San Luis Obispo old buildings share city’s unique past

The top of the Anderson Hotel

If you peer through the window at the Anderson Barbershop in San Luis Obispo, you’ll glimpse into an era that existed long before apps, drones and smartphones. But while the faded barber pole, wooden chairs and antiquated radiator seem fixed in another time, the expression “if these walls could talk” applies to the shop’s unique history.

Old buildings in San Luis Obispo aren’t just interesting to look at — they also house memories that play a vital part in the evolution of the community.

While the 160-year-old city has many historically significant buildings and monuments, here’s a quick look at some of the more interesting, easy-to-find ones:

ANDERSON BARBERSHOP, 954 Monterey Street

In the 1930s, the road to San Simeon wasn’t so easy to navigate. So celebrities invited to visit William Randolph Hearst’s estate would often stop over at the Anderson Hotel, which had a large lobby and the convenience of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The Anderson Barbershop, owned by Levi Bond, was located at the bottom of the hotel. There Bond’s son, Courtney,carried an autograph book, in which he collected signatures of some of the famous guests who stopped by for haircuts.

Today Courtney Bond’s autograph book (owned by his son, Alan) reads like a guest book of former A-list celebs that rolled through town, including Clark Gable; Marlene Dietrich; H.G. Wells; Jack Dempsey; Walt Disney, Harpo Marx; the Three Stooges and Joan Crawford.

While the hotel, built by Jeff Anderson in 1922, now houses apartments, the barbershop remains, quietly adding to its history.  

AH LOUIS STORE, 800 Palm Street

In 1861, a Chinese immigrant named Wong Ong arrived in San Francisco, en route to his permanent home in San Luis Obispo. There, Capt. John Hartford dubbed him Ah Louis and enlisted Louis’s help in recruiting laborers to build a railroad route over the rugged Cuesta Grade.

The store Louis opened catered to many of those Chinese laborers, offering items like salted duck eggs, sea cucumbers and dried abalone. The building also served as a bank, a supply center and employment office in the thriving Chinatown area.

Ah Louis died in 1936 at the age of 94, but his store is a reminder of the Chinese workers who helped connect the north and south ends of the county.

CARNEGIE CITY LIBRARY, 696 Monterey Street

In the final 18 years of his life, Andrew Carnegie, a Scotsman who became a wealthy American industrialist, gave 90 percent of his fortune to charities — more than $350 million. (That’s close to $8 billion by today’s standards.) In the early 1900s, those gifts included 1,681 libraries he commissioned throughout the United States.

In 1905, a Carnegie-gifted library was built in San Luis Obispo. For 55 years, the Carnegie served as the city’s library. In 1956, after the library outgrew the building, the historical society moved in. The building was damaged by heavy rains in 1995, but it was retrofitted between 1998 and 2001.

Today it houses the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, which features a research room, collections and publications.

RAILROAD DISTRICT, 1011 Railroad Avenue

Those celebrities that visited Hearst often arrived at the Southern Pacific Railroad Train Depot, where Hearst guests would be escorted in a cab driven by Steve Zegar. Decades later, it’s likely that the railroad district looks even better than it did then, with many restored buildings.

Some of the highlights include the Spanish Colonial-style depot, completed in 1942 and restored in 1988. The Southern Pacific Freight Warehouse, built in 1894, has since been restored and made into the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum. And the water tower, built to service trains during World War II, still stands among palm trees, not far from the tracks.

DEL MONTE CAFE, 1901 Santa Barbara Avenue

Looking like a building you might find with a train set, the Del Monte was built for $600 around 1920 (dates vary) as a barbershop. After that, it became the Del Monte Grocery, which it remained for many years. But eventually, time caught up to the building, which was later condemned.

Luckily, it was rebuilt, with a vintage exterior that fits perfectly with the railroad district. Since 1981 it has operated as a cafe featuring historical photos, rounded booths and bar stools that channel its soda fountain era.

MISSION SAN LUIS OBISPO DE TOLOSA, 751 Palm Street

In 1769 — years before the United States declared independence — a Spanish expedition led by Gasper de Portola became the first Europeans to see the San Luis Obispo area. In 1772, as settlers began to suffer from starvation, missionary president Junipero Serra decided to have a mission built in San Luis Obispo, partly because of the ample food supply — namely, in the form of grizzly bears.

Today, the mission, restored during the 1940s, marks the center of town. Still a working parish, it features artwork that pre-dates the building, having survived fires, floods and earthquakes.

While the grizzlies are long gone, bronze bear statues outside the mission serve to remind visitors what drew Europeans to San Luis Obispo.