Editor’s note: This article continues a series that looks at Solano County’s historic buildings and places. Stories appear periodically.
VALLEJO — A popular feature at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum is something usually associated more with submarines than a 1927 Renaissance Revival building that once served as a City Hall.
A periscope at the top of the front entrance stairway rises out of the roof, allowing people to have a 360-degree view of Vallejo without stepping outside. It came from the USS Baya, a submarine decommissioned at Mare Island in 1980.
“It always attracts people,” museum Executive Director Jim Kern said.
The old Vallejo City Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. It owes its life to the museum.
By 1975, Vallejo was building a new City Hall on Santa Clara Street near the waterfront. It would soon no longer need the downtown building at 734 Marin St. and talk came up of destroying the structure.
It’s an old story for old buildings, even ones with historic significance: They outlive their original purpose and can’t find a new one. Vallejo over the years has lost such buildings as the Vallejo Women’s Club, designed by architect Julia Morgan, who is known for designing Hearst Castle. The Women’s Club building was constructed in 1921 and demolished in the early 1960s.
The old City Hall met a different fate. Vallejo agreed to lease the building to the Vallejo Naval and Historic Museum for 25 years. That lease got renewed and now extends until 2025.
“Hopefully at that time, the city will still appreciate what we do and renew the lease again,” Kern said.
The museum displays the history of Mare Island and Vallejo inside a building that is a piece of the city’s history. Kern has worked at the old City Hall since 1989, so he’s had a long time to become acquainted with it.
“I think it’s in good condition for its age,” Kern said with a smile. “But it does have a lot of idiosyncrasies, you could say.”
The electrical system is up to code, but circuits in panels on one floor connect to uses on another. Kern said there is no rhyme or reason to how it works.
“It’s hard to tell what’s live, what’s abandoned as far as old drain lines, old electrical lines – all kinds of things,” he said.
But unlike some Solano County historic buildings, the old City Hall gets a level of maintenance to keep it from deteriorating. For example, Vallejo recently put a new roof on it.
An attic inspection prior to the roof installation uncovered another relic, in this case an old Yellowstone whiskey bottle. Kern speculated that a one-time city worker kept it there and went up to the attic to sneak a drink on the job.
The museum is crammed full of Vallejo’s history, from old swords and uniforms to old typewriters to the six-foot-tall telephone switchboard that once served Vallejo residents.
Visitors will also see reminders that the building once served as a City Hall. The entrance to the city manager’s office still has the words “city manager” across the window on the door. A sign tells visitors where they can go to pay their bills.
The old City Council chamber is now used for community shows and events. Kern pointed to the three holes drilled in the backs of the old-fashioned, red-upholstery seats. Those mystery holes served a purpose during those decades when citizens went to the chamber to listen to their city leaders.
“Only two people have gotten it right off the bat,” Kern said. “They were for ashtrays.”
Another era, to be sure.
The old Vallejo City Hall opened in 1927, a prosperous time for the city, the same year when the Carquinez Bridge opened and brought increased auto traffic through the area.
Some might argue that old buildings that have outlived their uses might as well be destroyed, especially given the cost of maintaining them. Some might see no reasons to keep architectural monuments to faded glory days.
Kern, who has liked history since growing up in Ohio and being taken by his parents to Civil War sites, has a different view. Not all old buildings are worth saving, he said. But some are significant for their original use and some for their architecture, he said.
With the old Vallejo City Hall, it’s a combination of both factors, Kern said. The challenge, he said, is coming up with an appropriate new use for a historic building.
The old Vallejo City Hall is among Solano County’s historic buildings that have been reborn.
“It just worked out perfectly as a museum,” Kern said.
The Vallejo Naval and Historic museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Please go to http://www.vallejomuseum.org/ or call 643-0077 for more information.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.