Angelo Zanetta and the Plaza Hotel

San Juan Bautista was one of the first of the California Missions, having been built in 1797.It is a remarkable structure that mission-san-juan-bautistaI have visited twice now. The Mission occupies one side of a town square that also fronts a number of historic buildings. The one that immediately captures your attention is the Plaza Hotel.

The Hotel was originally a barracks designed to house the handful of Mexican soldiers whose task it was to guard the Mission. In 1846, when the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo* was inked, Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States and the barracks became the property of the Anzar family who turned it into a store to supply the many adventurers who passed through on the way to the California Gold Fields.

In the mid-1850’s that Angelo Zanetta, an Italian immigrant, rented the old barracks and converted it to a saloon. Zanetta had come west after angelo-zanettaworking as a chef at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. The hospitality trade came easily for Angelo as his father had been a successful innkeeper in Italy.

The opening of the bar was timed to coincide with the 1856fiesta of San Juan, which falls on Summer Solstice. The fiesta was very big in this town (seems obvious: San Juan Bautista) and that year attracted upwards of 10,000 people. As the only saloon in town, Zanetta did a huge business that day, taking in about $3,000 in 24 hours.

At the time that was a large amount of money. Consider John Breen, the 16 year old son of the Breen family that survived the Donner Expedition and arrived destitute in San Juan. When the gold rushhit, he journeyed to the fields and returned several months later with $10,000 in gold dust.  With the money, his family bought Castro House,  a large adobe that had been home to Juan Castro and the Mexican government and 400 acres!  Angelo’s $3,000 take had to be worth $50,000 or more by today’s standards. plaza-hotel-1911

Within a couple of years, Zanetta, who was working as a master chef at a restaurant on Third Street, bought the property which also included a guard tower from the Breen family for $450.  He went to work  adding a second story to the building and opened it in January, 1859 as the Plaza Hotel.

The Hotel was elegant for its era and locale and became very popular with travelers who passed through San Juan Bautista.  There were plenty of them, too.  Up to eleven stage coaches a day came and went from the thriving town.  Angelo brought his considerable skill as a chef to bear on the dining room creating  dishes that were seldom seen west of St. Louis.  It was his desire to focus on the food that caused him to bring in a partner, John Comfort, to oversee Hotel  and bar operations.

Angelo’s Hotel, Bar and Restaurant were so successful that he purchased what had been a dormitory for Mutsun Indian women, across the square from the Hotel.  He tore the building down, and using the best of the adobe bricks plaza-hotelthat demolition left, built Zanetta House, the largest home in town.

In 1874, John Comfort opened the stables that sit across the square from the Hotel to accommodate the very active stage coach trade.  It is ironic that transportation was so important to the growth of San Juan Bautista;  it was also important to its demise.  Col W. W. Hollister, a very powerful man who drove sheep from his home in Ohio to the 37,000 San Juso Ranch, prevailed on the Southern Pacific Railroad to route through his ranch rather than through the logical choice of San Juan Bautista.  With the coming of the railroad, the stage coach traffic declined . . . and so did the town.  Many of the businesses uprooted and moved to the new town of Hollister and by the late 18th Century, many of the structures in San Juan Bautista were abandoned.

I am intrigued with the story of Angelo Zanetta.  First, he emigrated to America from Italy.  Lots of people did that, but most didn’t.  The ones who did were driven by an adventurous spirit and the desire to make something from nothing.   He established himself in the civilized environment of New Orleans, then left that to do it all again, coming to California in search of more opportunity and adventure.  Opening the Bar seems so obvious today.  It’s the old west, you have thousands of people passing though town; a saloon seems to be an obvious addition.  But I bet it looked risky at the time.  It had to.  Otherwise someone else would have beaten Angelo to the punch.  And, successful as it was, the bar was not enough.  Zanetta needed to grow into something bigger:  a Hotel.

When we think of the American capitalist spirit, we usually thing of the big industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries:  people like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.  I think Angelo Zanetta, virtually unknown by comparison,  is as good a symbol, if not better.  Over and over he took what he had — which at times was just himself — and made something bigger out of it.  He is an American hero for me.

This remarkable photo is of the bar on its last day of operation before the State took over the building as an historical site (1933).  I found it o Flickr.  It had been scanned from the Ottoboni family collection. The man on the right is identified as C.C. Zanetta, perhaps a grandson of Angelo?

last-round-at-the-plaza-bar

*Interesting: the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that the property ownership rights of Mexicans living in the ceded territories would be respected, which they sometimes weren’t.  It also guaranteed that the Spanish language and culture would be accepted alongside English and the American culture.  California was supposed to be a bi-lingual state!  The treaty originally stated that Mexicans remaining in the territory would automatically become American citizens after one year.  That language was changed to citizenship being granted when the Congress determined the time was right . . . whatever that means.

My Time

So I went to Oakland on Wednesday to do a meeting for my new job — the one I haven’t started yet.  The day before, I figured, what the heck; I’m set to fly up there and back the same day, my new job doesn’t start for another week, and the old one is on cruise control . . . I should just hang out up there for a little R & R.

I pulled up Google Maps and scanned the area:  what could I do within 100 miles of Oakland?  I eliminated San Francisco right off because I’ve been there and done that and didn’t care much for it.  I seriously considered Russian River, but quickly discovered that all of the campgrounds were full — and at that time I was planning to camp to save $$$.  The it struck me:  I’ve never seen Big Sur! 

I extended my plane ticket, abandoned the camping idea and found a cheap motel within jumping off distance:  Salinas (home of John Steinbeck). 

Thursday I drove down beyond Big Sur, to Lucia Lodge.  It is everything I’ve ever heard it was:  breathtaking and awe inspiring.  God was having a very good day when he made Big Sur. 

Friday I went to Monterey and did the 17 mile drive, which is also awe inspiring, as much for the houses as for the scenery.  Then I toured the Carmel Mission and drove out to Point Lobos.  Wow.  Point Lobos was a complete surprise.  It’s like Big Sur in miniature:  easy hikes through breathtaking scenery.  On a path through a cypress grove I came upon a group of deer, probably six of them.  They were far too trusting, allowing me to get within a few feet for photos. 

Today I’m going to drive over to Mission San Juan Bautista and then down to Pinnacles Park, hopefully to see some Condor. 

My no-tell Motel in Salinas has been ok.  The bed makes my back sore, but other than that it’s adequate.  Salinas itself is interesting.  It’s an agricultural center just 20 minutes from the glitz of Monterey.  I’ve had some difficulty finding things to do in the evening . . . but thankfully my YMCA membership is good here and the Padres have been on a winning streak.  I’ve pretty much done those two things each evening.

Who Do You Love?

Quicksilver Messenger Service.  Long time ago.  Live at Fillmores on either coast.  Incredible.  I thought I could write about this mesmerizing performance, but then I read this, by Griel Marcus and decided he said everything that needs to be said about this masterpiece.  Enjoy. 

On the cover of what is presumably Quicksilver’s last album is a delightful picture that might remind on of the old Fredric Remington paintings of the old west. The lettering is done in pure thirties world fair script, on the back are members of the band in pen-and-ink, their cowboy portraits matching their sound: there are even little pictures of Coit Tower and the Statue Of Liberty. It’s Quicksilver’s version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, on tour from sea to shining sea.

It begins with an entire side dedicated to Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” superbly recorded at the Fillmores East and West. Quicksilver has been doing this number for some years. Now they have taken Bo Diddley’s horror story and come back with one of the best rock and roll recordings to emerge from San Fransisco, a performance that captures all the excitement and grandeur of the great days of the scene in a way that is almost too fine to be real. If rock and roll really will stand, as the Showman sang, it will be music like this that makes it that way.

Quicksilver goes into it at full speed. John Cipollina’s guitar alternately harsh and sweet, clashing with Gary Duncan’s rhythm, Greg Elmore’s drumming simple and solid, never an iota of sloppiness, not a note missed. They  use the infamous Bo Diddley rhythm not as a crutch, not as something for the rhythm section to play with while the lead takes it; Quicksilver finds dimensions of that “bump bubby bump bump-bump bump” beat that no one has even suggested before, as a motif or a bridge, as an idea rather then as a pattern.

The vocals are wild and screaming, like on the first Moby Grape album, but with singing constantly jerked in like a zipper pulled hard. This combination of vocal anarchy and almost vicious timing pushes everything just past that point where one thought the limits were.

Describing this song is almost like trying to explain the plot of a movie by Godard; it opens with some of the finest hard rock ever recorded, then moves fast through a Bloomfield-like solo by Gary Duncan (but with an edge on it). Then into an interlude of yelling and shouting by the audience, the participation of the listeners almost like a “found object” out of Dada, a beautiful example of the kind of communication rock and roll is all about. Cipollina takes over again, the excitement flashes, and finally David Freiberg and his bass slowly take it apart and put it back together, with chilling words whispered and hissed out to the audience-“graveyard mind…don’t mind dyin'”- the tension builds and they hit it all at once, guitars harder and harder. Elmore pounding, voices screaming, everything working. By the time the band yells “Bye!” to the audience it’s just not to be believed.