By Sandee Wilhoit
The site of the current Cole Building, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and G Street, is one of the earliest developed properties in the area. Albert A. Cole, an early San Diego capitalist, purchased the property from Alonzo Horton in December of 1868 for $900 in gold coin. In 1873, Cole deeded a portion of the property to Charles Snider for $1,250 in gold, netting himself a tidy profit.
At the same time, Cole had a frame building well under construction on the site. This building, a one-story wood frame structure, had three storefronts with frame partitions and slate or tin roofs. Businesses in the storefronts included a grocery, a restaurant and a fruit stand. Another tenant was Theodore Verlaque, a native of France, who was intent on opening a place for the sale of liquor and wines. In 1879, Verlaque took out a two-year lease from Cole, and promptly subleased the property to Theodore Lehmann for nearly twice the amount of money he was paying Cole! Verlaque was not only a successful restauranteur, saloon keeper and wine maker, he also ran large herds of sheep from the hills of La Jolla to the Narrows, which is now part of Anza-Borrego State Park. He foresaw future growth in that area, and with a fellow Basque, August Grand, he established the Verlaque Store, the first business, and built the first house in what was to become the city of Ramona. Verlaque’s children remained in the area and ran the store until 1960. Both structures are still standing and are preserved as historical landmarks in Ramona.
In 1882, Cole decided to expand his property and built yet another store on the site. Charles Snider was also still active on his side of the property and had expanded to a barber shop and bathhouse. The city directory at the time lists the barber shop as Snider’s and the bathhouse as his wife’s business. C.F. Francisco’s grocery store opened in Cole’s new building, and as he promised to “have a neat assortment of fresh goods from San Francisco,” he received a rush of business from local customers.
By 1892, the successful Mr. Cole decided to, once again, expand his holdings. He planned to replace the one-story frame building with a three-story brick building. He hired prominent architect John B. Stannard to design the structure. Stannard had also designed the Sherman-Gilbert House, the Louis Bank of Commerce, the Minear Building, the Nanking Cafe, and the Callan Hotel. Additionally, he designed the glass dome for Madam Tingley’s Theosophical Society in Point Loma and a fire station at 25th and Broadway.
Stannard described his proposed project as being a symmetrically arranged structure with cream-colored bricks set in red mortar. He allowed for three large storerooms on the Fifth Avenue side of the building and one storeroom on the G Street side. The main entrance to the second- and third-floor rooms was to be on G Street and would feature a perfectly formed arch with a wide stairway of Oregon pine finished in white cedar ascending to the upper floors. Stannard envisioned 24 rooms on each floor, all arranged exactly alike. The interior was also to be finished in white cedar. He incorporated granite keystones in the arch and the use of Arizona red sandstone for the windowsills. The keystones are unique in the Gaslamp, and not found on any other buildings. The elaborate roofline was to feature large pinnacles.
Albert Cole hired Thomas Jobbitt and Peter F. Schaniel to construct the building. Jobbitt and Schaniel ordered materials from Whittier-Fuller and Company; San Diego Paint Company; Olsen, Graham and Weldon; and West Coast Lumber in Cole’s name. In most cases, Cole made a minimum down payment with no terms discussed for the remainder of the costs. At the close of construction, none of these companies received any remuneration and were finally forced to take legal action. As a result of these financial woes and a bad case of the grippe (old fashioned term for influenza), Cole died by shooting himself in the head. The cost of the building was $35,000, and Cole’s net worth was in excess of $100,000, so it was speculated that his money woes and flu could not have been the sole cause of his untimely death.
Eventually, the Cole estate settled the debts and the administration of the estate was granted to Cole’s wife, Maria. She also continued to improve the property. As Cole’s brothers and sisters expected some compensation from the estate, Mrs. Cole bought them out for $42,000 and retained full control of the property.
In 1892, Mrs. Cole sold a portion of the land to Ralph Granger for $22,000 in gold coin. Besides his commercial interests, Granger founded a musical conservatory at his house in Paradise Valley. He also owned one of the finest rare violin collections in the world. The house, now known as Granger Hall, is a historic landmark in National City.
Prior to the turn of the last century, tenants of the Cole Building included the Lion Clothing Company and the Coronado View Hotel. In 1899, Samuel I. Fox bought the Lion Clothing Company, and moved the business to his new building on Sixth and Broadway. The Coronado View remained until 1925, and subsequently became the Welcome Hotel and then the Kelsey Hotel. Sam Lesinsky, another clothier, followed Lion’s and remained until 1922.
Maria H. Cole died on Sept. 15, 1924. At the time of her death, the Cole property was listed as having a value of $90,000. This parcel and several others were to be held in trust for 25 years by the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank. When the trust elapsed, the bulk of the estate was to be given to various charities, which Mrs. Cole had previously supported.
Throughout the ensuing years, a variety of businesses operated on the property. Some of the more interesting were the People’s Fish Company, the Owl Loan Company and the Palm Cafe.
The current occupant on the street level of the property is a popular sports bar, restaurant and nightclub named Whiskey Girl. According to the manager, Jerry Lopez, this lively and popular venue also appears to be haunted, as several very unusual occurrences have happened in his office late at night after closing. Additionally, before Whiskey Girl took over the venue, a manager of the previous business, La Strada, quit her job after claiming to have seen a fully manifested apparition. Nothing unusual in many of these old buildings with colorful histories! Whiskey Girl also owns the Double Deuce, another popular bar in the Gaslamp. I wonder who lurks there?
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.