Through its Main Street Center program, the organization encourages so-called smart development that satisfies the profit motives of businesses while maintaining the charm of old neighborhoods and small towns. For all the respect the trust has garnered from corporate, political, cultural, and academic circles nationwide, even San Diego’s most die-hard preservationists question the organization’s claim of not losing a single “endangered historic place.” In sticking to that claim, trust officials explain that each site on their 11 annual lists typically involves a lengthy, ongoing rescue mission.
South Pasadena, which in 1989 became the first California site identified as “endangered,” has been threatened by a highway project for decades. A recent federal court order halted the start of construction, a move that only temporarily spares the community.
“We’re having some real close calls now” trust spokeswoman Siobhan Mueller said, noting that Tiger Stadium in Detroit may be doomed. Built in 1912, the classic baseball park appeared on the trust’s endangered list in 1991. Next year, the team moves to a new stadium featuring skyboxes, more concessions and other accoutrements generating more revenue.
The City of Detroit is in hurry to demolish Tiger Stadium, so it may sit empty indefinitely. That might leave room for San Diego’s “Arts and Warehouse District” to earn the dubious distinction of becoming the trust’s first loss, given the city’s and the Padres’ aggressive timetable to build the ballpark. Can the National Trust for Historic Preservation make a difference? Von Marie May, a former SOHO president says, “About the only thing that will impact this project is if the financing implodes.”
Although May acknowledges that trying to rescue East Village warehouses appears to be a lost cause, she said she feels a moral obligation to fight to preserve the neighborhood. “Making a link between the past and the present is protecting collective history for the future,: she said. “When you go to an historic place with a child and explain the saga behind the site, that’s folklore. That perpetuates American culture.”
Appearing on the trust’s endangered list should embarrass San Diego, but the city’s top officials, May said, have no conscience.
“San Diego politicians use the trust’s Main Street Center program to launder their image,” she said, “but when it comes to real preservation, they’re no there.”
Public records show the City of San Diego, through its Office of Small Business, spent $30,000 to host the trust’s “National Town Meeting on Main Street,” in March. The event highlighted the economic contributions achieved through historic preservation.
After being pumped up about the city’s efforts to improve North Park and other neighborhoods, trust officials were troubled by some of the vacant and deteriorating landmarks they saw downtown. They also heard about some of the struggles of fellow preservationists in San Diego.
Founded 30 years ago, SOHO claims to be California’s oldest preservation group. One of the nonprofit, volunteer organization’s first actions was to rescue a Victorian home, the Sherman-Gilbert House in Heritage Park. In emulating the trust, SOHO has published an annual endangered list for the past 17 years.
SOHO member can relate to the trust’s experience that each endangered place represents a years-long battle that never seems to end. “It’s never over,” said Coons. “We’ve saved the Santa Fe Depot twice and the fountain in Horton Plaza three times.” Five years ago, the organization sued the city to save the T.M. Cobb warehouse, which had contributed to making the Gaslamp Quarter a historic district, but lost the case. The developer demolished the building to make way for a highrise.
When trust officials saw John Ginty’s Victorian house it was still intact, facing west atop one of downtown’s highest hills. A developer who wanted that plot persuaded to authorize moving the historic structure to a lower lot facing east. Commencing earlier this month, relocation has resulted in severe damage to the house, Coons said, noting that portions of the kitchen and back porch were torn off, the original concrete destroyed and the chimneys removed, exposing the interior to water damage. “The front porch is coming apart. The tower is sagging. We don’t think the plasterwork will survive the move.”
SAN DIEGO’S MOST ENDANGERED HISTORICAL SITES, 1999
Butterfield Stage Stop, Warner’s Ranch. The adobe stage stop and timber-frame barn on the Missouri Trail date back to the 1850s. Now in a condition of neglect and deterioration, this National Historic Landmark sits on property owned by the Vista Irrigation District.
Coronado Railroad Right of Way. Built in 1888, the rail corridor linked Coronado to downtown San Diego. A portion in Chula Vista owned by the Metropolitan Transit Development Board could become a shopping center. That would nix plans of San Diego’s Electric Railway Association and Railroad Museum to create a vintage train ride for tourists.
E. Milton Barber House, 108 Robinson Street. The Tudor home designed by William Hubbard and Irving Gill anchors a historic neighborhood. A bureaucratic snafu resulted in the 1905 house being partially demolished before a public review. The owners still would like to follow through with total demolition.
Hotel San Diego, 339 W. Broadway. San Diego businessman John D. Spreckles built this early Edwardian hotel in 1910. Planned expansion of the federal courthouse and offices could level the building rather than move it.
John Sherman House, 1914 First Avenue. This 1887 Victorian home, built and occupied by John Sherman, is among a handful of its kind remaining in San Diego. They could form a historic district, but the John Sherman House is in danger of being remodeled by its owners.
Mrs. General Grant House, 535 Quince Street. First lady Julia Dent Grant, wife of President Ulysses S. Grant, and their son Jesse Grant, lived in this 1894 Colonial Revival home. Designed by architect William Hubbard, the house may be replaced by condominiums.
Olaf Wieghorst House, 301 Renette Avenue, El Cajon. This 1947 complex of workshops and buildings is where Western artist Olaf Wieghorst lived, painted, and exhibited his work. The adobe homestead could crumble if the city moves the complex closer to downtown.