Monterey Adobes Provide a Glimpse of Holiday Cheer of Yesteryear

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Monterey’s historic adobes hold a magical charm of days long
gone. This is especially true during the holidays when, during one
weekend every December, the historic buildings open for a yuletide
candle-lit tour.
Monterey’s historic adobes hold a magical charm of days long gone. This is especially true during the holidays when, during one weekend every December, the historic buildings open for a yuletide candle-lit tour.

This year, Monterey’s special “Christmas in the Adobes” tour took place on Dec. 8 and 9. I went on the first night and discovered the 23-year-old annual tradition is a genuine holiday delight. Sponsored by California State Parks and the Old Monterey Preservation Society, the fundraiser is well worth the $20 ticket to wander through the city’s magnificent adobes at night when their rooms are illuminated by flickering candles. It’s a fun and festive way to get a taste of local holiday history.

After arriving in Monterey (a 45-minute drive from the South County), I started my self-guided tour at the Pacific House Museum near the wharf. There, I received a map highlighting the adobe sites of the city’s historic district .

Inside each adobe, I was greeted by volunteer hosts dressed in 18th Century-style clothes. Their cheery receptions gave me a sense of Christmas in the genteel days of the Californios – the romantic period before the Gold Rush brought the world’s throngs to our state.

The Custom House – a handsome adobe overlooking the wharf – was built in 1827 and is California’s oldest government building. Inside, the glowing blaze of candlelight swayed as costumed men and women stepped lively in a fandango circle. I felt lost in an earlier era. My kaleidoscopic trance watching an old-fashioned dance was shattered only when someone’s camera flashed a photo.

The next house on the map was the Casa del Oro at 210 Olivier St. Built in the 1840s, it served during the Gold Rush as a general mercantile store for Monterey’s resident population. A woman dressed in American period clothes of the 1850s told me the store had held the only safe in California during that time. Gold was kept locked in the little vault, thus giving the house its name. The adobe still does business as a gift shop operated by the Historic Garden League. That night, I joined modern folks browsing its quaint stocking stuffers and holiday items for sale.

Continuing my meander of the various historic adobes on the tour, I always found a warm welcome – as well as Christmas snacks and beverages. A Spanish-dressed girl at the Casa Soberanes adobe on Pacific Street offered Mexican hot chocolate – deliciously spiced – as a man played a Jalisco harp. He asked for requests so I suggested “Feliz Navidad” – perfect for the setting and the season. His fingers delicately plucked the lively tune from the strings.

At the Lara-Soto Adobe at 460 Pierce St., I made acquaintance with a man who introduced himself as a writer born in Salinas – Mr. John Steinbeck. The famous author sipped from a plastic cup filled with red wine he’d liberally poured from a bottle of “Two-Buck Chuck.”

As we chatted, I began to suspect the fellow was a fraud. He wasn’t really John Steinbeck, I gathered, but a member of the Cannery Row Foundation pretending to be the writer. The real Steinbeck, though, knew the adobe home well. He lived here for a short time when he penned his novel “The Pearl” inside it.

On the next block over on Pacific Street, I mounted the steep steps of Colton Hall – built in 1849 – to discover what holiday history awaited in the site of California’s Constitutional Convention. A Christmas tree accented an immense vestibule upstairs and guests partook from a table laden with Christmas goodies and apple cider. As I enjoyed the hot, cinnamon-scented refreshment, I chatted with local historian Randall A. Reinstedt about Monterey’s ghostly tales.

Leaving the hall, rain misted down on me and other tour strollers. But it didn’t dampen the spirit of our adobe adventuring. At 530 Houston St., I entered the adobe known as the Robert Louis Stevenson House. The famed Scottish novelist stayed here for three months in 1879. A gentleman in period attire claimed to guests he’d met Stevenson. He enthusiastically described the writer’s romantic reason for journeying to Monterey – to pursue a woman named Fanny Osborne. The man’s tender love story competed with the bellow of a bagpipe played loudly just outside by a kilted scoundrel.

Around the corner and up two blocks, I ambled to the Royal Presidio Chapel, an adobe built in 1794. It’s the only building surviving from the Spanish Crown’s Monterey-based Presidio (a military fort). Inside its thick walls, I enjoyed a choir’s Christmas carols while a docent described the architectural detail of this National Historic Landmark.

Continuing the tour, I ventured to more adobes and eventually hit all 20 sites – each with its own unique historic appeal and ancient tales. By chance, I saved the best for last. The Thomas Larken House is the most romance-filled adobe in Monterey. Located at 510 Calle Principal, the interior of this 1835 structure was exquisitely decked in period ornaments lit by tapering candles.

Men and women finely dressed in Californio-period clothes graciously showed me the elegant rooms. In one, a man strumming a lute filled the air with festive melodies.

Truly, I imagined I’d traveled back in time more than 150 years ago to the days of the dons. I considered myself a welcome guest at the home of Thomas Larkin, California’s first (and last) American consul.

From that night’s experience, I encourage all readers of this newspaper to mark their calendars now to buy tickets for next year’s adobe candlelight tour. For more details, call the state park office in Monterey at (831) 649-7118.

Christmas in the Adobes is a wonderful outing for friends and families. And for all you romantically-inclined folks, the yuletide tour will carry you to an age when Christmas was celebrated in simpler ways.

Just like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” everyone can time-travel to a magical Christmas past. Just take a candle-lit holiday walking-tour among the historic adobes of old Monterey.

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