.Auctioning San Jose History

Another part of the past dies for the future

From one abandoned warehouse to the next, San Jose has become the world capital of rotating historical junk-inventory auctions. As physical history gets discarded, so might the stories.

But not if I can help it. Fourteen years ago, I wrote a column about an auction organized by History San Jose to unload an entire warehouse of items deaccessioned from its inventory. The items included a 19th-century hearse, piles of Victorian architectural salvage, old sinks, motor oil pumps, busted farm gear, vintage desks, sewer grates from 1887 and an old machine for shock therapy. It was a remarkable assemblage of stuff. 

The warehouse in question was the crumbling old Westinghouse building at Julian and Stockton, a common target for photographers of urban decay—or “ruin porn,” as it’s often called. The building was a gorgeous wreck, but the city of San Jose figured the whole parcel would be more useful as a vacant lot for 14 years. So that’s what happened. It remains fenced off to this day.

Now with Googletown about ready to smash things up less than a mile away, the same scenario will unfold in another warehouse at the corner of Cinnabar and Montgomery, where this Saturday, April 30, History San Jose will auction off even more deaccessioned stuff.

This time around, the sequence of events that led to the auction is one of those “only in San Jose” scenarios destined for the annals of absurdity. It goes a little something like this: After Google snatched up the fire department’s training facility south of Diridon Station, a new facility then broke ground on Senter Road, allowing the fire department to finally get a long overdue, modern-day training complex twice the size of the old one, but not without displacing a portion of History San Jose’s warehouse storage. Thus, it was time to Marie Kondo-ize several pallets of stuff. After determining which items essentially duplicated, or came close to duplicating, what the museum already owned, the extra stuff was then moved to an old former J. Lohr warehouse at Cinnabar and Montgomery. This warehouse is also owned by Google, so the city must empty it out pretty soon; hence the auction this weekend.

By any definition of “industrial wasteland,” the intersection of Cinnabar and Montgomery is an industrial wasteland, and one that would make Allen Ginsberg proud. Upon my arrival, railroad tracks in various states of decay spun off in every direction. Ominous weeds, chain-link fencing, haphazard piles of gravel, shopping carts, graffiti-stained barriers, crumpled bicycle frames and a few discarded Modelo beer boxes highlighted the scene while two geese flew overhead. It was a neighborhood where the signs still said DEAD END, as opposed to NO OUTLET—pure poetry.

Leading up to this intersection, the businesses along the pothole-ruined stretch of Montgomery were in various states of imminent doom. Only a few of them had not yet fallen to the Google real estate empire. The now-legendary “development proposal” placards with the hokey map of the Google project were everywhere. It wasn’t completely over for these places yet, but the desolation was palpable.

Once upon a time, in a version of San Jose long ago, wineries were important. J. Lohr’s presence was much more solid and the building at Cinnabar and Montgomery thrived. When I arrived, the front of the building still said “J. Lohr Warehouse.” Inside, though, it was half empty, with a destroyed restroom and pieces of fiberglass in the corner, as History San Jose laid out pallets of stuff for the auction. 

The variety of junk was overwhelming. I saw over 250 items adorned with an auction number, ready to go: Stereoscope slides, wood fruit lugs and pharmacy books. Ditto machines, buggy wheels and a shingle maker’s bench. Butcher block tables, doll houses and old TV consoles. An eyeglass grinder, a foot-powered jigsaw and piles of metal chair sides from the Jose Theatre. I saw covered wagon hoops, barber chairs, ophthalmology equipment, wrench collections, hair dryers, agricultural implements and a George A. Prince & Company pump organ. 

My column on the auction 14 years ago was titled “History Must Go.” Since history often repeats, all I have left to say is: Now it must go again.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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