From Banks to Burgers

Blochman Bank Building


635 Fifth Avenue

            Architect: Unknown

Builder : W.Y. Wentz

Architectural Style : late Victorian/Commercial

Inflation ,the cost of living and the cost of housing is skyrocketing these days, and it is now more expensive to live in San Diego than in San Francisco! The median price for housing in downtown is currently $849,000! This represents quite a change from 1867, when Alonzo Horton sold six city blocks to J.B. Beers for $100! Two years later, Mr. Beers sold Lots A. B. and C to James M. Pierce for $2,000. One can never go wrong purchasing real estate in San Diego!

Throughout the ensuing years, several businesses occupied these strategically located lots including a gun shop, a fruit and cigar store, and a jeweler. Mr. Pierce passed away in 1887 leaving quite an extensive estate. The estate was finally settled in 1895, and at a public sale, L. E. Pratt purchased lots B and C for $2,000. Pratt retained his properties until 1904, when he quit claimed the south half of Lot C to the Blochman Banking Company for $10.00. The following year, Abraham Blochman retained Walter Y. Wentz to erect a bank building on lot C for $3,000.

When completed  in December of 1905, the building presented as a reinforced concrete structure with a 25 foot frontage on Fifth Avenue and running nearly 100 feet to the east. It was single-story ,16 feet in height, with 12 inch walls separating it from its neighbors on the north and south in the front 2/3 of the buildings. The structure included a large lightwell  (skylight) in the front portion of the building and a large vault in the center rear. The vault has now been converted into a partial second story. There were two small rooms in the back, a composition roof and no basement. 

The interior was nicely finished in dark wood, with two teller’s stations along the south wall and two marble writing stands in the center of the intricately tiled floor for customers’ use. The Blochman Banking Company moved into the new location, 635 Fifth Avenue, from their previous location 607 Fifth Avenue, in December of 1905, and remained until 1913. The two principals of the company were Abraham Blochman and his son, Lucian. The elder Blochman was born in Alsace, France and arrived in San Diego in 1852 en route to San Francisco. He had hoped to seek his fortune in gold during the Gold Rush, but became distracted and remained in San Diego. He became a naturalized citizen in 1861, and opened a highly successful general merchandise store. Additionally, he was elected Director of the San Diego Board of Trade in 1892. However, he still had an interest in gold, and began buying and selling it in his store. Eventually, he began buying and selling so much gold that he and his son established a partnership, and became the Blochman Banking Company, the oldest private bank in San Diego. 

Blochman Banking Company was so successful that, eventually, they handled all the gold bullion and gold dust from Lower California and San Diego County. Their extensive banking business boasted as being the only banking business dealing directly with Mexico City, Guadalajara, Mazatlan, Ensenada and other cities in lower Mexico. They also dealt with Hong Kong, Yokohama and Manilla. At all times they had at hand large sums of Mexican and Philippine money , as well as funds from other foreign countries. The Blochmans also transacted general banking business in their downtown location and in all their branch offices.

As they bought and sold gold and foreign money, issued letters of credit, bought stocks and bonds and exchanged foreign money, they were effectively the Travelex of the times!

In late May of 1906, the Blochman Banking Company sold the south half of lot C to Walter Wentz for $8,000. Apparently, the two parties became involved in a dispute stemming from the estate of the late Lucius G. Pratt, and in 1913, Wentz sued the Blochmans for the north half of the lot. Wentz prevailed, and the man who had built the bank building now had full title to the property! The Blochmans leased back the property from Wentz, but  departed the premises in 1914. Thus, began the saga of the Blochman Bank Company!

The bank quickly changed its name to the Security Commercial and Savings Bank in 1914. In 1928, the bank became Security Trust and Savings Bank of San Diego. In 1957, the name changed yet again, as the company merged with Security First National Bank of Los Angeles. In 1968, another change occurred, and the bank became Security Pacific National Bank. Finally – in the early 1990s, Bank of America bought out Security Pacific National Bank, and the saga of the Blochman Bank Company ended.

After the Blochman Bank Company vacated the premises in 1914, the property became a type of “ combination store” housing several businesses occasionally simultaneously. These enterprises included retail cigar and tobacco shops, billiard parlors, barbers, restaurants and beverage stands. In 1958, the Independent Barber College took up residence, and remained until 1977. They were followed, in 1978, by the Royal Academy of Hair Design, who remained until redevelopment of the Gaslamp forced them to leave in the late 80s.

The new and very popular resident of the Blochman Bank Building is The Melt, a casual eatery specializing in burgers, ice cream sodas, mac n cheese and other grilled sandwiches and fare. They are also open until 2 am to accommodate those who need a snack before hitting the road after the bars close!

The building remains essentially as it was built, proving that old buildings can be repurposed, rehabilitated and adapted to meet the demands of changing times. in the long run, the Blochmans prevailed.

Sandee is the Historian/Lead Tour Guide for the Gaslamp Quarter Histori-cal Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].