By Jake Romero | Gaslamp Landmarks
The Yuma Building is a truly beautiful architectural treasure.
This building, along with the Louis Bank of Commerce located at 835 to 837 Fifth Avenue, is one of the Gaslamp Quarter’s most photographed and recognizable iconic structures.
The structure’s builder may be just as colorful as the exterior of the building. Capt. Alfred Henry Wilcox came to San Diego in 1849 aboard the Invincible, a 120-ton schooner used by the U.S. Army as a transport ship, which he would later captain. The Invincible was notable for bringing an engineering crew to construct the first dam in an effort to turn the San Diego River into a false bay.
In 1863, Capt. Wilcox married Maria Antonia Arguello, daughter of Santiago E. Arguello, a wealthy landowner in San Juan Capistrano. The Wilcox family would settle in what was then known as “La Punta” (the southeast corner of San Diego Bay) on an estate described by the San Diego Union Tribune in 1871 as one of the most productive in the state, growing fruit, vegetables and flowers.
The Wilcox family would later relocate to New Town where they would build a grand structure known as the Belle Vista Apartments located at 1309 Second St.
Wilcox was prolific in his commercial activities in San Diego. Among his business dealings was his contract to supply water to the city of San Diego. Additionally, he was the original stockholder and later director and president of the Commercial Bank of San Diego and had banking interests in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The “Captain,” as he was known, would eventually move to San Francisco for business reasons where he died in 1883 at the age of 61.
Like many historic buildings Downtown, it is not surprising that this building began as a one-story structure. Brick-laying began one year before the death of Wilcox, commencing in April of 1882. Construction was completed by June and the building was ready to rent to boot and shoe salesman Franklin J. McIntosh.
An old 1883 Sanborn Fire Map describes the structure to be 25 feet by 65 feet with a slate (or tin) roof and a frame porch in front.
A two-story addition based on plans by architects Armitage and Wilson was completed in June of 1888 and included 16 office rooms with bay windows and a large skylight. Additional features were large cellars and storage rooms. The building was named the Yuma in reference to Capt. Wilcox’s experiences in that location along the Colorado River. In 1901, the office spaces were converted to furnished rooms and the building was referred to as the Santa Ysabel, then in 1910, as the Grant until the early 1930s.
The Yuma’s colorful history includes its role in the great Stingaree Raid of 1912 as part of the city’s efforts to rid the red light district of prostitution. John Sehon, Commissioner of Police, Health, and Morals ordered Police Chief Keno Wilson to close the Stingaree, and 138 women were arrested and ordered to reform or leave. Most of the ladies left town — yet purchased round-trip tickets — and within a few days it was back to business as usual.
—Jake Romero is the director of operations of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation, located at 410 Island Ave., Downtown, in the historic Davis-Horton House. For more information visit gaslampquarter.org.