By SANDEE WILHOIT | Downtown News
It has been said that some people are born lucky and some are not. And to that end, there is an old saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” The original Broker’s Building was neither.
On Dec. 23, 1867, John P. Backesto, a physician from San Jose, purchased Lots E and F from Alonzo Horton. By 1873, Dr. Backesto started building on his property. His first endeavor was the iconic Backesto Building on Fifth and Market. In 1887, excavation began on the “New Backesto Building.” The projected cost of the three-story brick structure was $26,000. The architects were G.T. Burkett of San Jose and R.E. Osgood of San Diego. The building contract was let to William F. Fitzpatrick. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, during construction, the first floor collapsed into the basement. This was particularly disastrous as 60 tons of hardware belonging to Klauber and Levi, the future first tenants, went with it. Much hysteria and panic ensued as it was rumored that some of the workmen had been crushed in the collapse. Fortunately, the rumor proved untrue. However, as a result of this untimely event, the City Trustees modified city building ordinances to ensure safer buildings. The contractor and his wary crew then raised the first floor out of the basement and replaced the brick supports which had failed with iron and wooden ones. Upon completion, the Klauber and Levi Company moved in from their original location on Seventh and I Street. They were San Diego’s first large grocery emporium and were wholesalers of not only groceries, but also wine, liquor, cigars, tobacco, drugs, patent medicines, woodware, heavy hardware, carriage and wagon materials, agricultural implements, iron and steel — one-stop shopping! Mr. Klauber, an Austrian immigrant, came to California in 1852 and worked at gold mining. With the profits from his gold-mining ventures, he came to San Diego and established Klauber and Steiner, general merchants with a San Franciscan, Mr. Steiner. Steiner, who was in charge of purchasing, remained in San Francisco. In 1876, Simon Levi, a Bohemian immigrant, joined the firm. He had previously run a general store in Temecula. In 1883, Steiner retired and the firm became Klauber and Levi. Klauber and Levi first occupied a portion of the Backesto Building on Fifth Avenue, before moving into the ill-fated New Backesto Building in 1887.
The second floor of the building was occupied by various business offices, including lawyers, contractors and a steamship agent. The third floor was home to the Lake Shore Hotel and residential rooms.
Unfortunately, all that was well did not end well. On the morning of Sept. 4, 1888, fire totally destroyed the New Backesto Building. It was described by the San Diego Unionas the most disastrous fire in San Diego’s history. The fire had apparently started in the basement from unknown causesand was discovered by a clerk when he came to work in the morning. The fire department tried to put out the flames, but they were hampered by poor water pressure and an explosion in the basement, which tore off the north half of the building and caused it to collapse into the street. Spectators had to flee for their lives, but fortunately all tenants escaped and no loss of life occurred.However, the loss of possessions was total. Klauber and Levi lost their entire stock valued at $250,000.
Klauber and Levi were not to be deterred. They reopened their business at their original locationand remained there until a new building was built on Fourth and H. This building, built on the ashes of the previous one, again built by Dr. Backesto, was erected specifically for Klauber and Levi. Simon Levi assisted in the planning of the structure, which was to serve as a model for wholesale purposes. The architect was Mr. Barnett McDougal of San Diego.
This new building also got off to a bad start. Bad luck again! The Board of Public Works denied its building permits, as the plans did not meet current building ordinance standards. Dr. Backesto wanted to use wooden columns instead of the iron as prescribed by law. Eventually, upon the advice of the fire chief and the underwriter’s association, a modification was made and construction was allowed to proceed with cast iron columns from the Coronado Foundry. The building was two stories high,100-by-100-feet, and crowned with a cupola. A third story was added in 1909.
In 1889, Klauber and Levi moved in, and were the only tenants until 1903. In 1895, Simon Levi left the company to start his own business, and Julius Wangenheim entered as a partner. The new business became known as the KlauberWangenheim Company. Wangenheim, a former engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, married one of Abraham Klauber’s daughters and became actively involved in the development of Balboa Park and other civic endeavors. After Abraham Klauber’s death in 1911, his son, Melville Klauber became president of the company, which remained in the building until 1929.
Throughout the years, the building, now known as the Broker’s Building, has had numerous tenants including newspaper offices, wholesalers, labor union offices, restaurants, pool halls, a locker club, a barber college and carpet and drapery businesses. In 1948, an elevator was installed and the cupola was removed. However, the original cast iron columns remained intact.
In more modern times, the building was the home of Hooters, a restaurant chain on the street level and the Broker’s Building Art Gallery and artist studios on the upper levels. The tall windows, reflective of Victorian architecture, provide maximum light suitable for painting and photographic arts. Additionally, it hosted the Haunted Hotel, a novelty attraction, once a year. It is currently unoccupied and being remodeled, with the space formerly occupied by Hooters projected to be Draft, a brewery and restaurant. It is a classic example of repurposing an older building to serve a modern purpose, while still maintaining its historic character and facade.
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com.