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History in the Making: Revisit the Streets of Spanishtown in the 1800s

Old Half Moon Bay comes to life through a new historical diorama at the Zaballa House on Main St., presented by the Half Moon Bay History Association.

In the mid-1800s, Half Moon Bay's first city planner, Estanislao Zaballa, built a house for himself that approximately 150 years later would play host to a bed and breakfast and one of the main efforts to preserve the city's history.

Inside Main Street's , the Half Moon Bay History Association is developing an artful diorama of old Half Moon Bay, or Spanishtown, as it was called over 150 years ago. It depicts the city's downtown grid and the businesses and residences that were present in the mid-1800s.  Using the earliest survey done as background, a Coast Survey report by W.M. Johnson from 1861, model buildings are being created to display the city as it was, so that new generations of residents and tourists can learn from it and simply enjoy it.

"Not every community can have a real sense of history and pride," says Dave Cresson, President of the Half Moon Bay History Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. "The Coastside has a rich history to be proud of."

Upon studying the old survey, Cresson was able to get a sense of the placement, size, and shape of the footprint of each Spanishtown building.  To give proper guidance to future model builders, such as scale that could fit into the display room, Cresson developed his Styrofoam building prototypes.

The diorama covers the area from today's Main Street Bridge to Correas Street, and from Johnston Street to Church Street (formerly called Ocean Street).  Spanishtown development occurred on a land grant called Rancho Pilarcitos, near the creek of the same name.  The land was owned by Candelario Miramontes, who received the grant just before the California Gold Rush of 1848 and 1849.  Early Americans and others settled on his vast property, including James Johnston of Ohio and Estanislao Zaballa from Spain.

Zaballa married Miramontes' eldest daughter, built his family home, and became somewhat of a real estate investor and businessman.  He established a hotel, stables, and general store along Spanishtown's Main Street.  Additional businesses in Spanishtown included a popular store owned by iconic General John Bidwell's nephew Henry, a bakery, a mill, a wagon repair shop, and a blacksmith business.  There were also a couple of barns and adobe homes, including those belonging to Miramontes.

Except for Zaballa House, drawings or photographs of the buildings that lined downtown are nonexistent.  Cresson had to do some sleuthing, in addition to reviewing the survey, to uncover the construction methods and look of other buildings. He researched equivalent buildings of the time to design the other diorama prototypes.  For Melvin Halstead's San Benito Flour Mill, Cresson found a drawing of St. Helena's Bale Mill from the 1860s to base his replica on. He also studied the exterior of the County Historical Association's Woodside Store museum for examples of shop design of the times, as well as a barn in Purisima for two barn reproductions.  With dimensions accounted for, known and presumed aspects were combined, says Cresson. "Fortunately, the buildings of the time were meticulously recorded, " he says.

As for its looks today, Zaballa House has naturally changed a bit since 1861.  Though it has only had three owners in its history, today its front porch and balcony are missing, as are its fireplace chimneys.  There is a new front room and kitchen pantry area.

For the diorama, two buildings have been finished to date:  the Zaballa House and the Miramontes Adobe.  Cresson created the foam models, but realized he needed artistic help in creating the permanent ones. He spotted a feature article on local model builders Tom and Julie Andersen of El Granada.  The couple ran a business called Andersen Model Kits and were considered expert model builders.

After speaking with Cresson, the Andersens determined the project would be something they would take on as a labor of love. The couple charged the History Association a mere $200 per building for 40 hours of work between the couple.  "With all their time and effort, it is a charitable donation," says Cresson. 

Julie, a former Silicon Valley executive, and Tom, longtime past owner of El Granada Hardware and a Coastside native, have created model sets for railroad hobbyists for years, building their own business locally and abroad. "Few people's roots run deeper than his," says Cresson of Tom, who Cresson says has a vested interest in keeping community history alive. 

The goal is to finish one building per month and Cresson estimates that the complete diorama, with a dozen buildings to go, will be ready for display in one year. Each permanent structure requires a die to be created and pieces are gently slipped in place and secured with glue.  Architectural details are added to reveal construction methods and materials.  All is done by hand by the Andersens in their El Granada Highlands workspace.

Julie claims the Adobe house the Andersens just completed for the project is the best model they've ever built.  It shows the white wash of the building and uncovered adobe brick under a sturdy roof.  Since there are no available photographs or pictures of the Miramontes Adobe where Candelario and Delores lived, Dave, Tom and Julie based its architectural details on the remaining Sanchez Adobe structure in Pacifica.  Sanchez Adobe was owned by Francisco Sanchez and built around the same time period.

For the project to be successful, monetary help is necessary. Cresson is hoping Coastside residents or businesses will consider sponsoring a building as they are being made, giving them a chance to leave their own mark on local history.  He encourages people to visit the ongoing development of the display and witness its progress, while learning the history behind it.

The Zaballa House's History Room features the diorama, as well as artifacts, maps, and educational displays of California and Half Moon Bay history.  Also on display are pieces from Cresson's Pennsylvania family collection.  The room has been filled with items that create an opportunity for a self-guided tour, though with a phone call someone from the History Association, usually Cresson, will meet with visitors. 

"I have always been interested in history," says Cresson, who works with a Board of Directors and five full-time representatives to bring Spanishtown and Zaballa House alive to visitors and the approximately 40 members of the Half Moon Bay History Association.  "Our main purpose is to answer questions for people interested in local history," he says. 

The Zaballa House and history room are open every day, due to the bed and breakfast (B&B) business.  Cresson spent many years as a corporate market researcher and purchased the property in the 1970s for his own office space.  He and his wife now share the B&B duties, with him giving History Room introductions and writing the History Association's monthly newsletter, among other duties.  Cresson has also published a local history book, The Treasures of Half Moon Bay, which is available for purchase at Zaballa House for $10.  

Cresson encourages locals to become a member of the Half Moon Bay History Association.  Annual dues are $25. For now, he will continue to guide the diorama project to completion. "Anyone interested in helping sponsor the buildings of old Spanishtown," Cresson says, "will be enthusiastically greeted when they call."  

Learn more about the Zaballa House by visiting its website. Cresson can be reached at (650) 726-4468.

Dawn Conley December 01, 2011 at 04:57 PM
I just read your article , War came too close to Coastside in 1941. I lived with my grandparents on the Roe ranch in San Gregorio in 1941. From my grandmother's kitchen window she had a full view of the San Gregorio bridge. We could see convoys patroling it. She had company of soldiers camp on the property. Many of the young men in the area left for war. Bob Peterson, Tony Andrade just to mention a few that I can remember. Inside the Peterson and Alsford store, by the bar, there hung a picture of all the men from the area in various branches of the service. Across the street from the store, the Army erected a tower with sirene which they maned to watch the coastline. Your aticle brought back so many memories , thank you, Dawn Conley

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