I reported on the plans for this complex and its opening last year. So when I made plans for a convention in San Diego, I included time to drive forty minutes up the coast to south Carlsbad and check it out for myself.
I went thinking I’d find something fairly kitschy: a replica of the original Green Dragon (as depicted by John Johnson) tacked onto a California strip mall.
And in fact the site is in an area of strip malls. Next door is a car wash with a lovely Southwestern tile roof, as seen in the background of this photo. The first thing one sees getting off that exit from I-5 is a giant windmill attached to a motel.
But the Green Dragon Tavern and Museum is a more extensive and substantive enterprise than I’d expected. In size, it’s not just part of a strip mall—it’s an entire strip mall’s worth of structures. The part made to look like the original tavern is the main restaurant dining room, two levels high, and the coffee shop and bookstore. On the far side are a series of meeting rooms for special dinners.
And in between is a museum devoted to the owner’s interests in New England history, particularly the Revolution but starting in Plymouth Colony and including the Salem Witch Trials. The displays include replicas of significant documents and many original artifacts bearing the signatures of famous historical figures: legal documents signed by Samuel Sewall, Thomas Hutchinson, John Adams, and Robert Treat Paine, for example.
Throughout the building are framed copies of early American newspapers, mostly from the last two decades of the eighteenth century. And by throughout, I mean throughout. The hall to one set of restrooms, for example, includes a 1783 issue of the Providence Gazette and two issues of Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel from the early 1790s. In another issue of the Centinel I spotted a big advertisement from Samuel Gore, one of “my guys.”
Amidst those genuine period documents are reproductions of nineteenth-century popular art, posters of the most famous Founders, postcard photographs of national monuments, and so on. So there’s definitely the potential for hagiographic kitsch. But the quotations on those Founder posters all have citations to particular documents (which is more than some folks can provide). There’s a display clearly explaining the eighteenth-century long s to visitors. Some of the labels discuss how American historiography or commemoration has changed over time.
I quibble with some of the historical statements I see in the displays or literature. I don’t think of the Sons of Liberty as a “secret society” but rather an amorphous political label like “Tea Party” or “Occupy Movement.” I don’t think “Paul Revere departed the Green Dragon Tavern for his famous ride,” though he definitely spent a lot of time there. But for me the list of quibbles is small.
The bookstore attached to the coffee shop includes a lot of popular titles for both kids and adults, focusing mostly on the Founders (and including some I think are flawed). However, the selection includes ground-breaking biographies from academics, including Woody Holton on Abigail Adams and Jill Lepore on Jane Mecom. And I can’t complain about any store carrying Reporting the Revolutionary War, with two essays by me.
The restaurant has wood paneling and a fireplace, but it’s not trying to be a period site (at least at lunchtime). There are multiple televisions tuned to sports channels. The menu may have sandwiches named after Boston Revolutionaries, but they’re all California cuisine, heavy on the avocado.
Overall, the Green Dragon Tavern and Museum is a solid little private museum with a significant number of print artifacts to examine, particularly newspapers. In its emphasis on the most prominent Founders, their signatures, and genealogy, its sensibility is old-fashioned, but within that sensibility the standards are high. The site is a very short drive off I-5, so I feel confident recommending it to folks traveling between San Diego and Los Angeles and seeking a genuine taste of the Revolutionary Era (as well as California cuisine).