The Onyx Hotel Building
852 Fifth Avenue
Architectural Style: Modern Commercial
This property, like all others, was originally owned by Alonzo Horton. In 1868, he sold the lot to another notable early San Diegan – Capt. Samuel S. Dunnells – for $500 in gold coin. Capt. Dunnells is credited to have built the first hotel in Newtown (San Diego) in the early 1850s. Throughout the years, the property exchanged hands on a regular basis, with the only buildings on the site being a series of frame, one-story structures, which housed various businesses. These included a millinery store/residence run by Mrs. Artie A. Cosper, a jeweler, real estate offices , two restaurants, barbers, a photographer and a cigar store. The most consistent businesses, however, were the Mercantile Restaurant and Fashion Dye Works.
Finally, in 1910, the property was sold to S.W. Grier and Arthur and Louise Cosgrove. The new owners initially hired contractor T.W. Coates to construct the current building, but a contract dated two weeks after Coates was hired indicates that the actual commission was awarded to the Standard Iron Works. Coates was to have constructed an adjoining building, also with a 50 foot frontage, for a different owner, who also replaced Coates with Standard Iron Works. It was additionally noted that the new building would replace the last frame landmarks on the Fifth Avenue business corridor. The cost for the combined buildings was $55,000.
The structure was designed in the modern commercial style, which was beginning to be the norm in the burgeoning commercial district. It was said to be patterned after the nearby Fritz Building on Fifth and F Streets. The three-story building was built of cream colored pressed brick with prism glass and plate glass fronts. As the building was intended for commercial use, the large plate glass windows allowed for maximum display opportunities. On the interior ground floor , located between two 25-foot storage areas, was a stairway leading to the upper floors. The upper floors were divided into rooms and apartments. The central doorway was crowned with decorative stained glass. As the the earliest and longest tenant was the Onyx Hotel, the words “The Onyx” were outlined in green and white tiles in the inside of the main entrance, as well as on the stained glass above the entrance.
From 1911 through 1938, the Onyx Hotel operated on the upper floors. Throughout those years, it had several proprietors and managers, several who had auxiliary enterprises on the premises, and things were not always peaceful at the Onyx. In 1917, under the direction of Mayor Louis Wilde, a police squad raided the hotel. It was widely rumored that the current owner/manager, Mrs. Alexandrea (Ramon) Garcia, was illegally selling alcohol to servicemen. Indeed, numerous sailors and soldiers were caught at the hotel, and bottles of beer, wine, gin and whiskey were confiscated. Later, it was rumored to be a “locker club,” where servicemen could keep a locker with their civilian clothes to change into before embarking on a night on the town. The 1921 Sanborn Fire Map clearly reveals steel trusses built to hold up lockers and labeled as such. In 1939, the Onyx became the Rex Hotel, and in 1941, it became the Gates and remained so until 1956. It later became SRO affordable housing under the ownership of Mrs. Zondra Schmidt, a local pioneer in the modern Gaslamp revitalization and restoration.
The downstairs of the building housed a variety of businesses that were more stable in longevity than the earlier businesses in the frame structures. Robert Cleator operated a retail shoe store from 1911 through 1915, and Smith’s Clothes for Men would sell you a new Fall suit for $15.00! From 1917 until 1925, San Diego Gas and Electric occupied the lower floor. They were followed by an optometrist, an insurance company and several attorneys.
The most recent incarnation for this historic structure is the Onyx subterranean nightclub, boasting music, local DJs, international talent and the best night in the Gaslamp. Unfortunately, it is now temporarily closed due to the COVD 19 pandemic restrictions.
Sandee is the Historian/Lead Tour Guide for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].