The El Dorado Gambling-Saloon and the Jenny Lind Theater, San Francisco, ca. 1852*
Friday June 4th Mr Scott has varnished the Oilcloth
in the dining room this afternoon and painted
the cellar way and commenced on the entry
chamber I have been all day waiting on
him and getting the rooms in order to paint
and varnish Dining room whitewashed
I shall be thankful when we get through
Probably every member of the Ames family – not just Evelina – was going to be thankful to be “through with painting.” Lately there had been too much disruption at the Ames compound; getting the rooms back in shape would help life get back to normal.
Disruption being a part of life, it was happening on a civic scale in the city of San Francisco right at this time. The newspapers called it the Jenny Lind Swindle, so disfavorably did they regard the situation. The city government had just purchased the recently established Jenny Lind Theater to be made over into their administrative offices, or “business chambers,”* the previous city hall having burned down the year before.
Built by an illiterate but entrepreneurial cabbie and bartender from New York named Tom Maguire, who was “profoundly ignorant of the stage,”* the Jenny Lind Theater had nonetheless opened the previous fall with much acclaim for its “handsome” interior. Within its “exquisite” walls, “the rowdy populace embraced” shows as diverse as Shakespeare and burlesque. Exactly why Maguire sold the building to the city is unclear – the need for money comes to mind – for he went on to build another elsewhere in town.
The cost of renovating the theater into office space was considerably greater than the acquisition of alternative sites, and the purchase of it with tax dollars was considered “scandalous.” “The public was growing very clamorous, the more so perhaps because it was impotent,” noted a contemporary commentator on the subject. In early June, a great crowd gathered in protest, and a heated debate ensued between a council member and a spokesman for the citizens. The venting was fractious, but didn’t change the plan. The city council moved into its new quarters as planned; ironically enough, the theater space was soon found to be too small.
Did Evelina read about this in the Eastern papers? Did Oakes? California and its politics must have seemed very far away, yet Oakes would soon play a key role in connecting California to the East Coast by way of a transcontinental railroad. Who knew?
*Annals of San Francisco, 1855 Image courtesy of foundsf.org