The building once considered to be the most historic structure in Contra Costa County was destroyed in an arson fire on April 21, 1956.

Just 11 days earlier an El Cerrito City Council member’s bid to preserve the landmark Castro adobe had been rejected by his colleagues because it was considered an impediment to the construction of the planned El Cerrito Plaza shopping center. The center’s developers were adamant that the project could not be built with the ancient building on the property.

In the days before the fire, a petition drive led by Kensington pharmacist Louis Stein was being mounted to rally the public for saving the former home of Victor Castro and his family, and got the attention of a council member, but a resolution was voted down by his colleagues.

California historic landmark plaque at the El Cerrito Plaza. (Photo courtesy of

The adobe was built by Indian labor in the 1830s and marked the southern boundary of the Castro family’s Rancho San Pablo, a Mexican land grant that once covered 19,000 acres of what is now West Contra Costa.

The fire created a spectacular sight in the dark of the evening sky as firefighters from El Cerrito and Kensington were joined by volunteers in trying to save the old structure, which had been used as a nightclub and casino in the 1930s and ’40s.

Investigators quickly determined the fire was an arson and two teenage boys, who admitted to pouring and igniting gasoline in the structure, were arrested. But suspicions arose at the time and still circulate today about the convenient timing of the fire in eliminating any delays in construction of the shopping center.

Coverage in the Richmond Independent newspaper in 1956 noted that the fire came not long after another historic building in West Contra Costa, the Alvarado adobe in San Pablo, was demolished for expansion of a motel.

The Alvarado adobe had been the home of Juan Bautista Alvarado, who had married one of the Castro daughters and was the first native-born governor of California, notes the city of San Pablo website.