It’s no question that history plays a big role in Benicia. Indeed, prominent buildings are like cast members standing proudly on stage, telling the town’s story. Time has lent these structures historic significance, and over the past few decades, state and federal agencies have also recognized their stature, placing them in the National Register of Historic Places spotlight. “There’s just all the prestige with the designation, and financial benefits to go out and get restoration grants that come with the designation,” said Jerry Hayes, Benicia Historical Society vice president and former mayor.
Benicia has nine buildings, areas and structures listed. A tenth one, the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, is in the works. Getting a building placed on the National Register of Historic Places is often a long and difficult task. Just ask David Hyde, a University of California at Berkeley doctoral candidate in archeology, with a big love of both history and his hometown of Benicia. A Benicia Historical Society board member since 2014, Hyde threw himself into the effort to get the Von Pfister Adobe placed on the register, something the society has wanted to do since the 1970s. Popular lore is that news of the discovery of gold was announced at the Von Pfister Adobe, sparking the California Gold Rush of 1848. Today, the old structure is in a protected area between C and D streets on Von Pfister Alley off First Street, awaiting hoped-for restoration.
Often, tenacity is the key to success. Hyde said he rewrote a prior unsuccessful application for the Von Pfister Adobe from the ground up, and learned to navigate the state and bureaucratic process. He also engaged in many conversations and correspondence with the state historian assigned to the application. He soon learned historical significance is not enough. The building has to be significant in specific ways and also fall under one of four criteria. A structure can be associated with a historically significant event or trend, a prominent person, or be representative of an architectural style. It can also have potential to answer questions about a period of history. Hyde highlighted the Von Pfister Adobe’s contributing role in Benicia’s early history and development. A State Historic Preservation Office historian reviewed the final paperwork and forwarded the request to the National Park Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places program. Finally, in 2015, the Von Pfister Adobe got placed. It’s hoped the designation will help with securing grants to restore the aging wooden structure.
In the 1970s, the late Gladys Wold, co-founder of the Benicia Historical Society, engaged in a similar process. She co-authored the nomination application for the entire Benicia Arsenal. The historic area dates back to 1849, covers 440 acres and includes 23 buildings, including the Camel Barns, Commandant’s Residence, Guard House, Post Hospital, and the Clock Tower.The Depot, at the foot of First Street, could soon be the next Benicia structure on the list. Hyde applied what he learned through the Von Pfister Adobe application process to the Depot, which state historians are now considering. The city has played a role, too, reviewing the application and submitting it to the Benicia Historic Preservation Review Commission. Since the city owns the Depot, the city council signed off on it as well. No other Benicia buildings are in the pipeline, but Hayes said he is interested in nominating First Street as a district, along with its buildings.Today, the Depot, found at the foot of First Street adjacent to the First Street Green and waterfront, is partially restored. A portion of the first floor houses the offices of Benicia Main Street, along with its retail store and information center. From the early 1900s through 1930s, the Depot served as Benicia’s main passenger and freight station, and also as a staging area for a busy ferry network, until the train bridge, now under the Benicia Martinez Bridge, was built. The city restored and stabilized the Depot in 1999 after it had sat vacant for decades.
Designation does not guarantee buildings will be saved. In the 1990s, the privately-owned 1850s-era brick Carr House on East D Street was demolished, though it is still listed on the register. Other structures are no longer in Benicia. When it was anchored in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, the Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien was added in 1978. The ship is now at Pier 45 in San Francisco. Another can be seen only at low tide. The Stamboul Whaling Bark Site at 12th Street Park along the Carquinez Strait was once part of the Matthew Turner Shipyard, serving as a work platform to build wooden sailing ships in the late 1800s. Other buildings on the register still stand, including the 1850-era Benicia Masonic Lodge at 110 West J Street, and the 1890s-era Crooks Mansion on West Third Street. The Fischer-Hanlon House and Benicia State Capitol, both part of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park on West G Street off First Street, are also on the register.
Benicia’s importance on the historic stage engenders local pride, and lends a certain fascination to residents and visitors alike. Its markers and iconic buildings are thought-provoking reminders of its early heyday—shining a light on Benicia’s prominent place in California history.