By Sandee Wilhoit | Gaslamp Landmarks
To say that the Hotel Lester building has an ethnically-varied and colorful past would be a major understatement. Like all property in the Gaslamp, the original owner of the lots from 1301-1319 H St. (now 401-417 Market St.) was Alonzo E. Horton. He sold the property, lots A and B, to William and Mary Smith in 1868, but regained the property in 1872.
On Nov. 11, 1872, he sold lot A to William T. McNealy and James McCoy for $1,000. Both are important figures in early San Diego history. McCoy, the county assessor, was a leading Democratic official, and over the years held the posts of county sheriff, city trustee, city tax collector and state senator. He was also a director of the Commercial Bank of San Diego, founded the Daily World newspaper, and owned 2,186 acres of county land, including Rancho Bernardo. McNealy was an elected district attorney, a member of the company receiving the street railway charter and the youngest judge in the state. They did not keep the property long though, and in 1885, the entire property was sold to Allen W. Hawley.
A small building on the east end of the property, used by J.N. Young as an undertaking business, was the only structure on the property until 1888. This small building was later to become the Sun Cafe.
Tenants on the west end of the lots were A.D. Stewart and Thomas Stratton. They were blacksmiths and the same trade was continued at this location until 1897, although under several different tenants. In 1895, Hawley lost the property due to foreclosure, a mystery since his estate was valued at $60,000. The bank sold the property to John Nock for $10, who then resold it two years later to Archie and Maggie St. Peter for a considerable profit, $5,000.
In 1904, Maggie St. Peter applied for a building permit for a two-story building with the lower floor to be used for stores or offices and the upper floor for lodgings. The architect of the structure was William Quayle, who also designed the Granger Building located at 964 Fifth Ave. The building was white-pressed brick with a composition roof, a basement, and an exterior stairway on the east side. The roofline featured denticulated cornices.
The first tenant at the west end of the building was William Sprague, who ran the Goodwill Saloon. The business remained, under several different proprietors until 1930. Walter V. Thomas, who became a part-owner of the structure, operated the Goodwill from 1912-1921. Joseph B. Chamberlain took over operation of the Goodwill bar from Thomas and remained until 1925. As Prohibition was then in effect, the City Directory claimed that he sold “soft drinks.” After midnight, very strong coffee was served presumably laced with alcohol.
In 1926, the Goodwill changed hands to Amerigo and Columbo Dini, who passed it off to their younger brothers, Mike and Sam McIntosh, in 1945. Mike and Sam originated the famous “McDini” corned beef sandwich, which is still proudly served at McDini’s in National City. In the 1980s and early ’90s, a popular coffee house, Bassam, operated in that location. It has now moved to Fifth Avenue.
Other businesses operated in the building. The longest-running barber shop of the Gaslamp, the Panama Barber Shop, operated from 1921 until 1928 by James Murphy. The second-hand goods store proprietors, Max Radin and Nathaniel Kohn, remained until 1930. The billiards parlor, under the operation of Arisel Uribe and T. Arrellano, remained until 1920.
In 1923, Aurelis Abito operated a billiards parlor in the same location calling it the International Pool Hall. Abito, a Filipino immigrant, was closely associated with developing the Filipino community and Filipino business enterprises in the Gaslamp. Additionally, he is credited with operating one of the finest ethnic restaurants in the area.
One small business establishment is also reputed to have operated at this location, a Chinese lottery, located on the property’s west side. Although no mention can be found in the City Directory, many people claim to remember it fondly at 557 Fourth Ave.
The Hotel Lester building was renovated and enlarged in 1914 by architects Charles and Edward Quayle, sons of the original architect, William Quayle. The original design of the building was seamlessly incorporated into the enlarged structure with one exception — the new addition did not have a basement. As the Panama-California Exposition was opening in 1915, the enlarged structure served as housing for exposition visitors, as well as additional commercial enterprises.
The upper floor has always been a hotel; initially the Brighton Hotel and after 1915, Hotel Lester. The hotel has 23 rooms and in European fashion, bathing and toilet facilities were centrally located.
While providing tourist accommodations, the Hotel Lester was the scene of less socially acceptable activities. Between 1921-1923, one of the most colorful residents, Bertha “Bonnie” White, arrived in San Diego with the intent of opening a “respectable” brothel. Her great-niece describes her as “one determined woman,” as Bonnie needed to provide for a very large extended family. She was born in a two-room shack on a “dry” ranch in Cokeville, Wyoming. Her grandfather, Samuel Whitney Richards, was a first cousin of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. Richards, a practicing Mormon, had six wives. Bonnie’s mother was one of his 30 children.
White was listed in the 1930 City Directory as “proprietress” of a hotel. Her permanent tenants were four gentlemen. She was later joined by her sister, Grace, who became dreary of the business shortly after her arrival and married John DuPont. Yes, he was a member of the DuPont family, one of the richest families in America.
White’s business lasted until 1940 when a new police chief, who was less amenable to this type of hotel, took office. During earlier times, the hotel was reputed to have a wire or a creaking mechanism under the 13th step to alert the ladies upstairs to police raids, enabling them to make a timely escape down the back-exterior stairway! Everyone but the police supposedly knew about this ploy.
By 1978, the hotel was owned by Marilyn and Eugene Marx, local philanthropists, and Gaslamp restoration supporters, who renovated the building. Marilyn Marx founded the Gaslamp Gazette in 1979 and printed the first edition that November. The Gazette’s office was located in the 557 Fourth St. storefront, the former address of the Chinese lottery!
Now called the Gaslamp Quarter Hotel, the hotel operates under a much higher standard than in White’s day, even housing law students from nearby Thomas Jefferson Law School. It was meticulously and beautifully restored by Chris and Vicki Eddy, the current owners who purchased the property in 2007 from the Rose family, owners of the Horton Grand Hotel. Vicki Eddy’s artistic and creative talents can be seen throughout the hotel’s Victorian-themed decor.
Chris Eddy is a board member of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation and as he fondly says, “There’s so much charm and character and even something soulful about an historic Victorian building. The Hotel Lester building has been a steady, loyal host to generations of family businesses and served countless customers and guests in their lives and time. We feel privileged to be stewards for a brief bit of her colorful history.”
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com.