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The wonderful failure that is Benicia

by Steve McKee on November 14, 2004

Ever notice the easy way that architectural styles co-mingle in Benicia? It’s fairly unique, even among older cities, to have as much diversity as we do. Take a look around at the different house combinations in the older parts of town.

A couple of folk Victorians may share a block with a Spanish style cottage, a World War II era duplex, and a Craftsman bungalow. On a corner may be a little house that started its life as someone’s fishing cabin. Sometimes you’ll find a barn tucked in somewhere. (Of all the clues that show us that lifestyles have evolved over time in this city, it’s those barns that really do it for me.)

One of Benicia’s finest aspects, its melting pot of architectural diversity, has everything to do with the fact that the city never lived up to the original vision of its founders, Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin. Semple had big plans for our little hamlet, hoping its deep water harbors and proximity to the heart of California would create a major metropolis. Indeed, today we can see the optimism evident in the whopping 80 foot wide right-of-ways he had established for many of the streets (very “big city” in attitude), which subsequently got paved with only 36 feet or so of asphalt (very “Mayberry RFD.”) When the gold rush came just a few years after Semple laid out Benicia, it turned out that San Francisco became the “go to” city, effectively quashing Benicia’s chances to become the urban center for the region.

There was never a definitive boom period for Benicia in which the vacant lots were largely filled in all at once. While boom periods came and went for other cities, causing those cities to rapidly complete their development, Benicia crept along in the slow lane.

San Francisco had the gold rush and the decades following. Vallejo had the world war booms. Concord had the 1960’s suburban growth phenomena. Benicia took 150 years to slowly fill out its downtown and surrounding area. (Though, arguably the 1980s and 90s may be Benicia’s era of rapid expansion, though this was largely confined to north of the freeway, i.e. Southampton.)

This ultra slow maturing of Benicia’s downtown area is well described by Robert Bruegmann in his book Benicia – Portrait of an Early California Town published in 1980.

“Benicia’s history can be seen as consisting of an almost unbroken string of defeats,” wrote Bruegmann. Despite the seeming negativity in that statement, Bruegmann is really quite the fan of Benicia’s architectural heritage. He was the architectural historian who had a key role in completing the 1976 Historic American Buildings Survey of Benicia which helped to jump start Benicia’s awareness of its treasure trove of architecturally significant structures.

Benicia’s defeats, as Bruegmann sees it, are:
1. The 1850’s loss of status to San Francisco as a major city center for the west;
2. Having and then losing the state capital;
3. Never becoming the educational center Benicia later aspired to be;
4. Never obtaining significant industry as hoped at the start of the twentieth century;
5. The loss of the U.S. Army arsenal in the 1960’s.

“This checkered history may prove, however, to be Benicia’s greatest blessing,” wrote
Bruegmann in 1980. “One major result of the town’s lack of development to date has been to spare the central area of Benicia many of the unfortunate consequences of continual development.”

That’s what’s best about this town, the easy mix of the different eras. It’s not like we’re a Victorian era town. We’re more than that. We have a town that has grown about as organically as possible, a sort of stew on a slow simmer, into which different spices are periodically added to the mix.

And how cool is it that this all happened on beautiful rolling hills overlooking a beautiful waterway that happens to be where the rivers of California meet before joining the sea? A place whose shore is studded with little bays and coves lined with short sandstone cliffs that sure seem a lot more suitable for relaxed afternoons spent fishing rather than for the world commerce originally envisioned by the city’s founders.

The grid of streets and city blocks that was laid out in 1847 had little concern for how it met the natural topography. This can be seen in the steep slope of West 13th Street, for example. A wonderful thing resulted from this simplistic approach: wherever a street met the water, the city had use of a “right-of-way” which allowed for the creation of numerous little pocket parks, all with a view of the water and often even allowing people direct access to the water.

West 4th Street has a little toddler play-set that overlooks a small bay. East 5th and West 9th end in boat ramps. All of these unused street-ways seem to have at least a bench or two that look out over the water. Even among these bench overlooks, the variety is really quite nice, some shady and cozy, like West 2nd Street, some up above a cliff with a grander panorama, like West 11th. A happenstance that I particularly like is the way the shore cuts in along the length of West I Street between 4th and 5th just enough to allow room only for a long pedestrian path which follows the cliff top above the water while sending cars onto other streets.

Semple’s vision of urban splendor may have fizzled, but thankfully for those of us who enjoy the sleepier aspects of life by the Carquinez Straits, life here is not half bad.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all this ruminating has got me anxious to get outside. I can see that it’s turned into quite a nice day and a breeze is doing wonderful things to the water. Two small sailboats are out, and the afternoon sun is starting to make the water sparkle in the best kind of way. A bike ride may be in order, perhaps to the end of West 8th street. World commerce may not be happening there, but there is a bench with a view in the shade of a eucalyptus tree that’s really quite wonderful.

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