John J. McNamara – Martinez Businessman
“A Booster and a Builder”
by Harriett Burt
(Editor’s Note: The material for this article came from principally from a column in the Martinez News-Gazette in the 1980s written by the then City Historian, the late Charlene Perry. Another source was the “History of Contra Costa County” published in 1927.
If you happen to be sitting in the City Hall waiting for your agenda item to be taken up, gaze at the pictures of the Mayors of Martinez on the east wall. You’ll catch the change in fashion and facial hair, the advances in photography and portraiture and the fact that only one woman held the office before the seat became separately elected in the mid 1970s.
One of the pictures on the left side of the display is that of John J. McNamara, a city trustee (councilman) for nearly 20 years during the early 20th century and Mayor a number of times during his tenure. J. J. McNamara, as he was known, was also the archetype of the early 20th century businessman/entrepreneur who truly believed that the country his Irish parents had emigrated to and the town they had raised their children in were the best places in the world where anyone who worked hard could succeed if they wanted to.
McNamara’s story is featured in this issue because he and his business partner, Reese Jones, managed the Bay View Park and Pavilion from 1905 to 1914 making the site the main center of community activities and a destination for recreation-seekers from all over the Bay Area. It was a great success until fire and the lure of subdividing and building homes for a rapidly growing population put an end to it.
But the Pavilion was only one of the many local ventures the energetic McNamara took on. He was born in 1867 to Michael and Catherine McNamara. His father had come to America in the early 1860s settling in Martinez and engaging in farming and the grocery and tavern business. Growing up, McNamara worked with his father on the farm and at the grocery, both located on Alhambra Avenue (then Smith Street) between F and G Streets. Safeway is located on the site of the McNamara business which J. J. first converted into a home for his bride, native daughter Annie Hitman and their family. He later turned it into apartments. It was a good location for the roads from San Ramon and from San Pablo came together some two blocks south (later known as the “Y” and now as the intersection of Alhambra Avenue and Alhambra Way featuring Walgreen’s on the southeast corner), McNamara worked in the store and on the farm learning agriculture from the ground up. At 18, he was foreman and had begun buying property on his own.
As an established business and family man, McNamara often juggled a number of business interests. Always in the grocery business, in later years with his brother-in-law George Winkelman, he also owned a tavern and a liquor store and, after the 1904 fire destroyed a significant part of the downtown, opened the Palm Garden Grill at the corner of Main and Ferry directly across from the Bank of Martinez (now Union Bank). He partnered with Reese Jones in an insurance business and then in the Bay View Pavilion.
Whatever venture he was pursuing, McNamara was always interested in land and in developing it. Over his lifetime he bought and sold several ranches around Martinez. As a City trustee and particularly as Mayor, he was responsible for building the 1913 Martinez City Hall on Main Street backing up on Ward at the intersection of Estudillo Street. Construction of the Ward Street bridge over Alhambra Creek behind City Hall, promoted by McNamara and other businessmen including Ernest Lasell, Sr., changed the character of the downtown retail corridor and led to its glory years in the succeeding four decades.
As a businessman during the second decade of the 20th century, McNamara quickly saw the impact of the new Shell Refinery under construction on the eastern side of the town. Housing was in desperately short supply and McNamara stepped up, building with partners Jones and Winkelman, the City Hall Apartments, now a charming restored office building next to Main Street Plaza housing Starbuck’s and Le Gateau Elegant. He also built at least eight small cottages in the Portuguese Flats area along Estudillo and Castro Streets north of Arreba Street. Most are still in use as is the “double house” on the 1400 block of Alhambra, two houses that are mirror images of each other with a common roof line.
As an entrepreneur constantly looking for ways to expand business and make more money, the end of the Bay View Pavilion caused McNamara to look for other opportunities. In 1913, McNamara saw in the increased popularity of automobiles the need to revive the ferry service between Martinez and Benicia that had disappeared with the advent of the train ferry “Solano” in the late 19th century. He organized the Martinez-Benicia Ferry and Transportation Company, which was to survive in one form or another until the Martinez-Benicia Bridge opened in 1962.
Under McNamara’s management, the Bay View Pavilion had featured the new ‘moving pictures’ as part of its year round program of entertainment brought in from the region and from among the traveling theatrical entertainment companies that criss-crossed early 20th century America. Short and devoid of compelling story line in the days before D. W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, also in 1913, the films were shown accompanied by singers and vaudeville acts thought needed to round out the show.
By the end of World War I, films had developed their ‘feature length’ and starred, in silent glory, actors and actresses such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford whose newest films began to be eagerly awaited by fans.
McNamara, ever the man to take advantage of the future, launched his last great venture in downtown Martinez – the building of the State Theatre on Ferry Street between Ward and Green. Now renovated and the home of the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office, the State in its heyday displayed the art nouveau glamour of the movie palaces being erected across the country. It featured a sweeping stairway where years later, Martinez residents recalled as high school girls descending the staircase dreaming they were as glamorous as the stars they had just seen. It also featured a sizable orchestra pit where J. J. McNamara died of a fatal heart attack in 1922 while helping to install the theater organ. He was 55.