Today, Custom House Plaza is one of Monterey's great gathering places. But what most visitors to Monterey don't realize is that the plaza is actually a very recent invention, designed by an innovative architectural firm to satisfy both the needs of the town's historic preservationists and passionate modernizers during the 1960s.
As the above photo shows, once upon a time in Monterey the town's most important road ran straight by both Pacific House (left) and the Custom House (in the distance at the center of the photo). This road, an extension of Alvarado Street, was one of the primary links between Old Monterey and New Monterey.
Before urban renewal, the area that would become Custom House Plaza was a rough and tumble area featuring, according to John Walton's book Storied Land, "11 cafés, 8 bars, 7 card rooms, 5 barbershops, 2 Army-Navy stores, 2 upholstery shops, a shoe shine stand, a tattoo parlor, a used phonograph store, a cab stand, a travel agency, an insurance office, and 13 unclassified, perhaps illicit, others." The businesses catered to the fishermen and sailors who docked at the wharf.
In the 1950s, the entire nation was on a federally funded urban renewal kick. As Walton explains in his book, though Monterey did not have the urban blight that so many other cities did, it was going through an economic transformation. The industrial fishing that had been the primary economic engine throughout the first half of the century was being quickly replaced by tourism. Infrastructure improvements needed to be made to make the city tourist-ready, however, and urban renewal funds were perceived as a great resource.
The first proposed urban renewal plan, seen as hostile to small businesses and historic preservation, was protested by many local residents. A new design team, the architectural firm of John Warnecke, was brought on board to remedy the issue.
Warnecke proposed a radical new idea. Lower Alvarado held a number of historically significant buildings. Why not submerge the road linking Old Monterey and New Monterey, and turn the existing road into a public plaza at the center of a historic park?
The design was approved in 1962 and the Monterey Urban Renewal Agency received federal funding for the project. The plan transformed repeatedly over the next decade (more on that in a future post), but construction began on the tunnel in 1967. Though the tunnel was completed shortly thereafter, it would be over a decade before the Custom House Plaza area would complete its transformation to the popular gathering area that it is today.