Ten years ago, two architects resigned in protest from the San Diego Historical Site Board, frustrated over the board’s inability to protect historic buildings that were in the path of the downtown redevelopment juggernaut. Architect Donald Reeves, who was chairman of the board, told the city council that “the bulldozer approach is not appropriate in 1980.... Historic preservation in this city is so out of step with the rest of the country it is unbelievable.’’ Mayor Pete Wilson argued back that the demolition of the Lyceum Theatre, the Horton Grand Hotel, and other historic structures to make way for the Horton Plaza shopping mall was a necessary trade-off. “We simply have come to the moment of truth,” Wilson declared.
The moment of truth also had arrived for certain pesky appointees to the site board. In what preservationists remember as the Monday Night Massacre, Wilson moved to end the confrontations between the board and the city council by not reappointing three of the board’s more zealous members.
In 1990, relations between the site board and the city council appear headed once again for some kind of collision. In the last three years, members of the board claim, every time a property owner has appealed historic designation of his property, the city council has caved in and reversed the board’s decision. As a consequence, a citywide face-lift that has been underway for years seems suddenly to be accelerating. David Swarens, president of the Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO), argues, “Historic designation is a recognition of value. The idea that it is somehow onerous to the property owner is incorrect. It doesn’t preclude development or demolition of the property. But owning a historic site is similar to owning a mountaintop or a wetland; there is a community value there that is larger than personal property rights. There is a common good that transcends the whims of individuals.”
Swarens believes that historic buildings need to be preserved because “as you lose old, valuable buildings, a tremendous amount of San Diego identity goes with them. There are places in San Diego now that if someone took you there and spun you around, when you opened your eyes, you couldn’t tell if you were in Orange County or Florida. The sense of place here is becoming blurred. People come to historic preservation because they see what is old and of value being replaced by what is new and of little value.”
While preservationists lament that once a historic designation is appealed to the city council, it then suffers by entering the realm of politics, councilman Bob Filner counters that “Everything is political — and that’s not necessarily bad.” The councilman’s district included the Aztec Brewery, which was demolished after being designated a historic site, and part of the Egyptian district on Park Boulevard, near University Avenue, whose historic designation was reversed by the council. Filner argues that preservationists should learn to play politics better. “I get lobbied by developers,” he observes. “I don’t get lobbied by members of the site board.” Filner claims that only a small percentage of the buildings designated as historic are ever appealed to the city council and that council members are constantly fighting off development pressures on historic places such as the Gaslamp Quarter, downtown.
But historic preservation usually gets the short end of the political stick. One example: The El Cortez Hotel was designated as historic only a few months ago; several site board members were surprised that it had not been designated years ago. They might not have known that the hotel was slated to come before the board for consideration in 1982, but it was taken off the agenda at the last minute because of pressure from Mayor Wilson’s office, which was looking at the D Cortez site as one of the three main contenders for the location of the new convention center. Historic designation would have delayed demolition of the hotel to make way for the convention center, so politics intervened to ward off the preservation of one of downtown’s few major landmarks.
Following is a roster of some of the most significant sites in the campaign waged by a small group of preservationists to hang on to a semblance of San Diego’s heritage. In a sense, these places are battlegrounds in a running fight between the city’s economic imperatives and its history — a war over cultural memory.
American Legion Building,
The demolition of the American Legion building and the construction of the Timken Gallery next to the lily pond in Balboa Park mark the beginning of the most recent historic preservation effort in San Diego. The controversy engendered by the flat, cold, white marble surfaces of the gallery, which would not be out of place in a cemetery, still echo from 1961 to the present. The Timken is one enduring monument to the city’s ambivalence about historic preservation and historic values.
In 1960 the San Diego City Council adopted a new master plan for Balboa Park, named the Bartholomew Plan, which recommended demolition of several buildings, including the American Legion building. But the master plan also stated that any new structures should be compatible with the park’s Spanish Colonial architecture. When plans for the Timken were first announced in 1961, there was such a public outcry over the stark, contemporary design of the building that the Timken and Putnam foundations withdrew their offer of the 40 Old Master paintings they had wanted to house in the park. The paintings became hostages to the foundations’ demand to construct a modem-style building as a “gift” to the city.
On June 24, 1963, when the city council was discussing the Timken Gallery for the second time, several preservationists argued in vain that the proposed Timken Gallery would forever mar the famous Prado. Florence Abbey was one of those speakers. Abbey was president of the Balboa Park Protective Association, the precursor of today’s Committee of 100, now an influential lobby dedicated to protecting the Spanish Colonial architecture of the park. In addressing the council, Abbey implied that her group was so opposed to the modem design of the Timken that she might seek an injunction against demolition of the American Legion building. She also said she might take the matter to the grand jury, because “I think there may be a possibility of malfeasance in office here.” Nevertheless, the council voted unanimously that the Timken Gallery would be compatible with other park buildings. Later, the grand jury concurred with the politicians.
Once the building was completed, its inappropriateness to the site was undeniable, and those who had fought it were suddenly taken seriously. In 1968 the city council adopted a more specific architectural policy for the Prado than had been called for in the Bartholomew Plan, stating that any new buildings must conform to the 1915 Exposition architecture. The Committee of 100 grew into a formidable group of park defenders who recently raised $360,000 to pay for the construction of a new arched arcade that would extend along the Prado, partially obscuring the Timken. Although the city council has approved the idea, various museum-related groups have risen up in opposition, and the Timken may even file a lawsuit to stop the project. Timken officials believe the arcades arc a deliberate attempt to try to hide the building from public view.
The rest of the Prado, excluding the Timken, became the first site designated by the city’s new historical site board after its creation in 1965. In 1976, the Prado and the Cabrillo Bridge were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Timken was again excluded.
The Tyrolean Terrace Cottages,
Prospect Street and Coast Boulevard, La Jolla
Possibly the first hostelry that ever catered to the automobile traveler in San Diego, and thus the city’s first “motel,” the Tyrolean Terrace was built in 1910 as a collection of Craftsman cottages on the hillside overlooking the La Jolla caves. Each chaletlike unit had a small carport to house a horseless carriage. By the mid-1970s, the units were rented as apartments and retail space. Longtime residents might remember it as the site of the Gatekeeper, a vegetarian restaurant.
The land but not the buildings was registered historic by the city, but in 1976, the process for determining the buildings’ eligibility for the National Register was underway. However, shortly before historic analysts were to examine the site, the owner demolished the cottages to make way for the Coast Walk retail complex that currently occupies the land.
1922 First Avenue, downtown
Robert Miles Parker, founder of SOHO, called the demolition of this 1870-vintage house on First Avenue, between Grape and Fir streets, an “urban atrocity.” The building was torn down in the summer of 1978 to make room for a parking lot, in spite of efforts on the part of SOHO and the historical site board to save it. In 1972 the whole block bounded by First, Front, Grape, and Fir, with its Victorian houses, had been designated historic; but the designation was rescinded after the board learned that it didn’t have the statutory authority to create a historic district. And it never got around to designating the buildings separately. “San Diego has lost another historic building and gained a parking lot,” Parker said shortly after the demolition. “This parking lot neighbors a parking lot that was once John Sherman’s home, another parking lot that was once the site of the Sherman-Gilbert House, and another parking lot that was once the site- of Alonzo E. Horton’s home.”
The Klauber House,
3060 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Between 1979 and 1989 an empty, trash-strewn lot at the comer of Sixth Avenue and Redwood Street was a source of anguish for many preservationists and other people with long memories. The Melville Klauber House, a 6750-square-foot, three-story home designed by famed architect Irving Gill, was built in 1907 and demolished to make way for condos in 1979. But the developer’s plans fell through, and the lot collected beer cans and animosity until last year, when another firm began building a ten-story condominium tower on the site. Harry Evans, a member of the historical site board who was part of the doomed effort to halt the demolition of one of the finest local examples of Gills work, says his blood pressure prevents him from driving past the site now. “Except for a few relatives, I have not suffered a greater loss,” Evans remarks.
Many local preservationists have the same emotional reaction to the destruction of the Klauber House and the failure of the developer, La Jolla Financial’s Kevin Kelly, to follow through with his company’s plans. In the past, Kelly has blamed the preservationists for holding up his development project while they fought to save the house; he says that by the time he was able to clear the land, the economy was entering a recession and he could not put together financing. Kelly did not return recent phone calls on the matter.
The Klauber House was an important structure architecturally because it was a transitional piece of work by the architect who pioneered a design that was uniquely Californian, encompassing diverse elements from Mexican-style haciendas and European-like gabled mansions, but at a low price. Gill also designed the Bishop’s School and the La Jolla Women’s Club, among other important local buildings. The Klauber House was designated historic because Gill did much of his early work in San Diego, the garden was designed by Kate Sessions, and Melville Klauber, the client, was an important businessman who started a major wholesale grocery operation here. Plus, the house was a gem, featuring balconies, patios, oak and maple floors, pipes enclosed by boxes stuffed with dried seaweed to muffle plumbing noise, a rainwater collection and filtration system, a built-in cigar humidor, an original tile landscape over a fireplace, and many other imaginative touches. The house was on many architectural tour lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places.
The failed attempts to save the house pointed up clearly the weakness of San Diego’s historic preservation laws. Destruction of historic sites cannot be prevented under the law; only two 180-day waiting periods can be imposed. These periods were invoked in order to give potential buyers of the Klauber House time to come forward. The developers, who owned the property, did receive purchase offers in the $275,000 to $300,000 range, but the owners valued the property at $550,000. They were represented before the city council by then-Mayor Pete Wilson’s best friend, attorney John Davies, who claimed none of the offers was high enough.
The Klauber House was a historic loss for another reason. “It was the first time the city council didn’t support the historic sites board,” recalls Bruce Kamerling, a local preservationist who had worked to save the house. “Since then, that’s happened a lot. It’s been a downhill spiral from there.” The council discussed several options, including buying the house and moving it to Heritage Park in Old Town. Preservationists still chuckle at this notion, because of the awkwardness of trying to fit a Gill-designed house among restored Victorians. In the end, the city council decided it could do nothing but let the two 180-day delays elapse.
A group called the Friends of Gill filed suit to try to halt issuance of a demolition permit, and even though Superior Court judge Ed Butler remarked from the bench that “the creaking timbers are speaking to me,” he ruled that he could not legally stop the demolition. Jim Kelley-Markham, an architect who was a founder of the Friends of Gill, says that even with the loss, the preservation movement gained some longterm benefit. “The martyrdom of the Klauber House ended up raising the awareness of Gill’s work,” Kelley-Markham explains. “I don’t think there would be an attempt to tear down another Gill.” He thinks the outcry over the Klauber House contributed to the preservation of two Gill-designed structures in Oceanside that might have been demolished otherwise. Instead, they were restored and became part of Oceanside’s new city hall complex.
1924 Adams Avenue, University Heights
Prior to the ascendancy of the automobile, the electric streetcar system in San Diego was vital and far-reaching. In 1912 John D. Spreckels constructed a large maintenance and storage facility for his streetcar line at the western end of Adams Avenue. This became a major terminal in the line linking downtown with Kensington and was an important factor in the development of Kensington, University Heights, and North Park.
In San Francisco, a similar building became the commercial hub called Ghirardelli Square; Salt Lake City turned such a building into Trolley Square. In San Diego, a developer wanted to tear down the trolley bam and build a 96-unit condominium project. With the help of a doctored environmental report that misled some members of the site board, he succeeded in demolishing the building in 1980, over the strenuous objections of several neighbors and local preservationists. But his plans ended there. The property was put up for sale, purchased by the city, and is about to be opened as a public park.
The issue of whether a developer s biased report should be used to determine the historical value of a building has come up repeatedly, most recently regarding the California Theater on Fourth Avenue downtown. The owners want to tear it down and put up a high-rise office building, and they commissioned a report that went overboard in minimizing the importance of the theater’s architect. Other experts attacked that report, but the building’s fate appears to be the same as the trolley barn’s.
Brooklyn Hotel/Kahle’s Saddlery,
733 E Street, downtown
Constructed in 1887 as the Brooklyn Hotel, the building later became a saddlery. It was designated a historic site in 1972. In 1982 it was owned by the Salvation Army, which wanted to tear it down to use the empty lot for parking. Despite pleas by SOHO that the Salvation Army could restore the building by putting its own people to work there and then use it for low-cost housing, the structure was dismantled, and part of it was incorporated into the new Horton Grand Hotel. Though the Salvation Army’s long-range plan was to construct low-rent housing on the site, it is still only a parking lot.
Mission San Diego de Alcalá,
10818 San Diego Mission Road, Mission Valley
After more than 20 years of archaeological excavation at what historians now agree is the most important historical site on the West Coast, USD historians have published little in the way of scholarly reports on their digs. In the past, they have been criticized by historians for apparently toadying to Catholic Diocese plans to build a large recreation hall on a site suspected of being the main Indian cemetery at the mission. USD’s Ray Brandes and James Moriarty have frustrated fellow historians and bureaucrats working for the state, federal, and local governments by not answering questions about what they discovered beneath the proposed building. The two professors denied that the site contained Indian bones but refused to give out much more information than that.
Meanwhile, the mission’s pastor, Msgr. I. Brent Eagan, had a sunken barbecue pit built in the suspected graveyard without bothering to request the permits needed to alter a national, state, and locally registered historic site. And Eagan, with the backing of USD’s historians, steadfastly pushed for construction of the meeting hall. He finally compromised with the city, agreeing to alter the church’s original plan to bulldoze the site and cover it with a concrete slab. Instead, the building would sit on 20 pilings. He also agreed that the holes for these pilings would be excavated by independent archaeologists unconnected to USD.
It was not a surprise when, shortly after the digging began in March 1989, Indian bones were exposed. By the time the excavation ended, dozens of Indian skeletons had been found, local Indian groups were demanding that they be allowed to rebury their ancestors, and Brandes and Moriarty were just as silent as usual on the subject. The church finally agreed to move the proposed parish hall to a different part of the mission grounds.
Horton Grand Hotel,
332 F Street, downtown
Knights of Pythias Castle,
Third Avenue & E Street
Lyceum Theatre, 314 F Street
Shore Patrol Building,
726 Second Avenue
315 E Street
Bradley Building, Plaza Way
Pete Wilson’s “moment of truth” for the Horton Plaza shopping center doomed these buildings, prompting the resignation of site board chairman Don Reeves in July 1980. Two of the sites, the Lyceum Theatre and the Knights of Pythias building, were on the national register. Before the bulldozers leveled the Shore Patrol building, which had been the first jail constructed in San Diego (1911) and was designed by two-time San Diego Mayor Edwin Capps, federal authorities wanted to submit the building for consideration of its national historic status. But the Navy, which owned the building, cut a deal with the city and allowed it to be demolished. Parts of one building, the Horton Grand Hotel, were dismantled and put in storage until the facade was reassembled to become part of Dan Pearson’s new Horton Grand, at Fourth and Island.
Green Dragon Colony, Red Rest/Red Roost,
above La Jolla Cove
La Jolla’s Green Dragon Colony was a vacation enclave for early-20th Century artists. It now consists of four boarded-up cottages, designated historic sites by the city, which are owned by architect Robert Mosher. Just up Coast Boulevard, across from La Jolla Cove, are the two dilapidated structures known as the Red Rest and Red Roost. Built in 1894, the two bungalows are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Vacant since 1977, they are owned by Jack Heimburge, who also owns the motel next door. Both Heimburge and Mosher have been trying to demolish these properties since the mid-1970s but have been thwarted by local preservationists and Coastal Commission disapproval.
Both men scoff at the notion that they should be forced to preserve what they consider to be crumbling old eyesores, and they have resisted pressure to sell the properties. Heimburge once asked a reporter, “How would you like to have a piece of property and not be able to do anything with it?” Mosher claims that designating what’s left of the Green Dragon cottages “has made a mockery of historic preservation.” He doesn’t have definite plans for the site; he wants to clear it before he makes up his mind what to do with it.
But if the structures have so far avoided the bulldozer blade, they appear to be undergoing demolition in slow motion. “It’s active neglect, equal to demolition,” argues Tony Ciani, a La Jolla architect and leader in the effort to force Mosher and Heimburge to save the buildings. Letting the buildings deteriorate in the ocean air is “a strategy that they think will lead to the community finally demanding that those broken-down places be removed,” Ciani declares. “They’re giving the finger to the community.”
Egyptian Revival Historic District,
Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
Despite an owner’s jackhammering of the Egyptian-style decoration from pillars in front of his apartment building, in 1989 the site board still designated the Egyptian Court and Pharaoh Court apartments as part of a historic district along Park Boulevard. The district also included the Park Theater, an old gas station at Park and Robinson, and the building housing the Big City liquor store at University and Euclid. But when property owners appealed, they found six willing ears on the city council, and the Egyptian district designation was erased.
The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 touched off an Egyptian-style building craze all over the country. The site board felt that this constituted an architectural movement whose remaining examples were worth preserving. But this idea was unequivocally rejected by the council. Councilwoman Judy McCarty remarked, “If it’s Mount Vernon or something, wonderful. But a gas station? Really!” Councilman Ron Roberts, an architect, declared that there was no such thing as an architectural movement known as Egyptian Revival, that it was just a fad, and the buildings in question were mere “architectural crumbs.”
Preservationists were incensed. SOHO’s David Swarens observes, “Roberts’s comment was exactly the point. It’s a fad, and that’s us. It’s a dream world in Southern California. The impermanence of what was built is what we’re about. If you want classical architecture, go live in Cambridge. It relates to this idea that what is best is the kind of thing built on the East Coast and by extension, in Europe. That’s very ethnocentric and not what Southern California is about.”
Laurel Street entrance to Balboa Park
It was déjà vu all over again when the city council voted unanimously last year to let banker Tom Sefton determine the design of the western entrance to Balboa Park and to stick his name on it in big bronze letters. It was a replay of the council’s unanimous vote to allow the Timken to awkwardly plop its “gift” to the city smack in the middle of the Prado. And like the Timken, Sefton Plaza will always be a reminder of the city’s poor stewardship of Balboa Park.
The western end of the bridge, including the two guard towers, which were once ticket booths for the 1915 exposition, is on the national historic register as well as the local register of historic sites. And yet the plan for Sefton Plaza was never brought before the historical site board for a vote. In the rush to upgrade that section of the bridge before the opening of last year’s Soviet Arts Festival, the newly adopted Balboa Park Master Plan was ignored, and even a prohibition against placing any more memorials in the park was violated. San Diego Trust & Savings, the bank Sefton’s family has operated for a century, was allowed to build a memorial to itself in a national landmark, marking the bank’s 100th anniversary in San Diego.
The designers of the plaza, who were hired by Sefton, not the city, wanted to post Sefton’s name in eight-inch-high bronze letters on the plaza; city staffers had to fight to get the letters reduced to four inches. The designers also wanted to build cupolas atop the old ticket booths, the same cupolas that have become a corporate symbol for the bank. This idea was nixed as well. The designers were able to place nonhistorical flower beds on the plaza. Although the ticket booths were painted, they were not restored to historic preservation standards.
San Diego Trust’s development arm announced recently that it will be building $55 million worth of condos, row-houses, and office space on the northwest comer of Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street, just a block from the bridge entrance. The development, on the site of the first San Diego Trust branch, will be named Sefton Plaza.
Savage Tire/Aztec Brewery,
2301 Main Street, Logan Heights
The Savage Tire/Aztec Brewery buildings on Main Street in Barrio Logan were demolished last May, even though they were designated historic structures, because (choose one): (a) the Chicano community was split over the issue, as usual, and Rachel Ortiz sided with the developers; (b) the site was in the barrio, and therefore a completely different set of (unwritten) rules was applied; (c) Councilman Bob Filner’s fetish for deal-cutting superseded his judgment as a historian; or (d) the buildings were historical but not worth saving because of their location in an industrial zone, and the site is better suited to the parking lot it is about to become. The answer is all of the above, in combination.
The Savage Tire/Aztec Brewery site is now owned by Southwest Marine, which will be using the lot for parking and storage. The only remnant of the brick structures that once housed an innovative tire factory and later a brewery are pieces of commercial art salvaged from the “rathskeller” tasting room. The art will be displayed in Chuey’s restaurant in the barrio until permanent quarters are constructed.
Local preservationists consider the tale a classic example of how politics and business often conspire against historic sites. The Aztec-themed paintings in the brewery’s rathskeller were created by José Moya del Pino, a contemporary of Picasso. Salvador Torres, a local artist who was chairman of the Chicano Park Arts Council, saw photographs of the paintings and was intrigued. He gained access to the rathskeller, which had been closed for more than 30 years, and was immediately enthralled. Torres and others brought the brewery buildings to the attention of the site board, which agreed to consider historic designation at its regular meeting in March of 1988.
At the same time, the owner of the site, the Northern Automotive Corporation of Phoenix, was in the process of selling it to a Los Angeles firm that wanted to build a $10 million warehouse. And before the site board’s scheduled meeting, the property owners removed most of the art work from the buildings, stating that they were merely trying to protect it from vandals. Site board members and other preservationists say it was a calculated attempt to reduce the historic value of the brewery and thereby lessen the chances of the historic designation. Such a designation would hold up demolition, and the deal with the prospective warehouse builder was contingent on the L.A. firm’s buying a clean site.
The site board finally designated as historic the art work and two of the brewery’s three buildings. The property owner appealed this decision, and after an emotional hearing, the city council reversed the site board on the buildings and kept the designation for the art work only.
Councilman Bob Filner, whose district included the site, had rallied the council to save the art and sacrifice the buildings. “Filner was more interested in making friends with developers than in defending the historic value of the buildings,” remarks A1 Ducheny, a barrio activist and chairman of the Harborview Community Council. “The city got the art in a trade for the demolition permit. It was just politics, man. The art became a commodity that was reduced to a bargaining chip for the city and Chuey’s restaurant. Filner’s role has to be made clear in this. It was wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Filner, a history professor before entering politics, counters that there was great debate before the council over whether the buildings were worthy of historic designation. “I’m sensitive to these issues,” Filner declares. “From my perspective, the art work was far, far more important to preserve for the Barrio Logan community. My opinion was, we would not get the art work unless the people who owned it were able to do what they wanted in the community.... If you’d taken a vote in the community, the building would have come down. They were far more interested in jobs.”
Ducheny doubts that, as does David Swarens of SOHO. Swarens points out that Congressman Jim Bates’s office did a precinct poll on the question “which showed an overwhelming desire for preservation.’’ Ducheny says there was unanimous agreement among the site board, the local planning group, SOHO, the city’s arts commission, and most preservationists that the buildings were historically valuable. “Filner was reduced to ‘This is our opinion,’ ” Ducheny remarks. “The fate of the buildings was sealed by a climate of political expediency.”
3768 Albatross Street, Mission Hills
This Craftsman-style home in Mission Hills was designated historic last February. The owner, a deputy district attorney, appealed the designation to the city council. He argued that having to preserve the structure would prevent him from building a “family compound,” which would house his own family. The empathetic council downgraded the designation to a level 4, which merely requires a photographic record of the structure — “Drawing a chalk mark around the body,” as one site board member defines it — before demolition may proceed. In mid-summer, city officials were outraged to learn that after the lot had been cleared, the attorney subdivided it and put it up for sale.
El Toreador Motel,
631 East San Ysidro Boulevard, San Ysidro
This 42-year-old pink hostelry was once the haunt of Hollywood luminaries like John Wayne and Jay (“Tonto”) Silverheels. The bottom of the swimming pool featured a bullfight mosaic, and the mock-Spanish Colonial styling was an attempt to appeal to gringos who wanted to experience a bit of Mexico without actually having to cross the border. It was designated historic in August of 1989.
The owners of the property, who want to grace San Ysidro with yet another strip mall on the site, appealed the designation to the city council. The council decreed that only the front building need be saved; the developer could tear down the rest of it. Demolition was underway in early October.