By SANDEE WILHOIT | Downtown News
Although this structure, adjoining Old City Hall on the northern lot, appears to be a continuation of the Old City Hall building, it is actually a separate building with an entirely separate history. It was built by John P. Backesto, owner of both sites, after the larger property was underway and was the first building in the Gaslamp to be built of all local materials. Architect William Lacey was also responsible for the design of the larger site, now owned by the Consolidated Bank, so the similarities in both buildings are not only notable but understandable and indicate a common bond.
The lower front of the two-story building was of iron with the castings done at the San Diego Foundry according to Lacey’s designs, and the remainder of the building was of brick with a stone finish of Portland cement. All the subcontractors were also local from the roofer to the plasterer to the painter and plumber. Construction was completed on the bank building in May of 1874, and the “new Backesto brick building,” as it was dubbed by the San Diego Union, was completed approximately a year later.
By the late 1870s, George Marston, well-known civic leader and businessman, was operating a clothing store on the lower level, and the upper level was listed as a “hall.” In September of 1881, Marston sold his stock and interest in the building to Jacob Schiller and F.D. Murtha, who remained there until 1892. Both men were prominent businessmen. Upon their departure, they moved their business further up Fifth Avenue to 600-612. During their tenancy, the upstairs was occupied by the Turn Verein Hall, a German fraternal society.
Their departure made way for Todd and Hawley, a wholesale and retail hardware store, which only remained for a year. Enter San Diego Hardware, a San Diego landmark! This move to Fifth Avenue by founders Fred Gazlay, John Wood and George T. Hawley, enabled them to establish a storefront and presence on Fifth Avenue. In 1923, they moved to 840 Fifth, where they remained into the 21st century and were still family owned.
In 1924, the Rivoli, first of a succession of motion picture theaters, opened its doors. This enterprise was sold two years later to Alton Stoll, who operated the theater as the Diana Theatre. The Diana was affectionately called the “Flea-ana” by Tom Hom, our first Asian American City Councilman, when he and his brother occasionally went to see a show there. Unfortunately for Mr. Stoll, his theater came with an infestation of fleas! He sold the Diana to Benjamin Hayward in September of 1935.
As the Downtown area deteriorated, so did the quality of cinematic purviews. After WWII, Downtown became a haven for “grindhouses,” or theaters grinding out films from 9:30 in the morning until 5:30 the following morning. Many of these film houses were infamous for their pornographic movies and peep shows.
The Diana was no exception. It changed owners and names regularly, becoming the Roxy and the Savoy in the 1940s and finally, in the early 1970s, the Bijou. The Bijou was operated by Pussycat Theaters and their franchise owners, Vincent Miranda and George Tate. They advertised the Bijou as screening adult films. Miranda and Tate also owned the casino across the street from the Bijou, the Tower, the Aztec and the Balboa on Fourth. Additionally, they owned the William Penn Hotel and the Hotel St. James. The Bijou operated until the late ’70s, when it became the Cinema XXX — showing very adult films! Cinema XXX closed in 1981.
The restoration of the Gaslamp in the ’80s resulted in the closure of all these cinematic ventures. The buildings, including the Bijou, have been restored to their original appearances and have been preserved and repurposed into thriving attractions for the multitudes of tourists and locals who frequent the historic Gaslamp Quarter.
The Bijou was reopened in 1999 as Greystone Steak and Seafood. It is one of San Diego’s highest rated restaurants and a top dining destination in the Gaslamp.
Commercial Bank Addition / Bijou Theater
658 Fifth Ave.
Architectural style: Florentine Revival
William Lacey, architect
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.