Dan Krieger: Cal Poly book showcases SLO’s architectural gems

June 19, 2010 

San Luis Obispo has been many things. It’s the fifth oldest European settlement in California. The prosperity of the mission pueblo was based on narrow-bladed grasses introduced by the padres. With abundant food, the herds of cattle grew far beyond the needs of the local population.

We became one of the first export economies on the northwestern Pacific rim. Leather hides and tallow from the “matanza,” or slaughter, were essential to the continuing growth of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the northeastern United States.

The resulting wealth allowed the later missionaries like Fray Luis Antonio Martinez to purchase or barter for fine works of art for the walls of the mission church and large bells cast in Lima, Peru for the iconic five-arched campanile.

SLO’s evolution

Architecture has had an economic base from the beginnings of civilization. San Luis Obispo has had to reinvent its economy several times. Visitors to our town can readily observe each reincarnation through the architecture that it produced.

Patti Taylor and Suzette Lees have recently published “75 SLO City Sites: An informative self-guided architectural tour in historic San Luis Obispo.” The book is in part a product of their experience in helping to organize the Monday Club architectural tours over the past decade.

By opening their book with the Monday Club and the Motel Inn, both at the northern end of Monterey Street with origins in the 1920s, the authors give the reader a format for understanding San Luis Obispo’s architectural dynamics with the interplay of community leaders and their times.

A famous architect

The Monday Club at 1815 Monterey St. was design by famed architect Julia Morgan. It reflects the Spanish Colonial style of our early history.

The reasons for its construction center on Grace Barneberg.

Grace was the daughter of J. W. Barneberg, the president of the Commercial Bank. The outline of that bank can still be seen in the restored pillars and entrance of Fannie Wrappers at Higuera and Chorro streets. Mr. Barneberg hired noted architect Charles McKenzie to build an elegant, prairie-style residence at 550 Dana St.

He could also afford to send his daughter to Stanford University, where young Grace impressed the school’s first president, David Starr Jordan. With the enfranchisement of women, Dr. Jordan recommended Grace for a number of prominent statewide boards.

Locally, Grace wanted to empower women through organization. She helped to found the Monday Club with 26 charter members in 1926. By 1928, there were 350 members. There weren’t meeting venues that could accommodate the group.

The prospering 1920s were the heyday of the women’s club movement throughout America. Julia Morgan had designed a number of YWCAs and women’s residences. “75 SLO Sites” tells the story of how Grace arranged to meet Morgan through William Randolph Hearst’s local transportation manager, former taxi driver Steve Zegar.

Upon seeing the site overlooking much of our city, Morgan agreed to design the Monday Club without a commission.

Birth of the motel

The Motel Inn has all but vanished. In the boom year of 1925, Alfred and Arthur Heineman, famed Pasadena architects associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, built the first motel in San Luis Obispo.

It was labeled “The Mo-Tel Inn,” meaning a motor hotel. It was halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles For $1.25 a night, guests were issued a two-room bungalow with a kitchen and a private adjoining garage. The bungalows faced a central courtyard that housed the swimming pool and included picnic tables for social gatherings.

The Motel Inn anticipated a continuous flow of traffic along the new Highway 101. Unfortunately, the Great Depression got in the way. But the Heinemans clearly anticipated the growth industry of housing families along the highways that was to follow World War II.

Going from cover to cover in “75 SLO Sites,” you will gain an understanding of the ups and downs of our “city in the middle,” as reflected through its exceptional architecture.

‘More than a picture book’

Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Institute has published “75 SLO City Sites,” a self-guided tour book that aims to encourage readers to learn about San Luis Obispo's history and develop a greater appreciation of its early residents.

Written by Patti Taylor and Suzette Lees, the publication contains many vintage photos collected and organized by local photographer Verena von Engel.

“The book is more than a picture book,” Taylor said in a news release. “It provides a healthy discussion of the architectural details and histories of building owners and their contributions to the community — and how.”

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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