San Diego While delivering flyers in University Heights one day last spring, Mary Wendorf saw the tenants of an old home she admired moving out. They told her the house was to be torn down and a condo complex put in its place. For years Wendorf, a member of Uptown Planners community planning group, was friendly with the home's prior owner. But the woman died recently, and her heirs sold the property to a prospective developer. The woman "would be rolling over in her grave," Wendorf told me, "if she knew what was about to happen to her longtime home."
Local residents knew nothing of the sale or plans for condominiums at 4374 Cleveland Avenue. Upon investigation, however, they discovered that Jennifer Poiset, wife of San Diego dentist Mitchell Poiset, had obtained a building permit from the San Diego Development Services Department to construct a fourplex on the property. But Wendorf and others living nearby weren't about to acquiesce in the destruction of what they considered a neighborhood treasure. So on the advice of San Diego councilwoman Toni Atkins, they contacted the City's Historical Resources Board to obtain historic designation for the old Craftsman house.
The board is composed of volunteers with training in history, archaeology, architecture, land-use law, and related fields. The mayor appoints the volunteers, who are then approved by the city council. The board came into being as a response to the California Environmental Quality Act's demands that any building over 45 years old receive municipal review of its historicity before being torn down or substantially modified. In granting the Poisets a building permit at 4374 Cleveland, the City had already looked at the property and concluded that the house did not have historic significance by standards of the U.S. Interior Department.
Local residents felt they should have been notified that condos were going to replace the old house. But according to the Poisets' architect, Tim Golba, there is no "noticing" requirement for a fourplex in University Heights. Anything larger, he told me by phone, say, a six-unit building, would have required a "discretionary permit" that carries with it the responsibility to give written notification to neighbors within 300 feet of the project.
"And the community," said Golba, "is not in a historically protected 'overlay zone,' which would have prevented my clients from tearing down the house. Before buying the property they did their due diligence. If they had discovered an overlay zone, they would never have purchased it."
Nevertheless, said Mary Wendorf, "these surprises are happening in San Diego neighborhoods all the time. Almost overnight people will look out their windows and see another old home gone. They never even know what's coming."
But thanks to Wendorf's discovery, residents interested in the Cleveland Avenue home were able to have their voices heard. They formed the University Heights Historical Committee and collected 159 signatures on a petition to save the house through historic designation. As Toni Atkins suggested, they took the petition to the Historical Resources Board in June, a step that prompted the City's Development Services Department to order an expert historical review. For a report on the home, the department instructed Golba to hire a researcher from the historical consultants list the board puts on its website.
Golba, who has gone through the process often, hired attorney and historian Scott Moomjian to write the report on 4374 Cleveland, as well as on the house immediately behind it, which was to be demolished in the project too. Moomjian examined both houses and consulted San Diego County property records, which pinned down 4374 to a 1912 origin and 4376 to 1948.
To make its determinations, the Historical Resources Board uses six criteria involving such issues as whether renowned persons lived on the property or well-known historical events happened in connection with it. What became decisive in the case of 4374 Cleveland was Criterion C, which reads as follows: "[A building that merits historic designation embodies] the distinctive characteristics of the style, type, period or method of construction or is a valuable example of the use of indigenous materials or craftsmanship."
Although the University Heights Historical Committee was attempting to save only the 1912 home, Moomjian acknowledged in his late-June report that both 4374 and 4376 Cleveland had been designed as Craftsman homes. But his report stated, among other things, that architecturally the homes' "style is common and not considered unique." In terms of their use, he argued, "Single-family residential use is common and is not considered unique."
However, uniqueness is hardly a requirement for historical designation, or only one Craftsman home would have been designated. Part of Moomjian's argument was that so many Craftsmans have already been designated in San Diego that another is not needed. He went on to make a stronger case. In his report, Moomjian considered a number of alterations to both houses, including a protective stucco-like coating and brickwork on the 1912 house that were not used on original Craftsmans. These, he felt, compromised the houses' historical integrity. A major conclusion of his report was that the houses were "not historically or architecturally significant. In their current condition," he wrote, "the buildings do not embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of Craftsman construction." Therefore, they did not warrant receiving the City's official historic designation.
The practice of the Historical Resources Board is to allow the appellant to write its own report. Christine Mann, who received a master's degree from the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in downtown San Diego, volunteered her time and on July 27 submitted a 50-page report for the University Heights group. Her report rebutted Moomjian on key points and made a case for the 4374 Cleveland's historic designation.
Among other issues, Mann focused on Moomjian's contention that Craftsmans were one-story houses and on this statement in his report: "The typical Craftsman residence usually includes a low-pitched gabled roof...." "In fact," wrote Mann, "the higher pitched gabled roof was created to accommodate a second story. Two of the most famous California architects, Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, are recognized for inspiring America to build simple one-and-a-half story bungalows.... Many of these one-and-a-half story bungalows designed by the Greenes were publicized in magazines. Additionally many historically designated homes in Mission Hills have a similar higher pitched gable and second story.... In fact, in a Report from Mr. Moomjian for a similar home located [in Mission Hills] dated June 10, 2005, he states [that it] 'possesses many distinctive characteristics of the Craftsman style including, but not limited to, its high-pitched, side gabled roof with eave overhang....' "