Home News San Jose’s historic City Hall just dodged a wrecking ball. Will someone save it?

San Jose’s historic City Hall just dodged a wrecking ball. Will someone save it?

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SAN JOSE—Like a teenager or a new haircut, historic preservationist Ben Leach believes that old buildings go through similar “troubling stages” before they’re truly appreciated.

For Leach, San Jose’s Old City Hall is like a fluffy middle schooler. But he still wants it.

“We’re just in that awkward adolescence,” Leach, leader of San Jose’s Conservation Action Council, said of the structure of 1950s modernism, which had remained empty for nearly two decades. Like all period-lived buildings, they are considered obsolete before they can be considered historic assets, and the next generation will come to embrace it.”

In a clash between conservation and apparent realism, Leach continues a two-year quest to preserve the building, which he believes is a testament to San Jose’s post-war growth, and is much needed. The county nearly opted to demolish the former City Hall this week, but over the years its renovation has been a daunting task and the new structure has been a major success in the area. But on Tuesday, the building was saved from destruction after the oversight board voted unanimously to consider other uses for the building.

“There are many reasons why it makes sense to consider reusing or preserving at least part of the building,” District 2 supervisor Cindy Chavez said at a meeting Tuesday. As it stands, there is no solidified project on the table to replace it.

Lobby of Old San Jose City Hall, 1958 (Arnold Del Carlo, Smith Layton Archives, San Jose State University, Slithaw Academy)

Old City Hall’s origin story can be found against the backdrop of San Jose’s rapid expansion after World War II. At this time, San Jose was known as the agricultural capital (or “Valley of Joy of the Heart”), but it has come to be known as the capital of technology. world. Between 1950 and 1975, San Jose’s population increased from he 95,000 to he more than 500,000. Thanks to the annexation of surrounding unincorporated land, he increased sevenfold in the same period in square miles.

City manager AP Dutch Hammann, who wanted San Jose to have a headquarters to match the boom, offered $2.5 million for what would eventually become the new City Hall. His five-story, 113,430-square-foot building at 801 North First Street is best known for its arcuate façade with its brightly lit entrance and tall windows. 1958 saw the introduction of new equipment such as fluorescent lighting and his HVAC, opening the doors to city and elected officials.

In an article for Urban Planning magazine, Herrmann called City Hall “a place where modern ideas meet modern needs in an atmosphere conducive to big thinking for big problems.”

During that time, this building has witnessed history being made. For example, the election of former mayor Janet Gray Hayes, the first woman to lead a major American city, and Norman Mineta mayor, the first Asian-American to break the same record. Recent residents like Supervisor Chavez worked there as members of the council until it was empty, but as soon as you enter the entrance there is a “beautiful” staircase to the right, overlooking the lobby. I said I could see the second floor.

Ben Leach, an architectural conservationist trying to save the Old San Jose City Hall from demolition, holds an old plaque found at the Old San Jose City Hall garage sale in San Jose, California, Wednesday, November 16, 2022.  (Shay Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
Ben Leach, a historic preservationist trying to save the Old San Jose City Hall from demolition, holds an old plaque found at the Old San Jose City Hall garage sale in San Jose, California, Wednesday, November 16, 2022. (Shay Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

“It was open and airy,” she recalls. “The left side was a regular old diner. The food was terrible. But they had espresso.”

By the 1990s, however, a move to its current location on East Santa Clara Street in City Hall took hold, and a new building opened in 2005. Old City Hall was eventually turned over to the county as a way for him to pay outstanding debts in 2011. Various studies have been carried out on its potential uses, and in 2020 the best option was to demolish the Old Town Hall, as it could not withstand a small fire started by a homeless resident, as well as vandalism. The county has repeatedly returned to the conclusion that In 2020, the county found that it would cost him roughly $105 million to $118 million to convert the lot into his 57 to 108 homes. The county also determined that the new structure could offer more residential units or office space than the existing site.

Meanwhile, demolition of the site is estimated to cost about $10 million, and vacant maintenance costs about $100,000 per year. According to the county, the land is worth about $60 million.

“Basically, we have to eradicate it,” says David Barry, who works for the county’s facilities and vehicles division, about keeping people safe. Reassembled and completed.

Machine room in the Old City Hall Annex in San Jose, California, Monday, August 27, 2018.  (Randy Vazquez/Bay Area News Group)
Machine room in the Old City Hall Annex in San Jose, California, Monday, August 27, 2018. (Randy Vazquez/Bay Area News Group)

But Leach and his San Jose Conservation Action Council think the effort will be worth it. On Tuesday, the group, which Leach describes as “watchdogs and cheerleaders for those who give San Jose its unique character,” submitted a petition containing hundreds of signatures demanding that supervisors protect the building. His group also commissioned its own investigation of the site. This has lowered the price for reusing the building for housing: $78 million for 108 units.

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