But is SOHO doing anything?
“The California Theatre is on our Most Endangered list. Ownership recently transferred to an out-of-town investment firm after the previous owner, another investment company, went bankrupt. We’re trying to find someone to buy the building, to restore it as a performing-arts center…the Balboa is a big success. You would think that once people saw that they’d go, ‘Oh. All right.’”
She says the California is San Diego’s most ornate Spanish revival treasure. It leaves the beautifully restored Balboa, two blocks down at Fourth and E, in the dust. The California is more ornately decorated, and big (originally, there were 2200 seats). It could be the largest movie space in town, twice as interesting as the Balboa. And that’s saying something. For a moment I imagine it revived to its former glory, pilasters and sculptures and clamshell fountain niches….
“Bruce had the best idea,” Alana says. “He thinks the city should buy it and turn it into City Hall. It’s large enough, it’s a showpiece of San Diego culture, and it would send an outstanding preservation message across the country.”
We go looking for Bruce among the gathered families and the flowerbeds of giant hydrangeas, magnificent in shades of pink. He’s standing on the porch of a little old house behind the main brick Whaley structure. This one is part timber, part…adobe? “It’s a prefab,” Bruce says, “built in New England and brought around the Horn in 1850.” Stories fall from Bruce’s lips at the slightest prompting. “William Heath Davis and his partners, including Juan Bandini, bought a bunch of these to create the first part of New Town [down by the Bay]. Then the New Town venture collapsed in 1852, and it became a ghost town.” This house was moved up here to Old Town. “Then Bandini built the adobe section, which was the Chinese cooks’ house. Let me show you something.”
He hauls me over to where a portion of a door has been scraped to bare wood. Here they’ve found carved Chinese characters. “We just discovered this. It says something like ‘Chinese man does good work.’ But we’re getting an expert to translate.”
We sit down in Bruce’s office in the adobe part of the old cookhouse, built onto the back of the 160-year-old New England prefab. “It’s coolest here in summer,” he says. This is the nerve center for a big operation these days. According to the Reader’s Don Bauder, in a June 2004 piece about the Coonses’ leadership, the budget went from $4000 to $500,000 in the four years Bruce had been running the show, and membership quadrupled. Today, maybe a half-dozen interns and others are busying themselves at desks and computers. A drawing Robert Miles Parker did of the California Theatre in better times hangs on one wall; an old kerosene wall lamp with an electric bulb inside its glass chute dangles dangerously; piles of paperwork and people’s bags and sunglasses clutter the desks. A shallow, wide-brimmed straw Chinese peasant’s hat keeps dust off a printer.
Coons has blue eyes and a fresh, ruddy complexion that makes him look young. But there’s also something of the eagle in his face. You wouldn’t want to cross him — he’d slay you with a devastating barrage of facts.
There’s no doubt that SOHO has done incredible work since Robert Miles Parker’s “Save Me!” sign. We owe for the survival of icons now taken for granted, like the Santa Fe Depot, the Western Metal Supply building (which gives Petco Park such character), and Heritage Park near Old Town, where old houses have gone not to die but to become a living museum. Parker’s Sherman-Gilbert House is one of these. It belonged to John Sherman, cousin of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Arthur Rubinstein and Yehudi Menuhin have given recitals there. And it’s clear it has rarely been easy, taking on City Hall, or “big money.” Saving the Balboa Theatre took decades (and SOHO was by no means alone in that fight).
Not all fights are won. An attempt to save the T.M. Cobb building, home of the First and Last Chance Saloon, at the bottom of Fifth — across from the Spaghetti Factory — almost bankrupted SOHO, Coons says. They failed against a team of lawyers for the owners of the Empire State Building, who wanted the land. The Cobb building was demolished right under the arch that reads “Gaslamp Historic District.”
Then, in 1997 — and this seems unbelievable — the Hotel Del Coronado was about to disappear behind four-story additions on all sides that would have blocked it from everything, including the sea, and destroyed its 1888 ancillary buildings, including the old steam laundry with its iconic chimney stack. Bruce, Alana, and the whole SOHO gang pulled out all the stops, going door to door to warn unbelieving Coronadans, telling them what the new owner, Travelers Insurance, was about to do to “their” Del. Coons still considers that victory their greatest ever.
Perhaps more significant was how they managed to bend the Padres’ ownership and the city to their will on the warehouse district. Including a Victorian industrial building like Western Metal into the design of a brand-new ballpark, along with saving 11 of 12 historic warehouses in the area slated for demolition, sent shock waves through the planning and architectural and sports worlds. The discovery that incorporating the past enhances big developments provided a watershed moment for designers, especially coming from a “new” city like San Diego. It’s the Western Metal building that sets our ballpark apart, even more than the design by its world-famous architect, Antoine Predock.
But what to make of the setbacks? Has SOHO been too genteel in its protests? Too used to persuasion and the legal route, rather than direct action? The famed Green Dragon Colony of La Jolla was an important early loss. And those two oldest cottages in La Jolla, Red Rest and Red Roost, remain empty, still deteriorating structurally after 35 years of struggle. Lawyers for the owners are now offering them for sale for $10 million each. At least they’re still up. SOHO has managed to get its hands on civic pioneer George Marston’s house at the edge of Balboa Park, and that’s prospering, but the equally important Villa Montezuma languishes in a dangerous state of decay, just beyond their reach. In its early years, SOHO helped save this brilliantly colorful, weirdly wonderful 1887 Queen Anne mansion, while the City and the San Diego Historical Society juggled its management. (Recently a cash-strapped Historical Society passed it back to the cash-strapped City.) Bruce, who claims SOHO isn’t cash-strapped, would love to gain control of Villa Montezuma before it’s beyond saving. “I think we’ve shown with the Whaley House and the Marston House that we can handle this sort of thing,” he says. (In five years SOHO turned the Whaley House into the most successful house museum in the county, with seven thousand visitors during the period. It was granted management control of the Marston House after February 2009, when the Historical Society had to give it up due to financial difficulties. Yet SOHO still can’t get its hands on the equally important Villa Montezuma.)