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River Street Historic District

Eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, this district was designated in two phases in 1996 and 2000. The period of significance for the district is 1875 to 1925 and is significant for its history and its architecture.

The River Street area was once the home of dozens of Italian Immigrants who came to San Jose in the late 1800's to work on farms and orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. The proportion of Italian residents peaked in 1925 and began to dwindle after this date as residents moved to other areas of the City and a 1924 immigration law limited further immigration from southern Europe. The building stock represents a diverse group of late nineteenth and early twentieth century building types.

River Street Historic District is located in downtown San Jose, between the HP Pavillion Arena and Hwy 87. Within the district is the reknown Henry's Hi-Life, a city historic landmark, which was originally the Torino Hotel where many immigrants first stayed.

It is the only intact example of a neighborhood of "workingmen" and their families who immigrated to San Jose from Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it represents one of the largest concentrations of Italian immigrants in California during the period of 1900-1925.  The district contains examples of several styles of residential and commercial architecture constructed in that time period, including Italianate, Queen Anne Victorian, Gable Front and Folk Vernacular residential styles and Italianate and Board Front commercial styles.

Originally, there were about 40 houses in the district. In 1990 a flood control project and the construction of the Guadalupe River Park, threatened many of the houses with demolition.

In 1995, the City Council created the River Street Enclave project by relocating nine of the threatened structures to their present location on City-owned property at the southwest corner of W. Julian Street and N. Almaden Blvd. 

The city funded the site preparation and relocation of the houses. A private partnership, the River Street Development Group, which PAC*SJ is a partner in, has restored the buildings and is now leasing them for commercial ventures, such as restaurants, galleries and offices. The area is landscaped with plantings to reflect the historic Italian neighborhood that once flourished.

River Street Enclave Interior Courtyard
- photo courtesy of
Friends of Guadalupe River Park & Gardens, 2003

The design of the enclave reflects a conscious intent to site each building which as accurately as possible matches the relationships of the buildings in their original locations in the neighborhood. The buildings are grouped around an interior courtyard that includes landscaped gardens and arbors providing opportunity for outdoor activities to reflect the historic Italian neighborhood that once flourished.

In February 1997, the River Street Historic District was designated by the city and consists of the nine structures which were moved the Torino Hotel, and two other residences.

Two of the renovated houses in River Street District
- photos courtesy of
Friends of Guadalupe River Park & Gardens, 2003

Phase II of this project should involve renovating the remaining 14 unrelocated buildings clustered around Henry's Hi-Life, a much loved San Jose barbecue restaurant.

The PAC*SJ vision for the remaining River St. houses calls for renovation to provide live/work space for artists and other low to moderate income individuals.  The houses are all relatively small, unique structures not generally suitable for large families or the pressures of retail spaces.  But the art community has expressed a strong interest in developing a small enclave of homes for artists and others who would enjoy this unique living area.  PAC*SJ is very excited about the benefits that artists would bring to the area.

The River Street Project received the Downtown Association's Golden Nail Award for 2003. Congratulations to Karita Hummer, Ellen Garboske, Andre Luthard, the Historic Landmarks Commission, and all the other people at PAC*SJ who worked so hard to make this project a reality. River Street shows the immense potential that can be realized through intelligent reuse of historic properties.