View of El Cuartel from current location of Peet’s Coffee. Photo source: Monterey Public Library

El Cuartel, a Mexican government building built in 1840, was located on what is now 595 Munras Avenue. Built by the Mexican government in 1840 as soldiers’ barracks, El Cuartel had since served as the U. S. Army headquarters and as the offices of California’s first newspaper. Located on what is now Munras Street, it took up most of the block between Webster and Tyler. The Administrative Offices of the government of Alta California (which extended from Mexico proper to Canada and from the Pacific Ocean to the continental divide in Colorado) were located on the ground floor; these offices included the offices of the Alcalde of Alta California (the governor’s office); and the upper level was devoted to barracks for soldiers and others.

In 1849, three years after the American takeover of Monterey from Mexico, several Monterey citizens met to establish the first public library in California.

They strove to establish a public library which would “…afford amusement, entertainment, and profit to a large class of people who, without its aid, would waste their time in the frivolities and questionable pastimes so prevalent in our State.” -Monterey Library Association’s records, June 1, 1853

Those “questionable pastimes” were the often raucous and rowdy activities during California’s Gold Rush, which was in full swing.

To fund the public library, the Association persuaded citizens to purchase shares at $32. Among the first shareholders were some of Monterey and Mexican California’s famous pioneers, including Thomas O. Larkin, Jose Abrego, Joseph Boston, Captain Juan Bautista Rogers Cooper, and the multi-lingual William P. Hartnell.

From the sale of stock, the Association raised $1,500, which was used to purchase the first collection of books. Monterey’s first American alcalde, Walter Colton, who had returned to the East, arranged for the collection of about 900 books to be shipped around Cape Horn to Monterey. The original collection featured a well chosen variety of works of history, theology, biography, poetry, science and medicine, travel journals, legal and political writings, reference works including the Encyclopedia Americana and Webster’s Dictionary. There were about 250 works of fiction featuring American classics by DeFoe and Cooper, 18th Century English classics, and a heavy dose of popular contemporary writer Charles Dickens. About one-quarter of the books were written in Spanish.

There was a reading room stocked with books, newspapers, magazines, maps and government documents. Shareholders were allowed to borrow books, but others could gain this privilege by paying a monthly subscriber’s fee of one dollar and by leaving with the librarian a cash deposit equal to twice the value of the book being borrowed. 

In 1874, the library moved to Colton Hall where, because of lapses in the operation of local government, the library was kept under lock and key. Later, the library was moved to the school house which burned to the ground in 1893, destroying most of the library’s collection.

The El Cuartel building was demolished in 1910.

The design of the present-day El Cuartel Nuevo was inspired by the painting below of the original El Cuartel. The building in the background, at the far end of Munras, stands today – the Alvarado Adobe, a historic landmark. The roof line has been substantially modified with the passage of time. The building to the right of that is the John Cooper home at Cooper Molera Adobe, before Cooper added a second floor to it in competition with his brother in law, John Larkin, the Larkin Adobe on Calle Principal.

Source: Monterey Public Library website

This mural covered the entire side of the fire-station vehicle garage at the former Firehouse #1. This mural picturing El Cuartel, as it may have appeared before California statehood, was completed in 1998.