When leaders of the National Trust for Historic Preservation met in San Diego in March, they were heartened by the city’s efforts to revitalize North Pork via the trust’s Main Street Center program. They also saw, firsthand, results of the Gaslamp Quarter’s resurrection. The warm fuzzy feeling about the city’s enthusiasm for historic preservation soon dissipated, however, during a quick tour of downtown just before hitting the airport. The van full of history and architecture buffs visited the Balboa Theatre, the empty police station, John Ginty’s Victorian house, Hotel San Diego, and several other buildings threatened by demolition or radical alteration. They also drove by the gaping hole where the T.M. Cobb warehouse had stood until it was leveled early this year.
Sitting in the burgundy van was trust president Richard Moe, who has led national crusades to save Civil War battlefields, presidential homes, old hotels and entire neighborhoods.
The hourlong tour gave members of San Diego’s Save Our Heritage Organization, dubbed SOHO, a rare opportunity to ben Moe’s ear. They joked that SOHO’s lengthy list of local sites encroached by development could justify opening a trust branch is San Diego and keep it occupies full-time. Even Courtney Damkroger, an assistant director from the trust’s regional office in San Francisco, along with Moes, was taken aback upon learning so many of San Diego’s landmarks are under siege. “They did say they were in shock,” recalled SOHO president Bruce Coons, who helped organize the tour.
Consequently, political bigwigs were surprised, defensive, and shrill — almost to the point of outrage and contempt — last week, when the trust included San Diego’s “Arts and Warehouse District” on its annual list of “America’s most endangered historic places.” To keep the neighborhood intact and also to maintain the nearby Gaslamp Quarter’s ambience, Moe urged the city to consider moving the Padres’ proposed baseball park farther east. During their downtown tour, Moe and other trust officials noted that San Diego’s old police headquarters, a building on the National Register of Historic Places – which, at 801 W. Market Street, lies well outside the warehouse district – could also easily qualify for the endangered list.
Can the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which played a key role in running Walt Disney Co. out of rural Virginia, make a difference? Officials for San Diego and the Padres initially attacked the trust’s announcement as misinformed, relatively meaningless, and coming too late. By midweek they said they cared deeply about historic preservation and would destroy only two buildings listed on the San Diego Historical Site Board’s registry of landmarks; the Candy Factory at 305 Eighth Avenue and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. office at 114 Tenth Avenue. Another five designated landmark buildings would be modified for the Padre’s use, inviting scathing criticism from restoration purists who rail against what they call “façade-ectomies.” One activist explained the term: “Saving the front of an old building and putting in on a new building is a trick developers use to say they’re restoring the building. It’s like applique.” At least a dozen buildings, recently rejected for landmark status, are likely to be bulldozed or changed by the ballpark’s placement in downtown San Diego’s East Village. Many local preservationists, not to mention East Village’s business owners and residents, support shifting the proposed ballpark to maintain the neighborhood’s cohesiveness and character.
Some people might wonder why old brick warehouses – some of which are surrounded by vast empty lots – warrant all the fuss. Even though his family’s produce business in East Village dates back to 1893, H. Wilton Williams does not feel sentimental about the neighborhood. “Many of these warehouses are 100 years old and are about to fall down,” he said. “They should be condemned because they’re not up to code and probably wouldn’t survive an earthquake.”
William’s 20,000- square foot TR Produce warehouse at 808 J Street, across the street from the proposed ballpark, might become a restaurant, store, or marketing center for Padres owner John Moores, who bought it last year. The purchase closed escrow the day after San Diego voters approved the concept of a new baseball stadium. Williams is operating there under a lease “until they knock buildings down.” Demolition to make way for the ballpark is scheduled for fall.
The wrecking ball’s shadow often enhances a site’s chances of making the trust’s list of “America’s most endangered historic places.” A documentary on the History Channel last week featured San Diego’s East Village and ten other sites on the 1999 list, including Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, better known as “Amish country.”
San Diego’s scarcity of warehouses – structures that might be considered unremarkable in any large East Coast city — makes them precious in the eyes of local architects, historians, and SOHO members. Besides the urgency factor, the trust considers historical as well as architectural significance, community support, and sites that exemplify problems repeated elsewhere. “San Diego isn’t the only city in the country where you have a sports complex taking out a neighborhood,” said James Mann, director of the trust’s regional office in Chicago. “There’s some similar controversy in Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, (Pennsylvania).” Mann is among preservationists who point to Denver as having successfully built a ballpark, Coors Stadium, without destroying downtown buildings.
The trust, which is based in Washington, D.C., does not discriminate. Its annual lists of “endangered historic places,” published since 1988, contain it all: inner cities and rural areas, government buildings and commercial icons, pretty Victorian houses and industrial mines, boats and railroads, even a baseball stadium.
Congress created the trust in 1949 to help protect the nation’s heritage, inspiring the motto “protecting the irreplaceable.” Sites rescued range from the Congressional Cemetery, which was deteriorating from neglect as recently as two years ago, to one of the first McDonald’s hamburger stands built in 1953 in Downey, California.
The nonprofit organization weaned itself from federal funding during the past several years; its $38 million annual operating budget is now financed entirely by private donations, mostly from its 270,000 members. More than 300 employees scattered in nine offices have undertaken a seemingly overwhelming task to remember the past. They work to safeguard historic sites, educate the public, defend existing preservation laws, create new ones, and prevent urban sprawl – especially in northern Virginia, where the trust had a showdown with a multi-billion-dollar corporation. In 1993 Walt Disney Co. quietly started acquiring land near Haymarket, Virginia, a village nestled in scenic countryside that scholars regard as “the cradle of democracy.” The entertainment giant planned to erect an amusement park devoted to U.S. heritage, which ironically would compete with and compromise real historic sites nearby, not to mention forever mar the beautiful rolling terrain. The trust’s full-page advertisement in The Washington Post rallied support to spare the region and helped convince Disney to abandon its plans. The trust, which also operates 20 landmarks, isn’t always so adversarial.
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.
Old San Diego Police Headquarters, 801 West Market Street. This 1939 structure designed by Albert Treganza and the Quayle Brothers is considered a masterpiece of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Listed on the National Register of Historic places, the police station may be destroyed to make room for a parking garage for Seaport Village. The San Diego Unified Port District controls the property.
Red Roost and Red Rest, 1185 and 1189 Coast Boulevard, La Jolla. These 1890sw Victorian beach cottages on La Jolla Cove are believed to have inspired the California bungalow style of architecture. They sit vacant and neglected.
Rosario Hall, 1145 K Street, downtown. Built in 1870, San Diego’s oldest saloon and meeting hall also hosted Catholic church services and theatrical performances. The Padres’ proposed stadium would force removal of the building at 12th and K streets, which could damage it.
San Pasqual Valley, east of Escondido. The pristine valley contains prehistoric archeological sites, Victorian homes, and San Diego County’s only known adobe schoolhouse. Plans for a juvenile detention center could overwhelm the scenic landscape.
S.S. Catalina, in Ensenada’s harbor, Mexico. The West Coast’s last remaining steamer is a national as well as a California landmark. Dating back to 1924, the 176-ton ship ferried people between San Pedro and Catalina Island for more than 50 years. Without a serious rescue effort, the S.S. Catalina may sink.
San Diego Warehouse District, downtown. This cluster of warehouses built during the early 1900s has recently been restored and converted to work-live lofts, art galleries, and offices. The Padres’ proposed baseball park and related development would bulldoze or drastically modify many of the buildings, while destroying the neighborhood.
Trust members entered the Balboa Theatre, 1924 Vaudeville palace that has been neglected since the city assumed ownership 16 years ago. The city’s move to condemn the building in 1983 prompted the formation of the Balboa Theatre Foundation to save it. Although the group was able to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has been threatened by demolition and plans to convert it to offices or shops. Recently, a developer has been interested in restoring the theater to its original use, a change that might bolster the city’s claim of supporting historic preservation.
Earlier this year Mayor Susan Golding crushed efforts to create a historic warehouse district in East Village by removing discussion of the matter from the San Diego Historical Cite Board’s agenda. Several years ago, before the Padres’ new baseball park was proposed for East Village, the city supported establishing such a district, but a few property owners opposed the measure. “I don’t see a lot of hope with the city,” Coons said. “The Padres are the ones with the power.” Consequently, he and trust officials are scheduled to resume talks this week with the team’s ballpark developers.
Getting the Padres to move the ballpark two blocks east to keep the neighborhood intact appears unlikely. While the alternate site suggested by the ParkBay Diagonal Collaborative would give the Gaslamp more breathing room and touch far fewer buildings in the East Village, ballpark developer Greg Shannon claims it would be more expensive, resulting in two or three times more condemnation of properties.
Shannon, who happens to be a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said saving old buildings is only one of dozens of factors he must weigh. Residential neighborhoods farther east, such as Barrio Logan and Golden Hill, don’t want the ballpark any closer, he said. “The National Trust is a single-purpose interest. We have to balance 30 different interests – budget, parking, transportation.” Shannon also noted that some of the buildings in East Village that have been named local landmarks don’t deserve the designation.
Although the trust employs crack lawyers who work to save sites, it usually relies publicity and its powers of persuasion. “Lawsuits are a last resort,” says Damkroger, who is also scheduled to meet this week with the Padres.
The trust is far too sophisticated and well connected to go around suing developers, Coons said: “They have influence with politicians in Washington (D.C.), even with the president and vice-president. They have ways of putting pressure points on government entities that are supposed to be following environmental laws.”
Preservationists aren’t necessarily opposed to a new baseball stadium, what Coons calls “a ten-ton elephant.” He said, “We’re not interested in attacking the Padres. We want something that’s mutually beneficial. We’re trying to show them it’s in their interest to bring in an historic district. It adds to the streetscape and ambience of the area.”
Despite his optimism and diplomacy, Coons acknowledges that the battle to budge the ten-ton elephant may lapse into a building-by-building campaign. He is trying to pitch the idea of converting the Candy Factory’s live-work lofts back to the structure’s original use. Not only would that save the 30,000-square-foot factory but it would also make money for the Padres. The registered landmark currently is slated to be razed for a grass plot, which would be part of a park outside the stadium.
Lin Martin, a real estate broker who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy and refurbish the Candy Factory, said he doubts whether the trust can make a difference. He resigned himself to losing the property last year after meeting with the Padres. “I decided not to have my heart broken.” Martin emotionally disconnected himself from the place where he started his business, got married, began raising his children, and lived for three years.
“The city needs new revenue,” Martin concedes, “and the only way to get it is to let John Moores develop.” Last week, the city served Martin with a condemnation notice, giving him 90 days to empty the Candy Factory and cutting short his cash flow. This year represents the first time Martin would have received a return on his investment.
Surprisingly absent were property owners attending the trust’s press conference identifying the San Diego Arts and Warehouse district as an endangered historic place. Yet, oddly present was a San Diego police patrol car monitoring the event. “We see the steamroller,” Martin said. “That’s why we weren’t there.”
Other property owners, including Harold Kvaass, said they didn’t know about the announcement, and few were familiar with the trust and its work. That lack of awareness may be explained in part by their all-consuming efforts to negotiate with the Padres and Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) about the value and future use of their real estate. Rather than unite businesses and home owners, condemnation proceedings tend to divide them into cutting their own deals with the city.
Like former city councilman Rom Hom, who owns the Famer’s Bazaar and Western Metal Supply buildings; Kvaass is trying to retain ownership and wrangle a baseball concession. Kvaass bought the Levi wholesale grocery building at 330 Eighth Avenue in 1983 for his family construction business and then spent more than $1 million on restoration, winning numerous awards in the process.
Can the National Trust for Historic Preservation make a difference? On the day the trust released its “endangered historic places” list, Kvaass said he didn’t know. He was under the impression his building would be demolished to ease construction of an underground-parking garage for the ballpark.
However, a few days later, Shannon, who claims the trust’s action won’t make a difference, said he is working to save the Kvaass Construction Company building.