About the Colony

What's left of Atascadero's original downtown

Special to The TribuneSeptember 23, 2013 

Lon Allan

THE TRIBUNE

Last Friday morning, I led a walking tour of downtown Atascadero sponsored by the Atascadero Mutual Water Company, which observes its own 100th birthday along with the city this year.

Atascadero was artificially inserted between two well-established cities — Paso Robles on the north and San Luis Obispo on the south, making us a relatively young city in the county. What I told those on my tour Friday is that much of downtown Atascadero looks today just about like it did in those early years.

One of my favorite photos of Atascadero was taken from the roof of the Carlton Hotel at the corner of El Camino Real and Traffic Way. In the 1920s that was the corner of the “state highway” and La Plaza Boulevard. You’ll find Traffic Way and La Plaza used interchangeably in many news stories of the period. But those original buildings are still there, except for the movie theater, which burned down in 1987. The “state highway” is today’s El Camino Real.

The very first major retail enterprise was what would be considered today to be an indoor mall — The Mercantile, which soon became known as La Plaza following a community-wide contest to name it. The 100-by-200-foot two-story building stood at the corner of Olmeda Avenue and Traffic Way/La Plaza. In that single building you could get a haircut, buy a soda, pick out a dress or a hat, get a new tire for your car or stock up on fertilizer and garden tools for the home. There was also a 70-room hotel on the top floor.

At the time the Mercantile opened, in March 1917, Lewis did not encourage any businesses elsewhere with but one exception, Sherman’s Garage at the corner of El Camino Real and Traffic Way. Footings and storage tanks for that garage were dug up when the Carlton Hotel was rebuilt in the start of the 2000s. Lewis wanted new retail to spring up between the state highway and the City Administration Building; from Traffic Way/La Plaza to West Mall along the Sunken Gardens.

Nobody would buy into the idea.

So the first commercial building outside the large Mercantile was built in 1923 by J.A. Hier-Johnson on El Camino Real just north of Traffic Way. The second building next door was the U.S. Post Office and across the street, the two-story bakery building opened in 1924. Continuing up that block was the Bonita Gift Shop; The Doran Building, which everyone knows as Atascadero Market; Ward’s Garage; then the Keetch Building and the Atascadero News. In the same block, across the street, is the old Safeway, Greyhound Bus Depot, Sprouse-Reitz and Elliott’s pharmacy. All were built in the 1920s to the 1940s.

That original downtown block is pretty much still there. However, the Carlton Hotel and adjoining businesses next door have undergone major makeovers.

Having so much of our original downtown left is something to celebrate on our 100th birthday.

Lon Allan has lived in Atascadero for nearly five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 466-8529 or leallan@tcsn.net.

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