History of the Bank of Italy Building, 202 North Coast Highway

Many of our buildings in downtown Oceanside have an interesting history. While its façade has changed along with its use, here is a history of the building which is now home to Swami’s Café in Oceanside.

Before the present day building was constructed, the property was owned by local businessman Jesse Newton and occupied by the Squirrel Inn, a small roadside stand and café that served not only locals but the traveling public. From 1918 to 1923, the Squirrel Inn had various owners including Mary Ulrich, Nina Foss, and Jack Taylor. It operated 24 hours a day for the “patronage of the large amount of night traffic” that traveled through Oceanside via Hill Street which was part of the original Highway 101.

Early aerial of downtown Oceanside in about 1923. Arrow indicates location of the Squirrel Inn.

In 1923 the Squirrel Inn was moved to a location north on Hill Street (Coast Highway) to make way for the construction of a new service station. The corner was leased by the Shell Oil Company from Newton and a new service station was built on the location later that year.

Then in 1927 Jesse Newton sold the property to the Bank of Italy National Trust and Savings Association. The service station was removed and a new bank building added to Oceanside’s growing “business district.” The establishment of a major bank in downtown Oceanside was an important and significant development for the City. Oceanside’s commercial district served not only the general population but the smaller nearby towns including Carlsbad, Vista and Fallbrook.

The new building was designed by the architectural firm of Morgan, Walls, and Clements, a renowned firm established by Julia Morgan. Arthur Nelson and George Willett, of Nelson and Willett, were the local contractors who built the bank in 1928.  A portion of the new bank building, built to serve as a storefront, was leased out to Charles A. Turner, a local realtor. In 1934 this storefront was leased to Clay Jolliff, a local jeweler.

The new Bank of Italy building courtesy the Bank of America archives.

The Bank of Italy was renamed Bank of America in 1930. During the Depression years, many banks closed and families lost their savings, but Bank of America managed to stay solvent.

After the establishment of the military base Camp Joseph H. Pendleton, the population of Oceanside nearly tripled in ten years. This growth brought the necessity of new schools, more housing and increased commercial development. In response, Bank of America wanted a larger and more modern building to serve its growing clientele. In 1950 they built a new bank building on the northeast corner of Second (now Mission Avenue) and Ditmar streets.

Bank of America built its new branch on the northeast corner of Mission and Ditmar Streets in 1950 (since torn down)

In September of 1950 the original building, which stood vacant, was sold to Isadore A. Teacher. Teacher was a native of Lithuania who came to Southern California in the 1920s. He owned a chain of jewelry stores and considerable property in San Diego County. Shortly after the bank building was purchased by Teacher, it was completely remodeled. The interior largely stripped and the outer façade modified and the exterior awning added. The Oceanside Blade Tribune reported that it was now “one of the most modern structures in Oceanside.” 

The bank building (right) as the Oceanside Pharmacy

The former bank building was then leased to Joseph B. Schwartz, a pharmacist who opened the Oceanside Pharmacy in December of 1950.  John Graham operated the pharmacy’s lunch and soda counter. “Bushy” Graham would later own several popular drive-in restaurants, including the present day 101 Cafe. Roger’s Clothiers occupied the storefront in the north section of the building soon after. 

Claude V. and Ouida “Ruth” Johnson acquired the property in 1964. Johnson had opened a sporting goods store at 210 North Hill Street (Coast Highway) and continued to lease the building to the Oceanside Pharmacy which remained in operation.

A&W Root Beer at 202 North Hill in the 1970s

In the 1970s Dutch Jewelers occupied the smaller storefront, while A&W Root Beer occupied the former bank building. In 1979 the Johnson’s moved their sporting goods business into the building. Tragically Claude Johnson was murdered in his store on February 21, 1979, just one month after he moved into the building. His widow Ruth Johnson and son Greg continued to run the sporting goods store for over 20 years.

Greg and Ruth Johnson, Johnson Sporting Goods, 1982

In 2014 the building was sold to restaurateurs Jaime and Rosa Osuna. A number of renovations were made, including exposing the interior brick and original roof truss and rafters. The building has been repurposed once again and is a popular downtown restaurant, Swami’s Café.

The building today as Swami’s Cafe

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