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Thomas House near Balboa Park gets reprieve

"Frankenstein" on Thorn Street saved by city council 8-1

The house, featured on a 1909 postcard, melds Tudor Revival, Craftsman, and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.
The house, featured on a 1909 postcard, melds Tudor Revival, Craftsman, and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.

The City Council has upheld the historic designation of a Bankers Hill home that advocates say is a rare architectural gem, while others call it Frankenstein.

The mixed-style house sits in a mixed-use neighborhood rich in transit, bike lanes and jobs, which developers tout in making their case for new high rise housing in the area.

A proposal to alter or demolish the building led to the historic designation last September. Named after its first owner, the Frederick Thomas House faces Balboa Park on the corner of Thorn Street and Sixth Avenue.

In this third effort since 2007 to alter or demolish the house, owner Dan Floit filed an appeal that claims "factual errors" led to erroneous designation by the Historical Resources Board.

Floit owns the entire city block. He has a 20-story condominium tower proposed for Thorn Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

Previous attempts were made in 2007 and 2008, when the applicant submitted Historical Resources Research Reports that concluded the property was not significant under any of the board's criteria.

Both times, the item was withdrawn before the board had a chance to discuss and vote on a motion.

The house, designed by high school student Elmer Bayless and featured on a 1909 postcard, melds Tudor Revival, Craftsman, and Richardsonian Romanesque styles, making it a rarity in San Diego. There is a similar building at 2404 F Street in Golden Hill.

But Floit contends there's more going on than the interplay of three styles; changes made by previous owners have resulted in a hodgepodge of features that leave it ineligible for listing, having lost 31 percent of its physical integrity.

Klauber House, 3060 Sixth Avenue

Since it was built in 1909, over 50 alterations have been made, affecting every facade. Decorative wood detailing has been removed from the roof, most of the upper wood windows are gone, and a modern stucco texture has been used along the second story.

In another review of a house on Thorn Street, the board denied historic listing since the same thick modern stucco had been applied, replacing the original smooth stucco - but the many changes to 540 Thorn Street, they said, "do not significantly impair integrity of design, materials, workmanship or feeling."

Adding weight to Floit's argument that the house is unworthy of designation, the developer earned an award from Save Our Heritage in 2020 for restoration work on two other historic properties on the same block. Dan Floit - Gift to the Street Award (sohosandiego.org)

Vacant lot where Grant Presidential Library building was razed in 2000.

That doesn't sway the preservation group's executive director, Bruce Coons. Sixth Avenue fronting the park was one of San Diego's preeminent streets, and since the two other homes on the block are now designated, 540 Thorn Street "is the key that holds the block together."

Neighbors urged the council last week to deny the appeal. The historic homes on Sixth Avenue connect people with the city's past, said Laurence Claus. The other two buildings in the row won't convey the same aesthetic "if they are buried between two towering developments."

The house is "part of a historically important, continuous, three block long street facade without a defining line" between Banker’s Hill and Hillcrest, said architect Margo Hebald. These blocks "convey the history, architecture and scale of San Diego that still dominate the North-West neighborhood of Balboa Park."

Some supported the appeal. "Just as you're not allowed to consider the many units of housing this building would preclude in this walkable, bikeable neighborhood, you're also not allowed to consider how it could potentially be restored" to reflect the area, said Rachel Laing.

Andy Kopp criticized the council for overuse of the historic designation "in the middle of a housing crisis," calling the house a "Frankenstein of architectural style."

The council vote was 8-1; Chris Cate (District 6) was opposed.

Supporters consider it a win for a neighborhood where too many rare examples of architecture have been lost. Already wiped from the map where Sixth Avenue faces Balboa Park are homes by Irving Gill, Melville Klauber, and the Grant Presidential Library.

Those lost mansions haven't all sprouted new housing, Coons said. The Grant house was bulldozed 21 years ago, taking with it five low-income housing units. It's still a vacant lot, as is the long-gone Klauber house property.

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The house, featured on a 1909 postcard, melds Tudor Revival, Craftsman, and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.
The house, featured on a 1909 postcard, melds Tudor Revival, Craftsman, and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.

The City Council has upheld the historic designation of a Bankers Hill home that advocates say is a rare architectural gem, while others call it Frankenstein.

The mixed-style house sits in a mixed-use neighborhood rich in transit, bike lanes and jobs, which developers tout in making their case for new high rise housing in the area.

A proposal to alter or demolish the building led to the historic designation last September. Named after its first owner, the Frederick Thomas House faces Balboa Park on the corner of Thorn Street and Sixth Avenue.

In this third effort since 2007 to alter or demolish the house, owner Dan Floit filed an appeal that claims "factual errors" led to erroneous designation by the Historical Resources Board.

Floit owns the entire city block. He has a 20-story condominium tower proposed for Thorn Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

Previous attempts were made in 2007 and 2008, when the applicant submitted Historical Resources Research Reports that concluded the property was not significant under any of the board's criteria.

Both times, the item was withdrawn before the board had a chance to discuss and vote on a motion.

The house, designed by high school student Elmer Bayless and featured on a 1909 postcard, melds Tudor Revival, Craftsman, and Richardsonian Romanesque styles, making it a rarity in San Diego. There is a similar building at 2404 F Street in Golden Hill.

But Floit contends there's more going on than the interplay of three styles; changes made by previous owners have resulted in a hodgepodge of features that leave it ineligible for listing, having lost 31 percent of its physical integrity.

Klauber House, 3060 Sixth Avenue

Since it was built in 1909, over 50 alterations have been made, affecting every facade. Decorative wood detailing has been removed from the roof, most of the upper wood windows are gone, and a modern stucco texture has been used along the second story.

In another review of a house on Thorn Street, the board denied historic listing since the same thick modern stucco had been applied, replacing the original smooth stucco - but the many changes to 540 Thorn Street, they said, "do not significantly impair integrity of design, materials, workmanship or feeling."

Adding weight to Floit's argument that the house is unworthy of designation, the developer earned an award from Save Our Heritage in 2020 for restoration work on two other historic properties on the same block. Dan Floit - Gift to the Street Award (sohosandiego.org)

Vacant lot where Grant Presidential Library building was razed in 2000.

That doesn't sway the preservation group's executive director, Bruce Coons. Sixth Avenue fronting the park was one of San Diego's preeminent streets, and since the two other homes on the block are now designated, 540 Thorn Street "is the key that holds the block together."

Neighbors urged the council last week to deny the appeal. The historic homes on Sixth Avenue connect people with the city's past, said Laurence Claus. The other two buildings in the row won't convey the same aesthetic "if they are buried between two towering developments."

The house is "part of a historically important, continuous, three block long street facade without a defining line" between Banker’s Hill and Hillcrest, said architect Margo Hebald. These blocks "convey the history, architecture and scale of San Diego that still dominate the North-West neighborhood of Balboa Park."

Some supported the appeal. "Just as you're not allowed to consider the many units of housing this building would preclude in this walkable, bikeable neighborhood, you're also not allowed to consider how it could potentially be restored" to reflect the area, said Rachel Laing.

Andy Kopp criticized the council for overuse of the historic designation "in the middle of a housing crisis," calling the house a "Frankenstein of architectural style."

The council vote was 8-1; Chris Cate (District 6) was opposed.

Supporters consider it a win for a neighborhood where too many rare examples of architecture have been lost. Already wiped from the map where Sixth Avenue faces Balboa Park are homes by Irving Gill, Melville Klauber, and the Grant Presidential Library.

Those lost mansions haven't all sprouted new housing, Coons said. The Grant house was bulldozed 21 years ago, taking with it five low-income housing units. It's still a vacant lot, as is the long-gone Klauber house property.

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Very disappointing reporting. The issue was simply whether the City Council should support the determination of their own Historical Resources Board — or cave to pressure to repudiate it so a developer could turn a buck.

What's even more disturbing is the arena given here to Andy Kopp, who also in his comments said that the Thomas House should be torn down because, when it was built, there was racism, and so it's racist to allow it to exist.

Take a look/listen for yourself [at the 03:20:20 mark]. Neither he nor Rachel Laing (also quoted) are "neighbors," but are well known to CityTV and social media audiences alike as developer shills.

It's rare when "following the money" doesn't end with a loss for the public, so we should be glad when it happens.

April 28, 2021

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