By Sandee Wilhoit
The property located on 840-50 Fifth Ave. has had many owners and many uses, but none, with one exception, has stayed very long. Originally, it was sold by Alonzo Horton to Captain Samuel Dunnells in 1868. Captain Dunnells was an early 1850s pioneer in San Diego, and a part of William Heath Davis’ early “New Town” settlement. Captain Dunnells quickly transferred title to Thomas Knopton, who kept the property for less than four years, before he sold it to Riley R. Morrison.
Morrison was a bit more ambitious. He erected a two-story frame building on the west side of Fifth Avenue between E and F streets. The first floor was to be used as a store, with the second floor to be divided into offices. Morrison, quite the entrepreneur, ran a grocery store and his jewelry business in his new building. He was also credited with inventing a stem-winding mechanism for wristwatches and with experimental gardening. Morrison was awarded the coveted State Gold Medal for producing coffee in California’s dry open air. Ever expansive, Morrison added a real estate office to the property and leased out the south side of the lot to John P. Stowe and Thomas McAuliffe, who ran the Palace Saloon there. Finally tiring, Morrison rented out or sold parts of his property, which became the home of many businesses until the early 1900s. Among them were a real estate office, a notary public office, Jessop and Sons jewelry store, a cigar store and C.W. Judd’s photography studio.
The property title changed hands throughout this period until, in 1910, the Cobb and Culver Investment Company contracted T.W. Coates, of Standard Iron Works, to erect the current three-story brick building. This building replaced the only remaining row of frame structures on this block. The building had two skylights or lightwells and a tin and slate roof. The interior featured wood floors and an ornamental hammered tin ceiling. Luckily, this ceiling was not removed and donated as scrap metal for the WWI and WWII war efforts as many decorative pieces in the Gaslamp were. Because of its historical accuracy to the period, the ceiling now graces the entryway of the Davis-Horton House.
Through 1922, the three main occupants were C.P. Charleston and Company, a dance hall on the second floor and the F.W. Woolworth Company. The two stores were described as “notion shops.” The signature rounded windows of the Woolworth Company are still in place. A Knights of Columbus Hall also occupied the upstairs premises.
On Dec. 8, 1892, four San Diego citizens incorporated what was to become one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the city. They classified the new business, San Diego Hardware, as “a very small corporation, really a family enterprise.” Originally located at Fifth Avenue and Market Street in the Backesto building, in 1922, founders Fred Gazlay, John Wood, George M. Hawley and George T. Hawley, moved their “1920s country store atmosphere” further up Fifth Avenue to the 840-50 address. All of these gentlemen had a background in the hardware industry as Fred Gazlay had been a bookkeeper for the Western Metal Company, John Wood had been with Hamilton Hardware and the Hawleys had worked for Todd and Hawley.
The store featured such articles common to the early 1900s as washboards, iron and tin ware, hog ring pliers, pitcher pumps, poultry netting, meat grinders, ice chippers, broad axes, hand tools, and cast-iron stoves, heaters and ice boxes. Additionally, in the basement there was a workshop where a worker could fabricate such items as custom stovepipes. Until the widespread use of the automobile, deliveries were made by horse and wagon.
When the new store opened, it had several entrances, including a 50-foot storefront on Fifth Avenue and a 25-foot storefront on Fourth Avenue. As many gentlemen liked to congregate at San Diego Hardware rather than stay home and do chores, it became a bit of a gathering place. If someone from home came to fetch a gentleman, he could make a rapid escape out the back door — the Fourth Avenue entrance! The store was also commonly called, the “Winchester Store,” as it sold Winchester firearms and other sporting goods. Occasionally, a sharpshooter from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company would put on demonstrations in the basement. Cooking demonstrations were also conducted as a means of advertising and demonstrating the wide variety of cast iron stoves sold at the store.
Throughout the years, the building has remained virtually unchanged.
Located Downtown for more than a century, San Diego Hardware moved to Kearny Mesa in 2006. The owners, fifth generation descendants of the original founders, felt they needed more room and more convenient parking. As it is still family owned, it can rightfully claim to be the oldest family-owned business in San Diego and the 10th oldest business in the city. At their new venue, the owners continue the tradition of unmatched hardware expertise and personalized service.
The building is now occupied by Vybz Kitchen and Lounge, a nightclub and music venue.
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com.