Old Custom House, Monterey, California

Celebrate Monterey’s 250th Birthday with a Virtual Tour

Story by David A. Laws.

Monterey, California, planned a big celebration today, June 3, 2020, of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1770. Sadly, all birthday events, from historical reenactments to block parties and patriotic parades, have been canceled or postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, other-worldly masked figures haunt the streets of Old Monterey and the venerable adobes are silent and shuttered. We cannot visit them in person, so I invite you to join me on a virtual tour of some of my favorite spots.

Monterey is proud of its role as the capital of Spanish and, later, Mexican California. With more than forty properties from that era on the historic inventory list, ten of them within the Monterey State Historic Park district, the city claims to have preserved more such buildings than anywhere else in the state. Monterey is also the only place in North America that has lived under the flags of four colonial powers.

On our virtual tour,  we will first explore half a dozen downtown spots chosen for their visual appeal, historic importance, and the fascinating characters that continue to haunt them. After that, we will climb a hill where many of the stories of California’s transition, from an ancient community of native people through successive occupations by the Spanish crown, the Argentine navy, the forces of Mexico, and finally annexation by the United States, took place.

A Brief History of Monterey

Mural on Monterey Recreation Trail, Monterey, California
The Vizcaíno Oak mural on Monterey’s Recreation Trail by Stephanie Rozzo

Esselen and Rumsien speaking people lived on the Monterey Peninsula for thousands of years before maritime explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno arrived in 1602 to claim the land for Spain. He described the site as having an ancient live oak tree. In 1770, Gaspar de Portola landed near Vizcaíno’s oak on an expedition to establish a mission and presidio. Then, on June 3, Franciscan Father Junípero Serra conducted a religious service under the same tree to mark the founding of the colonial outpost of Monterey. A walled presidio compound housed the new community until Serra led his followers to greener pastures overlooking Carmel Bay. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza arrived from Sonora, Mexico, leading the first civilian colonists, and Spanish authorities named the Pueblo de Monterey as the administrative capital of California.

After Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1822, Monterey became the port of entry to the province of California. As described by Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, British and American ships trading in tallow and leather drove early commercial exploitation of the area. During the Mexican-American War, in 1846, commander of the Pacific squadron, Commodore John Sloat, seized Monterey and declared the land part of the United States. In 1849, delegates from across California gathered in Colton Hall to write a constitution document. One year later, Congress voted to admit California as the thirty-first state of the Union. Monterey went on to contribute many firsts to the development of the Golden State, including the first newspaper, public library, secondary school, theater and military base. The modern economy began with fishing and tourism. Both blossomed into important industries in the late 19th century.

We will begin our tour at the Royal Presidio Chapel and make our way downhill to the shore of Monterey Bay. Accompanying illustrations are from postcards mailed by visitors to these same spots over 100 years ago.

Royal Presidio Chapel aka San Carlos Cathedral

California Historical Landmark (CHL) # 105, 500 Church Street

California Historical Landmark (CHL) # 105, 500 Church Street, Monterey, California
The Royal Presidio Chapel circa 1914. Mission San Carlos moved to Carmel in 1771. This Chapel building opened in 1774.

We are standing on a wide, tile-paved plaza surrounding the Royal Presidio Chapel. This solid sandstone building, the oldest in Monterey, is the only surviving structure from inside the long-fallen, 18-foot-high adobe walls of the original Spanish presidio compound. After secularization of the missions in 1843, the Chapel became the parish church of the community until designated as San Carlos Cathedral in 1850.

Designed by the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City and constructed by Native American labor in 1794, the Chapel is the most elaborate of all Spanish-era buildings in California. A square, two-story, conical, tiled-roof bell tower on the north-east corner flanks an ornate Moorish-influenced facade embellished with decorative niches, pilasters and scroll-work. The oldest non-indigenous sculpted image in California, a bas-relief rendering of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is mounted just below the apex of the broken-pediment ornamental arch.

Massive wooden doors swing open to usher congregants into a classic high-ceiling basilica-style nave. Transepts added in 1858 yielded the present cross-shaped design, a lattice pattern interspersed with bunches of grapes painted on the walls in the rich gold, green and red colors of Spain. Clear panels mounted in the wall expose sections of a monochromatic grey version from the Mexican era. Other religious decoration includes canvas artwork of Stations of the Cross and several 18th century carved and painted wooden figures.

Today the doors are locked, the building silent. I recall happier times attending glorious Bach Festival twilight chamber concerts of baroque music performed on period instruments. Distant barking intrudes into my reverie. The scene where the Pirate’s five dogs cause chaos in the cathedral in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat springs to mind.

Before leaving the plaza, I peer through darkened windows into the adjacent Royal Presidio Chapel Heritage Center. Exhibits hidden in the shadows include remnants of the ancient live oak under which Serra conducted Monterey’s founding ceremony, together with pottery shards, tools, a Spanish-era coin and other memorabilia uncovered during an archaeological investigation of the site.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson House

California Historical Landmark # 352, 530 Houston Street

The French Hotel aka The Robert Louisa Stevenson House, Monterey, California
The French Hotel aka The Robert Louis Stevenson House, circa 1930s

After a less than five-minute stroll, we arrive at The French Hotel (aka the Robert Louis Stevenson House). Here the lovesick, almost penniless, twenty-nine-year-old Scottish author lived for three months in 1879 while in pursuit of Fanny Osbourne, a married woman he met during a dalliance in France two years earlier. The tale of RLS’s brief sojourn in this two-story, stone and adobe rooming house is the stuff of legend. While awaiting Fanny’s divorce (they married in San Francisco in 1850), friendly locals raised money to help feed the starving writer. He started a forest fire in Pacific Grove, fell ill in Carmel Valley and was nursed back to health by goat ranchers. He explored the rugged shores of Point Lobos, claimed by some as the inspiration for landscape features in his famous novel Treasure Island. In his tiny upstairs room, RLS wrote notes for The Amateur Emigrant, a book on his journey across the country, and several essays, including “The Old Pacific Capital” that describes his adventures on the Monterey Peninsula. Today, the building houses an extensive collection of Stevensonia that, in better times, is open for public viewing.

 

I peered through a hole in the gate into the rear, walled garden. It is tempting to imagine the winding paths and densely planted beds of cineraria, foxgloves, and poppies as the park-like setting for Steinbeck’s short story “How Edith McGillicuddy Met RLS.” But in reality, when RLS lived here, the yard was a barren, dry patch of weeds. Less than a 3-minute walk brings us to our next stop.  

 

Cooper Molera Adobe and the Legend of the Sherman Rose

A National Trust Historic Site. 506 Munras Avenue:

Senora Bonifacio and the Sherman Rose House, Monterey, California
Senora Bonifacio and the Sherman Rose, circa 1916

American sea captain John Rogers Cooper arrived in Monterey in 1823. He married Incarnación, the sister of Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, and became a Mexican citizen in order to own property. Over many years and changes of ownership, the walled two-acre Cooper-Molera property eventually comprised two adjoining adobe houses, several barns, a cookhouse and a warehouse.

 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with commercial interests to restore the complex for a museum and compatible retail and event-uses. Opened in 2019, the museum exhibits period furniture, paintings, and an “archaeology” room with the floor removed to expose its stone foundation. As an “essential business,” the Alta Bakery and Café occupying the single-story adobe is busy today. 

The garden includes a small orchard with almond trees propagated from cuttings from the site, together with fig, pear, walnut and several apple varieties that would have been available in Cooper’s time. Chromatella, a climbing Tea-Noisette rose, grows against the orchard wall. Also known as the “Sherman Rose,” this pale-yellow bloom is associated with a popular legend of the late 1800s that thrived for decades.

 

General William Tecumseh Sherman served as a lieutenant in Monterey from 1846 to 1847 and billeted at our next stop. The young lieutenant is said to have presented a cutting of the rose to the beautiful Senorita Maria Ignatia Bonifacio and promised to return to wed her by the time it rooted and bloomed.

 

The first cuttings of the rose, then known as “Cloth of Gold,” did not arrive in Monterey for 25 years after Sherman left, but, fueled by an energetic promoter, the fable drove a boom in yellow roses and quaint tea rooms. Dona Bonifacio’s black-clothed presence and rose-covered arbor outside her home on Alvarado Street became a tourist landmark of such note that, in the early 1920s, artist Percy Gray moved the house brick by brick and transplanted the rose to a new site on the Monterey Mesa.

 

Larkin House and Sherman Headquarters

California Historical Landmark # 106, 464 Calle Principal

 

The Larkin House @1925, Monterey, California
The Larkin House and Garden, circa 1925

There is something about a locked gate and a high, stone wall that makes a secret garden all the more intriguing. Raised terrace beds packed with perennials around a Cécile Brünner rose-covered arbor make the Larkin House garden the closest Monterey stand-in for the hidden oasis of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1910 classic children’s novel. A picturesque, single room, stone-faced adobe structure occupied in 1847 by Lt. Sherman, the future Civil War general and protagonist of the yellow rose fable, is a favorite subject for photographers.

 

Massachusetts born store owner and trader, Thomas Larkin, built his two-story adobe in 1835. He combined local redwood timber and sun-dried adobe bricks to design a house featuring wide balconies, a long, covered porch and exaggerated eaves to protect the walls from weathering. Synthesizing elements from South West and East Coast cultures, Larkin’s home became the prototype for the popular Monterey-Colonial architectural style of the early 20th century.

 

In 1845, Secretary of State James Buchanan requested Larkin to serve as a confidential agent of the U.S. government and to assist any move at secession from Mexico. The first American to greet the invading Commodore Sloat in 1846, he helped draft the proclamation of annexation. He also played a key role at the first California Constitutional Convention. A gate in the western wall of his garden opens to Pacific Street and Colton Hall, where delegates met to sign the document in 1849.

 

Colton Hall

 

California Historical Landmark # 126, 570 Pacific Street

Colton Hall @1902, Monterey, California
Colton Hall in 1902. Site where the California Constitution was negotiated in 1849.

 

Appointed Alcalde (mayor, judge, and tax collector) of Monterey after the U.S. seized California in 1846, Navy chaplain Walter Colton set out to build a town hall and schoolhouse. He financed the project by taxing “sinful malefactors,” including gamblers, liquor store owners and inebriated citizens. Serious offenders, he sentenced to terms of construction labor. When completed in 1849, Colton Hall was hailed as the largest and most impressive public building west of the Mississippi. 

 

The constitution document drafted in this building featured progressive articles on suffrage, women’s property rights, the prohibition of slavery and a requirement that all laws be published in both English and Spanish. When open to the public, the upper floor museum displays long tables scattered with quill pens and unfinished documents, as if discarded by delegates during a break in negotiations. An attached single-story, solid granite block building served until 1956 as the city jail. Each of the dark, heavily-barred cells on display contains sleeping cots, guitars and artifacts associated with real and fictional inmates. Recreating a scene from Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, “Danny’s cell,” portrays a blanket-covered figure huddled on a bunk.

 

Colton Hall is the only city building set on expansive grounds. We can rest here for few minutes to enjoy an oak-shaded front lawn featuring a large, bronze, mother grizzly bear tending her cub. Thirty-five metal plaques set in a brick pathway leading to the main entrance note significant periods in Monterey history. Beginning with recognition of Native Americans as the “The Ancient Ones,” they progress through “Chinese Fishermen (1851), the artists of “Bohemian Monterey” (1874), and “Italian Fisherman” (1875), to the Hotel del Monte that in 1850 galvanized Monterey’s role as a world-class tourist destination.

 

Old Custom House

 

California Historical Landmark # 1, 20 Custom House Plaza

Custom House @1814, Monterey, California
This old post card carries the date 1814. Historians today date the building from 1827.

After winning independence from Spain, Mexico opened the new nation to international trade. Built on the oceanfront in 1827, the Custom House collected taxes on all trade and cargo transactions with California. As business expanded, the building doubled in size with a second story and wide porch verandas. According to an NPS website, a single vessel involved in California’s hide and tallow trade might owe $5,000 to $25,000 in duty fees on just one cargo load. Custom fees comprised California’s most important source of revenue during the 19th century.

Commodore Sloat raised the U.S. flag on this spot when he seized the province in 1846. Recognizing this historic role and its service as the first government building on the West Coast in 1900, local citizens began one of the first restoration projects on a public building in the state. In 1929, the Old Custom House became California Historic Landmark # 1. Today it houses a museum and gift shop featuring Monterey-themed books, cards, games and maritime merchandise at the entrance to Fisherman’s Wharf pier.

A 1960s urban renewal project routed the coastal highway underneath a new Custom House Plaza and built a hotel and conference center aimed at stimulating tourism. A 45-foot long glazed-tile mosaic mounted on the rear wall of the center, tells the story of Monterey in stylized vignettes, from Native Americans to the denizens of Cannery Row. You can absorb this entertaining, visual presentation of history and, less than half a mile away, stand on the slopes where it all began.

Lower Presidio Historic Park

 California Historical Landmark # 128, Corner of Artillery and Pacific Streets

A neglected corner of weeds and willows lining a culvert at the entrance to the Lower Presidio Historic Park is the site of the Vizcaino Oak. Although listed as the location of California Historical Landmark # 128, the “Landing Place of Sebastian Vizcaino and Fray Junípero Serra,” there is no traditional bronze marker. A small plaque on a weathered rock does commemorate Portola’s founding of Monterey. An incongruous Celtic stone cross dedicated to Serra, stands a few yards away. Neither conveys the significance of a site described by some as the “Plymouth Rock of the West Coast.”

A short walk up the hill and we enter a city park with panoramic views over Monterey Bay and the harbor. The upper slopes are home to the U.S. Army Presidio of Monterey; the city leases the lower section for public recreation. At the center of the park, the Presidio Museum of Monterey tells the stories of its military heritage.

 

Fishing Fleet @1920, Monterey, California
Fishing fleet in Monterey Harbor circa 1920

 

This land served as a sacred site for countless generations of indigenous people. A large, rounded boulder known as the Rain Rock protrudes from the grassy slope. Multiple holes ground into the rock indicate that it may have served a ceremonial purpose, possibly to influence the weather. Two interpretive panels lining a walkway overlooking the harbor describe the lifestyles of the local tribe. One depicts their willow and tule-thatched dwellings; another includes an extract from the Esselen and Rumsien creation story.

 

The next panel tells the story of Captain Hippolyte Bouchard, a Frenchman loyal to the newly free nation of Argentina who was authorized as a privateer to plunder ships and ports of the former colonial master, the King of Spain. In November 1818, Bouchard sailed two armed vessels with a force of 400 men into Monterey Bay. He demanded “the surrender of your city with all the furniture and other belongings of the King. If you do not do so, the city will be reduced to cinders.” 

 

Bouchard landed troops near Pacific Grove and attacked from the rear, but by then, the inhabitants had evacuated inland to safety. For six days, the flag of Argentina flew over the Monterey Peninsula. Unable to find any civilians to convert to the anti-Spanish cause, Bouchard looted and set fire to vacant buildings but departed, empty-handed.

 

Additional panels accompany a life-size granite sculpture of Serra, erected in 1891 by Jane Stanford of Stanford University. For the cleric’s role in suppressing the culture, someone who sympathized with the suffering he inflicted on the native inhabitants, decapitated the statue in 2015. After being found on the beach several years later, his severed head and body were reunited. 

View from the site of Fort Mervine, circa 1905, Monterey, California
View from the site of Fort Mervine, circa 1905

 

In this final stretch of our virtual tour, we will walk up a steep but accessible, paved path from the museum to the remains of Fort Mervine, the first American fort on the west coast. The site is marked at the top of the ridge by a triangular earthen mound and several ancient cannons aiming out over the bay. Nearby, large, quarried blocks inscribed with the names of funding groups form the base of a towering monument to Commodore Sloat. The 1906 earthquake destroyed a statue of Sloat intended by the architect to crown the edifice. Short of funds and time, the builders replaced his figure with a crouching granite eagle. Their solution generated an unfortunate pairing; the stance of the bird conflicts with the proportions of its base, resulting in a sad, drooping appearance. This melancholy representation of our national icon perfectly portrays the sorrow that hangs over Monterey on the cancellation of the city’s grand 250th birthday celebrations.

 

IF YOU GO – VIRTUALLY, OF COURSE

 

Each of the location headings is hyperlinked to corresponding smartphone tour sites that combine audio descriptions with historic and contemporary images. Click here for all ten Monterey State Historic Park properties. They are presented in Chinese, English, and Spanish. Tours of City-owned and private locations are posted here.

National Park Service (NPS) American Latino Heritage webpages include the Larkin House, Old Custom House, Royal Presidio Chapel, and a tour of the Old Town Historic District.

A state park docent leads a 10-minute video tour of the Robert Louis Stevenson House.

The Monterey State Historic Park brochure includes a map of the downtown properties. Other important contributors to the history of Monterey, that we do not have time to cover here, include Cannery Row and the Hotel del Monte (now on the campus of the Naval Postgraduate School).

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