Downtown Oceanside Historical Landmarks
Those who visit Oceanside today are greeted by a bustling downtown that is both walkable and inviting with its mixture of distinct, vintage and modern aesthetics. With visuals ranging from the Star Theatre’s large iconic neon sign towering over the sidewalk to the more contemporary Oceanplace courtyard, to the fun and eclectic neighborhood atmosphere of South O, there is no shortage of diversity. Oceanside’s unique character goes far beyond its downtown variety however, the best-kept secret about our humble beach city is that it has a rich and fascinating history that continues to be unearthed, brought to light and honored in the downtown more and more!
A Blast From The Past
Oceanside’s origins date clear back to the 1800’s, with its incorporation on July 3, 1888. Starting off as a meager coastal town in close proximity to Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside developed fairly rapidly opening both the Oceanside Library and Oceanside High School before 1910; with the Oceanside Pier already on its third iteration. In addition to the city projects, locals were establishing their own roots by building their businesses in this new city they called home. Fast forward over a century and Oceanside is doing better than ever, with new developments located alongside buildings dating back to the 1880’s! These historically significant, story-telling buildings are standing proud throughout downtown Oceanside and you’d often be hard pressed to pick them out among the crowd of neighboring structures. Fortunately the City of Oceanside and the Oceanside Historical Society have taken important steps in preserving and honoring these pieces of history. You can even go on your own self guided tour to see Oceanside’s historical gems using the provided map at the bottom of this page.
Though there are many more to see than just these, the following downtown landmarks hold special historical value to the City of Oceanside. Both visitors and locals alike should take the time to visit these places, take in their history, and honor these time capsules as well as recognize Oceanside’s unique system of incorporating the history while continuing to look forward towards the city’s future.
The Graves / Top Gun House
One of the more recognizable historical landmarks in downtown Oceanside is the Graves House, or as most know it, the “Top Gun House.” Built in 1887 by Dr. Henry Graves, this Queen Anne Victorian cottage is one of the oldest houses still standing in Oceanside today. Located on its oceanfront location, this home is significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost the building has folk Victorian architecture which, as John Daley Vice President of the Oceanside Historical Society notes, is extremely rare by the beach. In addition, of those similar buildings that exist it is the best one of its kind in San Diego County making it very special historically. The other significance has to do with it being featured in the cult classic blockbuster movie Top Gun.
Almost a century after being built, the Graves House was selected to be the home of character Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood, the love interest of Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in the 1986 mega film Top Gun. The house got plenty of screen time in the film and has become a favorite tourist spot to visit, so much so a fence was built around it to help preserve the 130+ year old building. As time has passed, nature took its toll on the Graves House which resulted in mini-restorations and improvements over the years to keep it standing.
The Graves or Top Gun House illustrates a perfect example of Oceanside’s unique attitude towards not only maintaining those remaining buildings from the city’s early years, but going beyond that and incorporating them as special additions to Oceanside’s downtown landscape for the foreseeable future. With construction of the Seabird Resort and Mission Pacific Hotel, the Top Gun House was carefully lifted and relocated so that it could be restored to it’s former glory, and given new life within the completed resort grounds as the HIGH-Pie Dessert Shop.
The Graves House Location:
As the new home of HIGH-Pie, the house maintains its original blue Victorian cottage exterior, with billowing sheer curtains on the windows lining an outdoor porch with a hanging swing. Tara Lazar and her creative team embraced the history and the true American military and film nostalgia with a fresh touch of “New Americana.” The renovated interior is adorned with bold, retro signage, Victorian era panels and an upholstered fireplace. Fun design touches such as Top Gun set photos, historical imagery of both Oceanside and the Graves House, vintage furniture and more. The serving counter has deli-style display cases and shelves, and pies are featured on a Willy-Wonka-esque conveyor belt.
The Schuyler Building
A perfect example of a hidden gem in plain sight is the Schuyler building, a once-prominent fixture in the early days of Oceanside which has since been relegated to a row of other similar looking buildings….that is, until now!
Built in 1888 by John Schuyler, this originally two-story building was home to the Schuyler Hardware store, a historically significant business that enabled more development to take place in the early years helping pave way for the fantastic growth we see today. Back in its original state, the Schuyler building stood proud with its brick exterior and large over-sized ceilings, and over most of its life up until fairly recently, the building continued to retain most of its prowess. Slight changes did occur, like being converted to a 3 story building by reducing the ceilings, and various businesses such as a cash grocery store that occupied the building in the 1930’s also added their own touch.
The building seemed little more than an eyesore to many in the downtown area but in 2017 the Aldrich family purchased the former hotel with eyes to refurbishing and repurposing it as a boutique hotel. Thomas Aldrich, project manager and his sister Lauren Sweeton, hotel manager, are the great-great grandchildren of John and Jeanie Aldrich who came to Oceanside in 1926 from Connecticut. The early Aldrich’s purchased a large two-story house at 615 Second Street (now Mission Avenue), and opened a boarding house referred to as Aldrich Manor. As renovation of the Schuyler building began, the stucco was painstaking removed, slowly exposing the original brick exterior which had been hidden for decades. Emerging was the painted ad of grocers Contreras & Gelpi on the eastside of the building, along the roofline the faded words “Rooms”, harkening back to its day as a boarding house and hotel.
Schuyler Building Location:
Historic names were considered but it seemed fitting to give it its own identity and the decision was made to call it “The Brick Hotel.” The restoration became a rebuilding project that spanned a five-year period and included earthquake retrofitting which required building a modern steel structure inside of the existing brick walls.
The Aldrich Family, in Oceanside for nearly 100 years, continues their legacy and early roots in the hospitality business. Their collective vision for this building has transformed and revitalized the block on which it sits. When completed, it will be modernly updated, both inside and out while retaining much of its historic charm and character. The Brick Hotel will offer ten beautifully appointed suites, as well as a restaurant and oyster bar on the ground floor, and a rooftop bar providing panoramic views of the city.
The Bunker House
The Bunker House is another building in downtown Oceanside with a past that dates back to the 1800’s. Built a few years prior to the Schuyler Building in 1886, this large two story structure was built by Theodore Bunker and was declared the ornament of the town at the time by the San Diego Union. Despite going through many hands, the building lived on eventually being named the Travelers Hotel in 1947 by its owner Ralph Rogers.
The Bunker House was many things, it was used for town hall meetings, dances, church services, it was a music store leasing jukeboxes, and even a brothel in the 70s. This building’s unique past has adapted and changed with it’s community and is one of the three only standing brick buildings in Oceanside. The Bunker House Lounge, who operates the building now, hopes to bring the community together again to eat, drink, socialize, enjoy live music, and create new stories to add to this beautiful building’s vibrant history.
Bunker House Location:
The Bunker House serves as the subject of a wonderful juxtaposition between the rows of modern vacation rentals located across the street and Oceanside’s humble beginnings in which such a building was considered the crown jewel of the town. Standing proud closely resembling the original exterior facade, this historical landmark helps keep Oceanside’s initial character at the forefront and helps to ground the city in its roots as it naturally progresses forward as the premier beach destination.
The Fin Hotel
The Fin Hotel, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, formerly the Dolphin Hotel, originally opened its doors in 1927 and was a popular hotel for celebrities of the day during the 1930s and 1940s. Fast forward to May 2018, after undergoing extensive renovations, the property reopened as a luxe boutique hotel blending Oceanside’s history with the modern surf culture.
With a modern and clean decor, this 27-room property also retains much of the building’s original character including multi-colored, mosaic tile flooring in the lobby, a grand wooden-railed staircase, and elegant tiffany windows.
The Fin Hotel Location:
The Oceanside Pier
The most visible but often overlooked historical landmark in the downtown neighborhood is the Oceanside Pier. Like the other historical sites mentioned, the first iteration of the pier was built in the late 1880’s. The first version was built by the American Bridge Company entirely out of wood reaching a reported 1,200 feet out from the shore. Not long after its completion, a storm in 1890 destroyed nearly all of the pier requiring a major rebuild. This rebuild eventually took place in 1894 utilizing iron pilings to strengthen the pier with an extension added on in 1896, but eventually that too was destroyed by heavy storms in 1902. It wasn’t until 1926 that the fourth pier was built, which famously drew over 20,000 people from all over Southern California to celebrate the grand opening. For the entirety of the pier’s life storms have taken a toll, but regardless of the damage done the pier has always been rebuilt as a testament to the strength and steadfastness of the City of Oceanside.
Oceanside Pier Location:
The sixth version of the pier opened in 1987 at a cost of $5 million dollars and is what you see today. The pier currently measures 1,942 feet long making it one of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast. The pier, in all of its iterations, has always helped shape Oceanside’s image as the place to go if you want to enjoy great weather and the beach. Unlike neighboring beach cities, visitors and locals alike can walk far out over the Pacific Ocean to watch surfing and sea life from a unique vantage point, and even fish without needing a permit. These advantages have always been intrinsic to Oceanside since 1888 when the first pier was built, which makes this landmark one of the most historically significant gems in the City of Oceanside.
Roberts Cottages is a community of individually owned cottage residences located in Oceanside. The vacant property was initially purchased by A.J. Clark in 1925. A few years later, he secured a permit to build 24 beach cottages for a projected cost of $25,000. The cottages were designed and built by the Whiting-Mead Company and were completed in July 1928. Around this time, Oceanside was on its way to reaching new heights in development and growth. Detached garages in the rear of many downtown homes were converted to small houses or apartments to accommodate the growing population. Trailer parks that were once used by tourists and summer visitors now were used as permanent homes due to the housing shortage.
In 1941, Harry and Virginia Roberts acquired the iconic double row of (mostly) pink cottages and gave them their present name. They passed through a few owners until 1952 when H. D. and Rush Forquer took over. The Forquers attempted to sell all the cottages as a single unit and failed, however, real estate agent Wilma Stakich suggested that the 12-by-24 foot cottages be sold individually to various owners. This was supposedly one of the first times this type of condo concept was used in the state of California.
These quaint buildings represent an important part of Oceanside’s history. They are remnants of a time when Oceanside figured prominently on motor Route 101 running directly through the city, as well as being walking distance to the railroad and thus attracting many part-time residents from Los Angeles. Today many of them are available for week long rental.
The above image showcases Cottage City in the 1930’s at 600 N Strand. Even though it looks similar, this is not the current Roberts Cottages! Cottage City was built with wood and Roberts Cottages are built with stucco.
Learning Oceanside History
“Tan Your Hide in Oceanside”
Oceanside Historical Society Website and Social Media
Oceanside facts and trivia, a city timeline, historical books and more are all available on the Oceanside Historical Society website. Following along with their Instagram is also a great way learn something new about Oceanside and engage with O’riginal Osiders.
Self-Guided History Walk
Walk around and experience the history on your own! Download the Oceanside Historical Walking Guide for a map and list of points of interest along the way.