.Memories Arise Before This Week’s Fountain Blues Festival

Instead of the ’60s tune “Abraham, Martin and John,” this week I bring you the song of Lenzen, Martin and Gehrke.

With the 41st San Jose Fountain Blues & Brews Festival upon us, it is time to reflect on the history. Every time I see the Scheller House, now the SJSU Associated Students headquarters facing Tenth Street, I think of its old location on San Carlos, during the final years when the festival still happened on campus. The house included Blues Fest director Ted Gehrke’s office.

For at least 40 years, Gehrke was San Jose’s one-man Kevin Bacon degree of separation generator. From SJSU to the world at large, he connected everyone to everyone else.

Regarding the house, though, architect Theodore Lenzen designed it around 1904. Lenzen was known for more grandiose civic projects like colleges and city halls. He rarely dabbled in private residences, precisely why local historians raised awareness when SJSU conspired to demolish the house during the process of closing off San Carlos, which used to run straight through the campus until the early ’90s.

The house was originally built at the corner of Fifth and San Carlos by Henry Beaumont Martin for his wife, Louise Scheller, whose brother Victor Scheller was a district attorney and ran his business out of the house. This is why it went down in history as the Scheller House, even though Martin is the one who built it.

Over the course of the 20th century, the campus grew around the house. By the ’90s, it had fallen into a horrendous state of disrepair. The campus was changing and there was no place for an old ruined house, but people fought to save it. The house was then rotated to the side and moved over just a bit, right where the old University Police building used to be. By 2000, the Associated Students had raised enough money to fully restore the house, so they made it their headquarters, including Ted Gehrke’s office, which was down the hall.

When the university no longer cared about the blues festival, the event moved off campus in 2011. Then, in January of 2019, a few months before Gehrke passed away, the Scheller House was relocated from the San Carlos location, so the school could build a new science building.

Last week, when I yet again brought all of this up, my friends proved why they are the best in the whole damn city. Several chimed in. Many of us recalled hanging with Gehrke on the porch of that house, before, during and after the Blues Festival.

Mark Fenichel said: “Spent many hours in that building in Ted’s office hanging out, going over things or sitting out on the porch. He was the greatest.”

Mark Purdy added: “I remember Buddy Guy leaving the stage and walking up onto the porch and strolling back and forth on it during one number during his Blues Festival appearance. Ted just smiled through the whole thing.”

Dan Ross worked at the festival in the original era, then later functioned as the festival chauffeur, picking up musicians from the airport in his black ’66 Lincoln Continental. He drove Buddy Guy to the backstage area.

“After his show, [we] could barely move with the swarm of people around the car,” Ross said. “He was signing autographs through the window. Amazing to witness so much joy and love between him and his audience. Ted created a great vibe for the musicians and audience.”

Carole Rast offered more history on the house itself, and the people connected to it. Lenzen helped John Heinlen design and build San Jose’s old Chinatown at Sixth and Jackson, later called Heinlenville. Victor Scheller’s business partner was J.B. Peckham, the civil rights attorney who placed the deeds of Japantown churches and family businesses in his own name during Japanese internment, protecting the properties from being taken away.

Former campus FD&O employee Edward Hahn even remembered digging up the old tea roses in the garden by the police house before it was demolished, then planting them at Spartan Stadium. What a story.

All of which proves the blues will ultimately bring everyone together—just what Gehrke would have wanted. We owe it to him to carry on.

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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I have always considered it extremely ironic that the office of the Department of Urban Studies was completely uninterested in the history of the building they occupied. The Scheller House came within two weeks of demolition over winter break in 1990. SJSU President Gail Fullerton had some grant funding that had to be spent on asbestos abatement and the Scheller House had a coating system on its exterior that contained 2% asbestos. So the University’s plan was to demo the entire structure, and as quickly as possible. Yes, really.

    A meeting with the newly formed town/gown committee was held the first day of Xmas break. The University was planning to get community permission to demolish. The newly hired head of facilities, Dr. Mo Quyami (sp?) was also present when the town/gown group was informed the house was listed on the City’s Historic Inventory and would need additional study before it could be demolished. Although Dr. Fullerton insisted the University could move ahead, the new state and federal regulations on historic preservation prevailed and the project came under review. Dr. Quyami had heard of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

    The real hero is this story is the late George Espinola, who spent years researching the work of architects Wolfe & McKenzie. He found the permit information for the Scheller House by accident listed under Martin’s name, and with that information, was able to follow the bread crumbs that led to Lenzen. It is still not clear which member of the Lenzen family designed the house; there were four members of the family building extraordinary buildings and three of them were named Theodore.

    George Espinola was also able to find the “missing” Julia Morgan house on The Alameda using the same research method. He was looking for something else and stumbled across the permit information under another name.

    So the house still stands, much to my surprise. It has been 35 years since the preliminary meetings. It took a lot of fundraising and litigation to make sure the regulations regarding historic structures were observed.

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  2. I enjoyed several years of the festival on the campus. I’m glad the festival is still going, even as the location has moved a few times.

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