Unmasking two historic gems in downtown

First National Bank postcard
First National Bank built in 1910.

Most people in San Jose can point out the historic Bank of Italy spire that stands 14 stories above downtown. Or the Art Deco De Anza Hotel. But not many people can point out the First National Bank building, an early Californian steel-frame office tower, built nearly two decades earlier than it’s neighboring iconic counterpart, the Bank of Italy building across South First Street.

First National Bank today
First National Bank building 2015.

The reason for the the building’s ambiguity, is due to the 1962 “modern” re-skinning in bronze and white marble. It is this that facade remains today. The building, now known more for the Walgreen’s on the ground floor, than it’s historic silhouette, was sold in 2013 to a Chinese investor, and sits empty(sans Walgreen’s). Imagine what lies beneath that modern marble skin. The beautiful and intricate details, the kind of architecture that it’s neighbor proudly boasts.

Valley Title building
Valley Title Building built in 1931

Another such hidden asset, is the Valley Title building built in 1931 on South First Street in the present day SoFA District. This building along with the accompany parking lot is slated for redevelopment, but has the potential to become an anchor building on a prime corner of the district. Once the brick facade is removed, and the storefronts are built back out, the architecture would fall in line with the other historic resources on the block: The Saint Claire Apartments, the California Theater, as well as the other numerous one and two story brick buildings along the street.

Valley Title building today
The Valley Title building 2015

Though this blog consistently advocates for modern progressive design in the new buildings that are built downtown, San Jose lacks a historic identity. The restoration and preservation of these resources is imperative to the design story of San Jose. In a time when the rest of downtown’s  building designs are modernizing, maybe this is the time for our historical assets to be unmasked and revealed for the beauty that is hidden underneath the walls.

Of course it isn’t as simple as removing bricks, or pulling off marble, but the innate beauty that these facade “improvements” are hiding should be worth the trouble. There was a time when these modern cover ups were acceptable and even preferred, but now the buildings lack identity and interest. Both stand mostly or completely vacant in a time when office vacancy in downtown are the lowest levels in decades. Today companies and people are deciding where they want to live and work based on interesting, unique and exciting places. The desire for visual identity of these buildings and places has never been stronger.

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