When leaders of the National Trust for Historic Preservation met in San Diego in March, they were heartened by the city’s efforts to revitalize North Pork via the trust’s Main Street Center program. They also saw, firsthand, results of the Gaslamp Quarter’s resurrection. The warm fuzzy feeling about the city’s enthusiasm for historic preservation soon dissipated, however, during a quick tour of downtown just before hitting the airport. The van full of history and architecture buffs visited the Balboa Theatre, the empty police station, John Ginty’s Victorian house, Hotel San Diego, and several other buildings threatened by demolition or radical alteration. They also drove by the gaping hole where the T.M. Cobb warehouse had stood until it was leveled early this year.
Sitting in the burgundy van was trust president Richard Moe, who has led national crusades to save Civil War battlefields, presidential homes, old hotels and entire neighborhoods.
The hourlong tour gave members of San Diego’s Save Our Heritage Organization, dubbed SOHO, a rare opportunity to ben Moe’s ear. They joked that SOHO’s lengthy list of local sites encroached by development could justify opening a trust branch is San Diego and keep it occupies full-time. Even Courtney Damkroger, an assistant director from the trust’s regional office in San Francisco, along with Moes, was taken aback upon learning so many of San Diego’s landmarks are under siege. “They did say they were in shock,” recalled SOHO president Bruce Coons, who helped organize the tour.
Consequently, political bigwigs were surprised, defensive, and shrill — almost to the point of outrage and contempt — last week, when the trust included San Diego’s “Arts and Warehouse District” on its annual list of “America’s most endangered historic places.” To keep the neighborhood intact and also to maintain the nearby Gaslamp Quarter’s ambience, Moe urged the city to consider moving the Padres’ proposed baseball park farther east. During their downtown tour, Moe and other trust officials noted that San Diego’s old police headquarters, a building on the National Register of Historic Places – which, at 801 W. Market Street, lies well outside the warehouse district – could also easily qualify for the endangered list.
Can the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which played a key role in running Walt Disney Co. out of rural Virginia, make a difference? Officials for San Diego and the Padres initially attacked the trust’s announcement as misinformed, relatively meaningless, and coming too late. By midweek they said they cared deeply about historic preservation and would destroy only two buildings listed on the San Diego Historical Site Board’s registry of landmarks; the Candy Factory at 305 Eighth Avenue and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. office at 114 Tenth Avenue. Another five designated landmark buildings would be modified for the Padre’s use, inviting scathing criticism from restoration purists who rail against what they call “façade-ectomies.” One activist explained the term: “Saving the front of an old building and putting in on a new building is a trick developers use to say they’re restoring the building. It’s like applique.” At least a dozen buildings, recently rejected for landmark status, are likely to be bulldozed or changed by the ballpark’s placement in downtown San Diego’s East Village. Many local preservationists, not to mention East Village’s business owners and residents, support shifting the proposed ballpark to maintain the neighborhood’s cohesiveness and character.
Some people might wonder why old brick warehouses – some of which are surrounded by vast empty lots – warrant all the fuss. Even though his family’s produce business in East Village dates back to 1893, H. Wilton Williams does not feel sentimental about the neighborhood. “Many of these warehouses are 100 years old and are about to fall down,” he said. “They should be condemned because they’re not up to code and probably wouldn’t survive an earthquake.”
William’s 20,000- square foot TR Produce warehouse at 808 J Street, across the street from the proposed ballpark, might become a restaurant, store, or marketing center for Padres owner John Moores, who bought it last year. The purchase closed escrow the day after San Diego voters approved the concept of a new baseball stadium. Williams is operating there under a lease “until they knock buildings down.” Demolition to make way for the ballpark is scheduled for fall.
The wrecking ball’s shadow often enhances a site’s chances of making the trust’s list of “America’s most endangered historic places.” A documentary on the History Channel last week featured San Diego’s East Village and ten other sites on the 1999 list, including Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, better known as “Amish country.”
San Diego’s scarcity of warehouses – structures that might be considered unremarkable in any large East Coast city — makes them precious in the eyes of local architects, historians, and SOHO members. Besides the urgency factor, the trust considers historical as well as architectural significance, community support, and sites that exemplify problems repeated elsewhere. “San Diego isn’t the only city in the country where you have a sports complex taking out a neighborhood,” said James Mann, director of the trust’s regional office in Chicago. “There’s some similar controversy in Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, (Pennsylvania).” Mann is among preservationists who point to Denver as having successfully built a ballpark, Coors Stadium, without destroying downtown buildings.
The trust, which is based in Washington, D.C., does not discriminate. Its annual lists of “endangered historic places,” published since 1988, contain it all: inner cities and rural areas, government buildings and commercial icons, pretty Victorian houses and industrial mines, boats and railroads, even a baseball stadium.
Congress created the trust in 1949 to help protect the nation’s heritage, inspiring the motto “protecting the irreplaceable.” Sites rescued range from the Congressional Cemetery, which was deteriorating from neglect as recently as two years ago, to one of the first McDonald’s hamburger stands built in 1953 in Downey, California.
The nonprofit organization weaned itself from federal funding during the past several years; its $38 million annual operating budget is now financed entirely by private donations, mostly from its 270,000 members. More than 300 employees scattered in nine offices have undertaken a seemingly overwhelming task to remember the past. They work to safeguard historic sites, educate the public, defend existing preservation laws, create new ones, and prevent urban sprawl – especially in northern Virginia, where the trust had a showdown with a multi-billion-dollar corporation. In 1993 Walt Disney Co. quietly started acquiring land near Haymarket, Virginia, a village nestled in scenic countryside that scholars regard as “the cradle of democracy.” The entertainment giant planned to erect an amusement park devoted to U.S. heritage, which ironically would compete with and compromise real historic sites nearby, not to mention forever mar the beautiful rolling terrain. The trust’s full-page advertisement in The Washington Post rallied support to spare the region and helped convince Disney to abandon its plans. The trust, which also operates 20 landmarks, isn’t always so adversarial.