When Gerri Adler was growing up in Davis, homes occupied much of the downtown area. Central Park was about half its current size, and a mere 15 cents bought admission to a movie at the Varsity Theatre.
“Where we’re walking today was my playground,” Adler, 65, told a group of history buffs on a Saturday afternoon this past October.
So begins the Historic Davis Walking Tour, Adler’s way of sharing her past and giving back to the community she’s called home for more than half a century.
“This town has given me a lot,” said Adler, whose family moved to Davis in 1954, when she was 7 years old. “I wanted to pay the town back.”
The tours, offered through the Hattie Weber Museum, give the city’s new arrivals a tutorial on Davis’ history, architecture and founding families, while longtime residents enjoy an opportunity to share their own memories.
“I always learn from them, so I add it to what I already know,” Adler said.
On this particular Saturday, Adler led about 15 people on one of her fall tours, which begin outside the Hattie Weber Museum and wind about a mile through downtown Davis before coming to an end at the southeast corner of Central Park.
It was here that Adler and her classmates ate lunch while attending Central School, whose auditorium served as a hub for community gatherings. The school was torn down in 1966 amid concerns that it wasn’t earthquake-proof.
A photo of the school — formerly called Davis Joint Grammar School — is featured in a booklet of historic photographs provided to tour participants.
Among the other highlights of Adler’s tour:
Central Park, which was occupied by homes before the park came into existence in the 1930s. That grassy slope south of the playground, near the east sidewalk? That’s where the homes’ basements were.
Fourth Street, including the stretch between E and F streets that Adler refers to as the “religious block” because of the churches that once stood here.
The First Presbyterian Church served as an anchor to that block until it burned down in 1924. The colonial home Thomas Cooper built on the existing foundation at 621 Fourth St. remains there as offices today.
At the southwest corner of Fourth and G streets once stood a Flying A service station, despite warnings from local train master and “town greeter” Sam Brinley that the owners shouldn’t build a gas station “so far out of Davis.”
Down the block, the Davis Post Office (now The Davis Enterprise offices) didn’t offer a ramp, so mothers clustered their baby strollers on the sidewalk while they conducted their postal business inside, Adler recalled.
Heading south, Adler points out the former G Street Pub building, which once served as the town market, while the Campus Chevrolet dealership occupied the parking lot next door.
Across the street, residents got their medicine and local news from the Rexall pharmacy (now The Artery) and haircuts from the Davis Barber Shop (opened in 1919 and still in existence, though under different ownership).
Second and G streets, once the site of double arches that welcomed visitors to Davis from 1916 to 1924. The arches were torn down after they proved to be too narrow for horses and buggies, and later vehicles, that tried to pass through them.
Second and G also features the Anderson Building, the site of one of Davis’ first banks, and the former site of the Terminal Hotel, where professors would stay while they taught classes at University Farm (the agricultural arm of UC Berkeley later known as UC Davis).
The 200 block of E Street, the former home of Discoveries, the legendary local gift shop started by Dorothy Briggs and two of her friends who got their inspiration while strolling the streets of Carmel in 1960.
“People came from all over Northern California to shop there,” said Adler, who noted that Discoveries was one of the few places “where you could buy a $1 gift, and by the time they finished wrapping it, you felt like you were giving a multimillion-dollar present.”
The Central Park restroom was constructed in 1937, and is the only structure in Davis to be built under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (later renamed Work Projects Administration), which employed millions to create public works projects during the Great Depression.
Constructed of concrete blocks and stucco, the building was considered state-of-the-art at the time, said Dennis Dingemans, assistant director of the Hattie Weber Museum.
He said Davis had the chance to have its City Hall built with WPA funding, “but the City Council didn’t want to take federal funding (for the project), so we settled for a restroom.”
The building’s historic origins are commemorated on a plaque on the structure’s south side: “Erected 1937 WPA.”
Gerri Adler offers the Historic Davis Walking Tour about four times a year — twice in the spring and twice in the fall — depending on demand. The cost is $10 per person, which benefits the Hattie Weber Museum. For more information, call Adler at (530) 756-2122, or stop by the museum between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesdays. Space is limited.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or (530) 747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene