San Jose’s historic landmarks: Then and now

Explore San Jose’s most iconic historic buildings that have stood the test of time.

Table of Contents

Founded in 1777, San Jose has a rich history + much of it still remains through decades of redevelopment. Among many of San Jose’s historic buildings, you’re probably familiar with these historic landmarks that still inspire us today.

Then Now Museum of Art

Out from the ruins… | Photos via History San José + SJtoday staff

📫 The Old Post Office

Built in 1892, this Romanesque-style building was constructed using locally quarried sandstone + was the first federal building in San Jose. The post office’s steeple + clock tower were damaged in the 1906 earthquake.

From 1937 to 1969, the building transformed from a post office to a library, eventually being converted into the “Civic Art Gallery.” A new, 45,000-sqft wing was opened in 1991, giving us the San José Museum of Art that we all know and love.

Then Now Improv

From vaudeville to stand-up comedy… | Photos via History San José + @deven630

🎬 Jose Theater

Built in 1904, this Californian Mediterranean-style building is the oldest theater still operating in San Jose.

In its early years, the venue showcased popular vaudeville acts + hosted renowned magician Harry Houdini. By the 1920s, the theater was screening silent films with an accompanying orchestra. 🎻

Movies would continue screening until its 2002 multi-million dollar renovation where it was rebranded as the San Jose Improv, which still serves up chuckles to this day. 🎙️

Then Now Civic

Drawing top performers — both then + now. | Photos via History San José + SJtoday staff

🎤 San Jose Civic Auditorium

This Spanish California Mission-style building originally opened in 1936 as San Jose’s premier entertainment destination. Notable performers included Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead. 🎸

The venue has also been a part of major historic moments. For example, The Who launched their first headline US tour at this venue + in 1970, President Richard Nixon’s visit made national news after a confrontation with anti-war protesters. 📰

After an $11 million dollar renovation in 2012, the venue reopened + has remained a stalwart part of San Jose’s entertainment scene.


Now showing... | Photos via History San José + @surroundingspaces

🎭 Fox Theatre

Designed by San Francisco architects, this art deco venue opened in April 1927. It not only showed motion pictures — like its opening day film, “An Affair of the Follies” — but also featured live musical acts + vaudeville shows.

In 1985, the City of San Jose purchased and renovated the now-California Theatre to preserve + restore its vintage design. Today, it hosts performances by Opera San Jose and Symphony San Jose — and most recently, Cinequest film screenings.

past + present (1080 × 800 px) (1080 × 700 px)

The field is still very active. | Photos via History San José + @ericfbrinkley

🚲 Burbank Velodrome

Abraham Lincoln High School’s track + field once hosted a different sport — bicycle racing. The first race at the Garden City Velodrome — known to locals as Burbank Velodrome — was held on May 3, 1936 and hosted champion racers George Osen + Louis O. Normandin.

When WWII called many racers off to war, the San Jose School District made plans to build a high school on the property. By the summer of 1942, the bike track was demolished and Lincoln High School opened the same year.


Still standing tall... | Photos via History San José + Wikimedia Commons

🎩 Scottish Rite Temple

Built in 1925, this three-story, neoclassical temple was commissioned by the local Masonic order of the world’s first + largest fraternal organization. Created in August 1850, the San Jose chapter was one of the first to be established.

After the Masonic order moved to a new meeting center, the building underwent a $6 million renovation in 1981 and was made into the San Jose Athletic Center (which was featured in the 1997 film “Mad City”). You’ll know it today as the Corinthian Grand Ballrooma perfect venue for private events.

A comparison graphic of an old + new picture of San Jose State's tower.

Looks similar, but a lot has changed since the first picture.

Photos via History San José + Wikimedia Commons

📚San José State University’s Tower Hall

Believe it or not, this iconic part of SJSU’s campus wasn’t always there. In the late 1800s, the San Jose Normal School (SJSU’s original name) wooden building stood on the site until it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. The tower we know and love today took its place in 1910. Stylistically, its design draws from Spanish Revival, Gothic, Renaissance Revival, and Modern — all to showcase both the school + city’s diversity.

As the oldest building on the campus of the oldest California State University, it was designated a historic landmark in 1949. Due to earthquake concerns, it was almost demolished in 1960 — if it were not for students + faculty who advocated for its restoration. And, just as it did so many years ago, still operates as an auditorium + lecture hall.

A comparison photo of the Vendome Hotel and the Vendome neighborhood.

Would you have liked to visit the infamous hotel?

Photos via History San José + SJtoday staff

🛎️ Vendome Hotel

This grand, 150-room hotel opened in 1889 — and was one of the finest hotels in California at the time. Located on a 13-acre property previously owned by the first mayor of San Jose, the hotel boasted greenhouses, gardens, a bowling alley, and tennis courts.

Back then, one could stay at this center of San Jose tourism for $2.50 to $4 a night.

Eventually facing competition from more modern hotels Downtown, it was sold to a realtor who had it demolished in 1930 to make way for homes — which now comprise the residential Vendome neighborhood.

A comparison of the Moir building then + now.

Something is on the horizon...

Photos via History San José + SJtoday staff

🏫 The Moir building

Completed in 1894, this brick building was originally known as the Straford Hotel, until it adopted the moniker of the “St. James Hotel” in the 1930s.

Since then, the Moir was home to the United Farm Workers from 1969-1973, and right next door, the San Jose Peace Center operated from 1963-1971.

Soon, a Los Gatos private high school will be the newest tenant.

Local developer Urban Community is currently leading the Hillbrook School project which will preserve the historic character while adding modern updates + open work areas. This project is expected to be complete in 2023.

Did you enjoy this blast from the past? Let us know what other historic landmarks you’d like us to explore.

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