.Every Building Tells a Story—and Sometimes More Than One

467 S. First St's history from the first broadcasting station to raided adult bookshop.

The most unassuming buildings often carry history more important than any scheme developers might concoct.

Take the building at 465-467 S. First St. in downtown San Jose, for example. Once used for Doc Herrold’s old radio lab, this one-story brick-facade structure remains cloaked in forgotten history. Right now, developers who have long since commandeered this whole end of the block are still planning to put a skyscraper on top of the whole mess. In the meantime, however, as long as the building is still there, I decided to revisit the ghosts. Man, this was fun.

First of all, Charles David “Doc” Herrold (1875-1948) was an American radio pioneer who grew up in San Jose. In 1909, he started the “Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless” inside the old Garden City Bank Building at the corner of First and San Fernando, right where the KQED building now stands. As part of his operation, Herrold started the first ever “broadcasting station” in 1909, meaning, he transmitted radio programs of music and news on a regular basis to more than one person at a time, beyond just a point-to-point connection. Herrold went on the air every day through 1917 while people listened on their own homemade radios. If you go there now, to 50 W. San Fernando, you’ll find a few plaques that explain the details. These days, people rarely even notice the plaques.

Herrold and his college would later operate from 1917 to 1924 in the aforementioned single-story brick-facade building at 465-467 S. First. It may not look like much, but this building is the last remaining structure with any connection to his life.

However, the ghost of Doc Herrold was not the only spirit that showed up when I recently looked into the matter. Again, this was quite fun.

Twenty years after Herrold passed on, the same address, 467 S. First, was an adult bookshop. Operated by Roy Splawn, Prima Books was one of three adult shops raided by the authorities on April 20, 1966. Thanks to original camera footage edited for broadcast for KNTV Channel 11, now archived in the History San Jose collection, we have some amazing voyeuristic insight into what happened. It looks like something straight out of a Dragnet episode.

In the footage, which anyone can view online, two investigators show up to enter the place. We even get the TV cameraman’s viewpoint walking through the front door. The proprietor of the smut shop, presumably Mr. Splawn, then tries to hide his face from the camera. The buzzcut cop, cigarette in hand, reads Splawn his rights before allowing him to call an attorney. (See photo.)

According to a transcript of the audio accompaniment that ran on KNTV, the officers “charged him with 13 counts of selling obscene material. As officers read the list of complaints against Splawn, a police photographer began recording pictures of racks of books, magazines and photos of a questionable nature. Splawn was advised of his rights to counsel. Officers then allowed him to phone attorney John Chargin of San Jose.”

For decades, Chargin was a legendary figure in the city’s political and judicial ecosystems. He came from the same storied family of Croatian immigrants that opened the Oyster Loaf Restaurant, which I wrote about in this space one year ago.

Prima Books was one of three adult businesses raided on that day. The other two were the Playboy Cigar Shop at 144 E. Santa Clara St and the State Book Shop at 389 S. First St. Interviews with the proprietors of those two shops are also available in the same online archival website, thanks to KNTV and History San Jose.

In the end, things did not go well for Splawn. In addition to the raid at 467 S. First, he was later arrested in 1969, at his other shop in Redwood City, Golden Gate Books, after selling two hardcore films to an undercover Redwood City policeman. Splawn took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, but eventually lost. Maybe if Splawn had called his place Doc Herrold’s Smut Shop, he might have been more successful. Who knows.

In any case, buildings often have lives of their own. Sometimes they just need to be saved.

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.

1 COMMENT

  1. I passed by this building so many times in the 1980s and 1990s and did not know its history. Thanks for the article.

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