Telling Benicia’s Story Through Its Iconic Buildings

Jerry Bowles
Benicia's restored Railroad Depot on the waterfront, 2006

Benicia. What would it be without its history? Although we’ll never know, its nice that our rich historical assets tie the present to a past that reaches back into California’s earliest days. Civic leaders and private property owners have found ways to preserve old buildings and meld the old with the new. The charm of Benicia’s tree-lined streets, First Street’s many historic storefronts and the historic treasures downtown and in the Arsenal collectively help shape Benicia’s character. The town’s past continues to inform the present and cast a defining light on what many find so appealing here. Many buildings that testify to the town’s prominence in state and local history still stand today. Here are just a few that help tell Benicia’s story.

Historic Significance

News that sparked the 1848 Gold Rush first leaked at a modest brick and wooden building where people shopped, talked and lodged. Solano County’s first general store, the city-owned Von Pfister Adobe off First Street, is now enclosed to protect it from further damage as it awaits restoration.

The Benicia Capitol State Historic Park—which includes the Fischer-Hanlon House and garden—served California legislators for 11 months in 1853-54, during which many laws were enacted. Now open as a museum, the building is the focal point of First Street. The Hanlon House offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of an upper middle class family. The house’s artifacts, and some areas of the garden, date back to the 1840s.

Early Commerce

• The Tannery Building is now full of shops, cafes and offices. The brick building harks back to the late 1800s when tanneries, a creamery, a fish-packing house, busy wharves, ferries and a rail line thrived on lower First Street.
• Next door to the Tannery is the present-day Sailor Jack’s restaurant, originally built in the 1860s as the Alamo Rooms.

Jack London Drank Here

• The Old Jurgenson’s Saloon, a favorite haunt of famed American writer Jack London, was once located next to the former Southern Pacific Train Depot. The top half of the old saloon was moved to the 500 block of First Street. Restored, it has housed a bookstore and a gift shop.

Benicia’s Heyday

• First Street’s Washington House dates back to 1850 and is considered one of the oldest buildings in town. It has held a hotel, a speakeasy during Prohibition and a brothel. More recently it’s housed a deli and offices.

Religion and education

• Found at the top end of First Street is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, first established in the 1850s. Further, the present-day City Park held the town’s first public school, built in 1849.

• The present-day City Hall served as the Benicia High School for decades, closing in the 1960s.

Courtesy Benicia Historical Museum

Washington House, now Kinder's Meats

Courtesy Benicia Historical Museum

Historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Courtesy Benicia Historical Museum

Historic Majestic Theatre Circa 1920

Historic Arsenal

• The historic Benicia Arsenal is a sprawling area now part of the Benicia Business Park. The Arsenal operated 1851-1964. Today, Arsenal buildings in and around 991 Tyler Street house art galleries and a thriving community of artists in live/work studios. The Benicia Historical Museum occupies the Civil War-era Camel Barns and the city-owned Clock Tower Fortress can be rented out for parties and other functions

• The Commanding Officer’s Quarters Mansion, built in 1860, served as the residence for the Arsenal Commander and as a premiere social gathering spot for military and town leaders. This city-owned 20-room mansion is fully restored and houses a consortium of private businesses.

Jefferson Street Mansion, built in 1861, served as the Arsenal’s Captain’s Quarters. This beautifully restored and award-winning mansion, wreathed with formal gardens, is used for weddings and social events.

• The Guard and Engine House, built in 1872, is now in private ownership. One legend is that Ulysses S. Grant served a 30-day prison sentence there after getting drunk on duty and firing canons in Martinez. Historians debunk this account and insist no such account is on the Civil War general and former President’s record.

• The Arsenal’s U.S. Army headquarters building can be found at the “split” at the end of East Military Street. The lovely Spanish-style building now houses artist studios and the new HQ Art Gallery.

Sources used for this article: “Images of America: Benicia,” compiled by the Benicia Historical Society, City of Benicia, Benicia Chamber of Commerce, Vallejo Times-Herald, and Benicia Herald.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Check it out, Community, Education, History, People + Places