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DOWNTOWN HISTORIC DISTRICT

The Downtown Historic District is the heart of San Mateo.  

Not only visually and architecturally, but historically - particularly in understanding San Mateo's development between 1890 and 1950.

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The majority of structures lining Downtown's two main, intersecting streets of East Third Avenue and South B Street retain a high degree of historical and architectural integrity.  That was the basis for the historic district identified in the 1989 Historic Building Survey and officially designated as a local district by the City in 1993.  The entire district is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. 

 

The Draft Historic Resources component of the new General Plan 2040, however, removes much of the language in the current General Plan, weakening and substantially curtailing historic resource protections and putting the Downtown Historic District at risk of irreparable harm. The city's Alternative Evaluation warned that the aggressive growth alternative chosen by the City Council “could effect the integrity of the buildings and the Historic District,” and would likely “result in development incompatible with the existing historic fabric surrounding the Downtown Historic District.”

San Mateo Heritage Alliance believes that stronger policies are necessary to protect our historic resources.  That's why we have drafted a Recommended Alternative Historic Resources Element and submitted it to the City. 

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Some of the buildings within the district are outstanding local examples of a particular period or style that might be judged individually on their own merits as qualifying for landmark status or contributing structures to the district.  Others may not be great architecture individually, but can still be considered contributors to the district.  The point of a district is to preserve all structures that contribute to the overall historical appearance of the area.  Those that have been altered or added in more recent history are called "non-contributors" and do not receive the same status as "contributors." 

The Downtown Historic District begins at Baldwin Avenue on the west side of South B Street and continues south on both sides of the street to Third Avenue.  Along this section of B Street, one finds the greatest diversity in styles and age of downtown structures.  All are one to two stories in height.  Building materials include brick, glazed terra cotta, and reinforced concrete with plastered exteriors.  Most structures date from before 1900 to the late 1930s and thus display great diversity in terms of architectural embellishment.  The most visually impressive structure on South B, (and probably in all of San Mateo) is the two-story Merkel Building at the corner of 2nd and South B Street.  It has richly embellished terra cotta surfaces, a graceful line of arches running across the facades and square towers anchoring two of the corners.

Most Third Avenue buildings were built in the 1920s through the late 1930s, representing a variety of building styles and scale.  While most are one to two stories in height, the nine and one-half story Spanish Colonial Revival style Benjamin Franklin Hotel (now Draper University) and the five-story Art Deco Medical Arts building dominate the street.  

Each block of East Third Avenue maintains a distinct character.  The block between El Camino and San Mateo Drive is a mix of Spanish Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival, somewhat reminiscent of a commercial street in an imaginary European village.  The 100 block of East Third is the weakest visual link in the district.  The 200 block contains an eclectic mix of more modern facades, including the floral patterned, Art Deco Medical Arts building.

The district also includes several structures on First and Second Avenues between South B and South Ellsworth.  The most distinctive structures are St. Matthews Hotel, dating from about 1900; the Greek Revival commercial building (originally the Bank of San Mateo) at 2nd and South B, designed in 1925 by W. H. Weeks; and the Spanish Colonial Revival Fire Station, the only remaining structure from the 1939 City Hall complex designed by William Toepke.

Of particular note is the Saint Matthew's Station Post Office at 210 South Ellsworth.

Built in 1935 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is a fine example of the Mission Revival style of architecture. The design of the building, as well as the murals contained within it, are highly reflective of the early, Spanish-dominated history of the area. Additionally, they are representative of predominant California trends in federal art and architecture of the period in which they were produced.

Take a Downtown walking tour:

Virtual Downtown San Mateo Walking Tour

 Self-Guided Downtown Historic District Walking Tour

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"We regret much of what we've built; we regret much of what we've torn down.  But we've never regretted preserving anything." 

 - Daniel Sack, Campaign for Greater Buffalo

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