The graffiti wraps the California Theatre in a ten-foot-tall necklace of yellow and black and silver, squished-together letters shaped like half-inflated airbags. The odd thing is whoever did it also surrounded it with a new chain-link fence. I suddenly realize: The fence is there not to protect the theater but to protect the graffiti…from…more graffiti.
We’re talking, after all, about the venerable California Theatre, grande dame of the 1920s, the “cathedral of the motion picture,” whose five-story-high auditorium, the largest in town, looks like a Spanish church inside. Over its 83 years it has hosted everything from silent movies to teen-scream event-openings like the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco.
The second thought is: Where’s mighty SOHO when you need it? This is precisely what San Diego’s own Save Our Heritage Organisation (that’s how they spell it) is for, isn’t it? Can anything be more “our heritage” than this? Where’s the human chain surrounding the place, shouting, “Hell no! We won’t go!”
SOHO stumbled into existence when an artist named Robert Miles Parker came across an old house — the 1887 Sherman-Gilbert house — about to be ripped down. On a whim he pasted up a small paper sign that said, “SAVE THIS HOUSE, 239-8324.” It was his phone number. He was inundated with calls. That was 1969. As a result of his and his fellow outraged citizens’ efforts, the house was saved and SOHO was born. Forty-one years on, thanks to SOHO, hundreds of houses have been preserved and dozens of public buildings saved. Ones you’d recognize, like the Hotel Del Coronado, and ones you mightn’t, like the Verna House, a beautiful little frou-frou French cottage transplanted to Old Town, set up next to the Whaley House to become SOHO’s retail shop.
But, 41 years on, maybe we also need to take a critical look, because it hasn’t all been glorious victories. Look at this theater, for instance. Look at the rubble across Broadway: famous architect Harrison Albright’s Hotel San Diego (he also designed the U.S. Grant hotel and the Coronado Library). Apart from its place in the architectural and social history of this town, in the years prior to its 2001 closure, it housed 11 percent of downtown’s homeless population. But, in April 2006, it went down in a cloud of dust. The U.S. government wanted the space for a federal courthouse annex (that’s just what’s needed to brighten up Broadway, right?), and neither SOHO nor the city could fight the feds, or so they said. One way or another, they let it slip away. Or how about that 35-year, still-unresolved drama of the two oldest cottages in La Jolla, Red Roost and Red Rest, where lawyers seemed to turn SOHO and other objectors into nominees for the lifetime sucker award. Or the collapsing adobe at Warner’s Ranch. Or the 1937 art deco streamline moderne Ford dealership at 1015 Park Boulevard, a building designed by renowned architect Frank Hope. Or, dare we mention, the still-kind-of-empty-feeling plaza of a once-vibrant Old Town, where SOHO invested its passion for historical accuracy — a more Anglo accuracy — that many say ripped the joyful heart out of the place?
And mention SOHO to certain go-go developer types and they’ll raise their eyes to heaven and rage on about how SOHO can be painfully anal retentive, Luddite almost, slowing progress just to be a pain in the you-know-what, objecting, holding up new building projects by reflex action. This kind of obstructionism, they’ll imply, is just plain un–San Diegan. We’re all here in America’s Finest for the future, right? To shuck off the past and then use that freedom to experiment, bulldoze, build, rebuild, start again. Unencumbered. Easy come, easy go. Ain’t that our pride and joy?
Add to this complaints that saving and refurbishing historic homes is a money-making tax-dodge for wealthy elitists, and you’ve reduced the likes of SOHO to enablers, helping the rich get richer with a clear conscience.
SOHO’s executive director Bruce Coons and his wife Alana, the organization’s events and education director, also have their critics, who say the couple plays hardball politics with colleagues who disagree with their priorities and can be too ready to cut deals with developers.
So, after 41 years, 10 under the Coonses’ tutelage, you have to wonder: Has SOHO gone soft? Does SOHO need saving — from itself?
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It’s lunchtime on a sunny, breezy Friday — July 16, 2010 — on the lawn beside the Whaley House. And that means: Happy 241st birthday, Jamestown! (That’s us, Saint James — San Diego.) SOHO’s been trying to revive a civic celebration of this anniversary. This is its third year, and maybe a hundred folks are in attendance today, most buzzing around the old California pepper tree on the lawn next to the Whaley House, now SOHO’s headquarters, the spot where some say the ghost of Anna Whaley — or is it Violet Whaley, who reputedly shot herself in the privy out back? — hangs around, dancing, perhaps. There’s a microphone and speakers and a portable lectern, and the place is alive with crinoline dresses and bowler hats, schoolkids in red T-shirts running around the pepper tree, docents in long wire-hooped gowns, dignitaries getting up to speak about the significance of the day, rows of chairs on the grass, and behind those, outside the New Orleans Creole Café, tables laid out with cake and soda. There’s even music, dancing, “and much camaraderie,” as the poster advertising the event confidently predicted.
Actually, it’s a double birthday with a nice symmetry about it. Because while the town’s turning 241, SOHO is exactly 200 years younger — 41 this year.
I nab Alana. She’s an attractive, vital woman who radiates enthusiasm and a sense of humor but also determination. I ask about the graffiti and why the California Theatre looks as if it’s on its last legs.
“Blame the Museum of Contemporary Art!” she says. “They sponsored that graffiti. Part of their big exhibition of street art. Public art. On buildings. That’s fine, but the first building they did is the California Theatre. They had permission from the owner — the owner, by the way, who wants nothing more than to demolish this building. I can hardly believe they did it. It is giant graffiti. Ugly, ugly giant graffiti, as if someone did major tags. I don’t care how many times they want to call it cool, contemporary, public art that only sophisticated people could possibly understand, it’s bullshit. It’s crap. Even if it were good art, to paint it right on the building, over the windows, over the wood on the building? It’s supposed to be temporary, it can be washed off, but everyone says, ‘How can it be temporary?’ And washed off? Where does that silver paint go? To feed the dolphins? We just hope that when people see the theater, and the disgusting thing they did to it, maybe they’ll wake up and realize you really do have to help us save these things. SOHO can’t do it all.”