmas present: a large portion of Block 88 belonging to Alonzo Horton.
The property was located at Fifth Avenue and H Street (now Market Street), and also bordered parts of Fourth Avenue and G Street. It was subdivided into lots D, E, F, G, H, I, J and K, and comprised an admirable portion of what was to become the heart of San Diego’s growing business district.
Dr. Backesto, a physician from San Jose, secured the property for $300 and thus became one of San Diego’s first absentee landlords. He appointed his nephew, George W. Hazzard, as manager of the properties, as it was Hazzard who had introduced his uncle to San Diego.
Within two years, Backesto and Hazzard began to parcel out the lots, including lot J, which was sold to Backesto’s brother, David H. Backesto.
Hazzard ultimately became quite influential in local Republican Party politics and business in the area.
In 1873, Dr. Backesto secured a loan from the Commercial Bank of San Diego and erected his first “fine brick building.” However, in April 1884, he hired G.T. Burgett, an architect from San Jose, to design a replacement for the remaining wooden structures on the property and to enlarge the original building. The wood from those buildings was later used in the construction of the new Backesto brick building.
According to his instructions, the building incorporated skylights in the upstairs rooms, “good ventilating apparatus” and seven chimneys for heating. It featured a series of pedimented window columns with cornices, which were repeated across the great length of the building and served to give it a majestic appearance.
The original structure also incorporated a balustrade along the top story, which was later removed. All foundation walls were of brick.
The entire building had a frontage of 100 feet on Market Street and 224 feet along Fifth Avenue. The first estimate for the project was in excess of $20,000, which ran over budget. Upon completion, it was said to be the finest mercantile structure in all of San Diego, and some said, in all of California.
The first tenants of this impressive structure included clothiers, milliners, jewelers, a liquor store, general merchandisers, a hardware store, real estate offices, a photographer’s studio, ship chandlers and steamship companies. The upper floors housed 39 sleeping rooms.
Klauber and Levi, San Diego’s pioneer grocer and general merchandise firms, occupied the building until 1886, and the famous San Diego Hardware opened in this building in 1892. In 1923, San Diego Hardware moved to a building further up Fifth Avenue.
Dr. Backesto died on March 17, 1890. His estate, San Diego Realty, was valued at $715,600. The Backesto/Hazzard family retained control of this extensive property until 1930.
The Backesto Building was one of the first in the Gaslamp Quarter to be restored to its original splendor. The upstairs rooms, now offices, retain the original flavor of the 1880s, while the first floor buildings are now largely restaurants.
The newest tenant of the Backesto block is American Junkie, which opened in late March. This bar/restaurant features American bar food, a DJ and a lively atmosphere.