Old courthouse turned museum stands test of time

Shortly after the oldest courtroom in the Redwood City Courthouse was renovated and turned into a museum, a man peeked in to admire the elaborate antique stained-glass skylight, which takes up most of the ceiling.

He’d been in the building before, but had never noticed the skylight — he was getting sentenced, the man told museum director Mitch Postel.

Thousands came before the bench under the massive and ornate colored-glass ceiling during the years it crowned the courtroom. But after decades in the service of the law, the building is now devoted to introducing San Mateo County’s rich history to visitors.

The courthouse, one of the most spectacular in the nation, will be celebrating its centennial next year.

By the time it was shut down, in 1988, the courthouse had been gradually usurped by newer civic buildings that sprung up around it. Judges who presided there convinced county leaders the historic structure was an earthquake trap, a security disaster waiting to happen and no longer serviceable as a modern courthouse, Postel said.

That was when the San Mateo County Historical Association stepped in. After a $20 million investment of equal parts public and private money, the group reinforced the building against earthquakes and restored it to its former opulence.

Nothing demonstrates that opulence more clearly than the 40-square-foot main rotunda, the largest stained-glass dome in a public building west of the Mississippi.

It’s a relic of a time when the public was willing to invest what today would seem like a galling amount of money in creating beautifully crafted public buildings. It’s also a relic of what Postel describes as the jingoistic feel of the era, when Americans were feeling unabashedly patriotic and positive. Testament to this sentiment is the roughly 150 bald eagles that adorn almost every surface of the rotunda and the dome’s red, white and blue motif.

To celebrate the building’s centennial, the museum plans to publish a booklet about its history and host a celebration July 4, the 100th anniversary of the day the building was opened to the public.

The museum now hosts several interactive exhibits, including one that treats visitors to a virtual ride on the famous waves at Mavericks.

Yet, there’s more that the Historical Association would like to do with the site, including adding another three exhibits — among them a hands-on showcase for children called the “courthouse attic,” an interactive newsroom exhibit and a commercial exhibit that tracks the Peninsula’s business development from the historic Woodside Store to modern-day eBay.

In the meantime, the museum will continue to host tens of thousands of visitors a year, many of whom are drawn to the ornate building itself.

Postel doesn’t blame them.

“Really, can you imagine any government building something like this today?” he said as he stared up at the colored glass above him. “It just wouldn’t happen.”



Going back in time

History of Redwood City Courthouse and surrounding area:

1858: S.M. Mezes donates land to San Mateo County; by December, first courthouse is constructed
1868: Earthquake strikes; second floor of building is removed
1882: New courthouse is built
1905: Modern courthouse is built
1906: Courthouse is demolished by earthquake; scandal ensues around how quickly it fell
1910: New, stronger courthouse is constructed; it’s designed to be more earthquake-resistant, but is otherwise similar to previous building; building still stands
1935: The San Mateo County Historical Association is established
1939: New building is built immediately adjacent to old courthouse after space becomes too small
1941: First County Museum opens at San Mateo College in downtown San Mateo
1950s: Hall of Justice in County Center constructed, expanding court facilities
1994: San Mateo County begins discussions with Historical Association about converting the old courthouse into a museum
1998: Old courthouse closed
1999: County Museum opens in the old courthouse
2006: 1940s building adjacent to courthouse is demolished, making way for Courthouse Square
2010: Old courthouse will celebrate centennial

Source: San Mateo County Historical Association

Pacifica’s Sanchez Adobe showcases early state history

What place has been an American Indian village, a Spanish mission outpost, the home of a powerful San Francisco mayor, a speakeasy, a brothel and an artichoke storage facility?

That place of many histories is the Sanchez Adobe of Pacifica, one of the oldest buildings on the West Coast. It was constructed between 1842 and 1846 and is still standing.

The adobe was built by Francisco Sanchez on the site of the ancient Ohlone village of Pruristac and on the ruins of an outpost of San Francisco’s mission.

Sanchez was one of San Francisco’s first alcaldes, or mayors, in the era when California was still Mexican land. He led a short-lived rebellion against the U.S. after Mexico lost control of the territory, but he eventually cooperated and became a fabulously rich man before falling off his horse and dying in 1862.

The building with 4-foot-thick adobe walls, along with 5 acres of land, was given to San Mateo County for preservation in the 1940s.

The San Mateo County Historical Association has run the house as a museum ever since.

The house has become a standby for school field trips, particularly for the Peninsula’s
fifth-graders when they are learning about California history, said Mitch Postel, executive director of the San Mateo County Museum.

The adobe building still serves its purpose, but it’s sorely in need of updates. The museum hopes to raise about $4 million in the coming years to build a new visitors’ center on the land, where the museum’s popular hands-on exhibits can be moved, Postel said.

The adobe itself could be renovated to replicate the inside of an adobe house from 1840, he said.

— Katie Worth

Bay Area NewsLocalmuseumSan Mateo County

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