While Dr. Harris served he was an excellent mayor, but the council with which he had to deal was no improvement over the last set of officials who had come close to bankrupting the city. Some of their many and costly propositions Harris managed to block but others he could not and as a result the city incurred huge losses. One of the most notorious was the purchase of the Jenny Lind Theater, or as the affair was commonly called, the Jenny Lind Theater swindle.
After the great fire of June 22, 1851 destroyed City Hall, known as the Graham House, San Francisco had been forced to rent temporary quarters for public offices and, due to the exceedingly high rents in those days and the widely scattered location of these offices the city incurred great expense as well as inconvenience. A new city hall was necessary and, while it would seem that a proper location might have been bought or even built at a reasonable cost, the city council in conjunction with the county board of supervisors determined to buy the Jenny Lind Theater on Kearny Street and remodel it for use as a municipal building.
The original Jenny Lind Theater had been destroyed in the same fire that burned city hall but had been immediately rebuilt and had reopened on October 4, 1851. The price of the theater was two hundred thousand dollars and with the proposed alterations the cost to the city would be twice that and when all was said and done the city would have a poorly built structure badly adapted to municipal uses. Both boards passed the ordinance authorizing the purchase then after Mayor Harris refused to sign the measure both boards passed it over his veto.
The public was passionately against the purchase. The evening of June 1 a meeting was held in Portsmouth Square where the actions of the city were loudly denounced. When David Broderick attempted to defend the measure he was silenced by the angry crowd. When he persisted in trying to force the people to listen to his unwelcome remarks the meeting broke up in disorder and came close to a riot. Ultimately the matter was taken to the Supreme Court who ruled in favor of the purchase and the matter was settled. But just as the opposition had said a huge sum of money was spent on the purchase and restoration and yet the property was never suitable for a municipal function. The building was so poorly constructed that it needed constant repairs and bracing. After sixteen years it was so cracked and shattered that the third story had to be removed for fear of it toppling over.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.