PAC*SJ Fights to Save the Remnants of San Jose’s Past

The Preservation Action Council of San Jose comes to the aid of the Endangered 8—the historic structures it deems most imperiled by redevelopment and rot.

PUBLISHED JUL 9, 2023 9:38 P.M.
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The Burbank Theater, built in 1949, is for sale again after restoration plans stalled. A neighborhood coalition is seeking city landmark status to prevent its demolition.

The Burbank Theater, built in 1949, is for sale again after restoration plans stalled. A neighborhood coalition is seeking city landmark status to prevent its demolition.   Preservation Action Council of San Jose

This spring was the centennial of the Hollywood sign, built to advertise a development in Los Angeles called “Hollywoodland.” The sign was left to rot. Then, years later, it was rebuilt by enthusiasts who rightly consider it an essential LA landmark.

In San Jose—Northern California’s largest city—a landmark is any lucky building from the previous two centuries that has made it through the city’s successive waves of redevelopment over the last four decades. The toll of San Jose buildings kissed by the wrecking ball or the bulldozer is too long and sad to recount here. But there is a little something left—a few old-timers that are dilapidated but still standing. There is also what’s left of a corridor of iconic lit-up neon signs of the western boulevards, Stevens Creek, San Carlos and Winchester.

Since 1990, the Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC*SJ) has been trying to save San Jose’s architectural heritage. Ben Leech, the executive director, has been with the group for the last three years.

The Ban Family Farmstead is 
set to be replaced by apartments.
Photos courtesy PAC*SJ unless otherwise noted

When asked if San Jose was particularly brutal when it came to redevelopment, Leech says there needed to be a bit of context: “The two hardest times to be a preservationist are in a good economy and a bad economy. Historic preservation is never an easy sell anywhere.”

He allows that “San Jose suffers from a lack of vision, a lack of recognizing the potential in existing places. The standard operating procedure here is to tear it down and start from scratch.” Part of the challenge is a lack of examples: “a shortage of places that have been repurposed. The average developer doesn’t see the potential. We think it’s self evident, but it’s not.”

Leech explains, “Old places are not inherently obsolete. If everything was brand-new, there would be no sense of place. If no one is making the case to save buildings, things get torn down the instant they’re slightly out of fashion.”

Appearing on the Endangered 8 list for the second time, the Willis Polk-designed First Church of Christ, Scientist remains vulnerable to vandalism.
Left, photo by Daderot/CC0 1.0. Right, photo courtesy PAC*SJ

For the second year, the Preservation Action Council has targeted eight buildings in drastic need of saving from neglect or redevelopment. Past landmarks include the historic and funky Alviso waterfront. Making its second appearance on the list is Willis Polk’s nearly 120-year-old First Church of Christ Scientist building at St James Park, rotting away in plain sight—one more St. James Park denizen covered with patches and torn blankets. Another hard-luck case returning to the list is the 1949-built Moderne-style Burbank Theater on Bascom Avenue.

Sam’s Downtown Feed closed last year
and is being marketed as a teardown. 

Polk’s church and the Burbank reappear on the 2023 list; Leech notes that the exterior of the theater has deteriorated in the last year. “The owners think they can get $3 million for it. I don’t know what they’re thinking: ‘It’s in worse shape so let’s sell it for twice as much.’” Leech had some difficulty wondering about whether to repeat the previous year’s list, or to use the opportunity to highlight other buildings at risk. “So we decided to split the difference.”

New names on the Endangered 8 list include the Ban Family Farmstead on traffic-ridden Winchester Boulevard; the spread has historic buildings and more than 50 fruit trees, but it faces potential redevelopment.

IBM’s Building 11 is one of the last survivors of the Cottle Campus, a key place in the rise of the electronic world. Nearby is the IBM cafeteria, in basically good shape. “It could be a future museum, or it could be a future parking facility,” Leech says.

The Levi Strauss Factory building could be demolished to make way for yet another parking lot—or it could be adaptively reused.
IBM Building 11, once envisioned as a museum space or community center, has languished since the mid-2000s.

San Jose’s Mission-style Diridon Station, built in 1935, is in the path of the California high speed rail line construction. It also has some rich and expansive neighbors in the form of Google’s proposed Downtown West development, even though the brakes have been put on this megaproject.

On PAC*SJ’s 2023 list are a couple of buildings on St. John Street near the SAP Center. One is a venerable Civil War-era shanty known as Milligan Lot. The other is the Depression-era Forman’s Arena, where boxers once battled. Included in the parcel is creekside land that will be affected, if the bulldozing comes to pass.

“They’re interesting buildings, but they’re background buildings,” Leech says. “But continuing on this path to create more parking lots is really short-sighted. Forman’s Arena is a natural for an entertainment district. It could be a beer garden.”


The creekside site of a rare Civil War-era cottage and Forman’s Arena could be bulldozed to construct overflow parking for the SAP Center.


Promises of restoring the nearly ruined Alum Rock Park Log Cabin are hobbled by a Parks Department budget deficit.
Left, photo courtesy History San Jose. Right, photo courtesy PAC*SJ.

Buildings such as these have names that don’t ring a bell, and that’s the problem. PAC*SJ does what it can to track structures worth preserving, but it’s a small group with limited resources. Leech comments, “We only hear about threats to historic buildings after someone has bought something. We hear, ‘Nobody told us this was historic.’ It’s tough for us, doing research after something is threatened.

“Part of our job is to raise awareness, and not let matters take the path of least resistance…up until the point where someone realizes that Diridon Station has to be demolished for a parking lot.”

He adds, “What we can do is to keep these properties in the public eye. We’re not going to win every case. But every once in a while, we can facilitate getting the right owner to the right project.”

In the meantime, what Leech terms a “happy accident” has become a way of raising funds for the council while also raising San Jose’s sense of place—and giving history buffs some interesting accouterments.

It’s all a side effect of the successful campaign to save the dancing pig neon sign. This neon pig on the since-demised Stephen’s Meat Products factory greeted arrivals at Diridon Station for many years. Currently the sign is mounted at the History San Jose grounds, after a successful campaign to save it that involved selling T-shirts and buttons. Leech was virtually attending a conference of neon sign admirers in San Francisco who wanted to purchase enamel pins featuring the prancing neon piggie, even though that particular item didn’t yet exist. So PAC*SJ decided to create one. 

PAC*SJ’s miniature versions of
iconic neon signs sell out fast.

Now there are other pins that celebrate San Jose landmarks, including the tower of the Burbank Theater, the Western Appliance sign, the Y-Not? Bar, and the fine neon scarlet macaw that used to perch outside Andy’s Pet Shop on The Alameda. And gone but not forgotten, the recently martyred Century 21 domes.

The signscapes of San Jose, a hundred feet high on metal poles, may not be the Golden Gate bridge, but they take what can be a flat, uncontrollably expanded town and give it a sense of personality.

“These pins help us self-ID with the city,” Leech says. “They’re relatively inexpensive, and kind of quirky. There’s something about miniaturization that makes them more effective. We do variations on the four new signs every couple of months and they sell out fast.

“I keep waiting for the market to crash,” Leech finishes. “We don’t want to be just a gift shop. Still, these pins blaze awareness of what makes San Jose cool, and elevates it in the public consciousness.”

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