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San Diego's architectural marvels and misfires

Adobe, Victorian, Craftsman, Spanish Colonial, Egyptian, tiki, and vast seas of beige

The Egyptian Revival school of architecture briefly flourished after the 1921 hit movie The Sheik and the discovery, just a year later, of the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The Egyptian Revival school of architecture briefly flourished after the 1921 hit movie The Sheik and the discovery, just a year later, of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

There’s a hilltop house in Cardiff, at 959 Cornish Drive, that is not like the others in the tony seaside neighborhood. The house itself resembles a giant box, light yellow in color, with the front door flanked by a pair of painted columns. Near the top of columns are murals that look like pieces of ancient Egyptian art, complete with profiles of Pharoahs. The walls next to the columns feature ornate, bas-relief columns. Winged suns hover over each of the two front windows.


The house was built in 1923 by a developer named O.L. Steel, who had apparently taken a fancy to the Egyptian Revival school of architecture that briefly flourished after the 1921 hit movie The Sheik and the discovery, just a year later, of the tomb of Tutankhamen, which sent Americans clamoring for all things Egyptian. Architecture was not immune, and among the famous buildings constructed in the Egyptian Revival style are the recently restored and reopened Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and the Pythian Temple in New York City, which is now a high-end condo complex.

Developer Steel built the house on Cornish Drive as something of a prototype of what he hoped would become a tract of Egyptian-style homes surrounded by avocado groves. He built a second, smaller home down the hill in the 1200 block of San Dieguito Drive, but his ambitious plans for a whole community of similar homes never materialized.

* * *

Historically, residential construction in San Diego has come in waves, often following a distinct architectural style and generally centered around the single-family home. First, in the early 1800s, came the adobes, the best known example of which is La Casa de Estudillo in Old Town State Historic Park. These were built by the Spanish and Mexican settlers who displaced the native Kumeyaay. Then came the Victorians, some grand and ornate, others more toned down — a style known as Folk Victorian. A handful of both Victorian styles still stand and may be seen in Old Town, on Golden Hill, and as far north as Highland Street in Carlsbad.

Next, in the early 1900s, came the quaint Craftsman bungalows, with their thick wooden casings around the doors and windows and wide front porches flanked by stately columns supporting the protruding roof. Craftsman-style homes still dominate such old-San Diego neighborhoods as Mission Hills, University Heights, Bankers Hill, and Hillcrest.

The Kalama Kai Apartments at 4444 West Point Loma Boulevard is an example of a residential Polynesian structure.

A little later, from the 1920s up until World War II, came the Spanish Colonial Revival-style homes, generally white, with textured stucco walls and red terracotta tile roofs. These were inspired by the Balboa Park buildings of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1917, which in turn had been inspired by the designers’ travels through Mexico and their romanticized ideas of the Hispanic heritage of the Canal Zone. The homes sprang up in communities such as North Park, Kensington, Talmadge, Mission Hills, Point Loma, and Burlingame. Years later, they influenced the building style in large, master-planned communities such as Rancho Bernardo. The Spanish Colonial Revival style was so popular, says preservation architect Ione R. Stiegler, “that one of our leading architects at the time felt the style was so appropriate to our local climate that he simply called it ‘Southern California Architecture.’” (At the same time that the Spanish Colonial Revival style flourished, some builders drifted toward the Mediterranean Revival style, a mixture of Spanish and Italian architecture characterized by a rectangular floor plan with massive, symmetrical primary façades, windows shaped like arches or circles, and wrought iron balconies.)

The post-World War II housing boom saw the first vast housing tracts as San Diego crept outward into suburbia: Clairemont and Allied Gardens being among the first suburbs. Some tracts, such as those in the oldest parts of Clairemont, featured boxy, cookie-cutter cottages and duplexes of the kind derided by folksinger Pete Seeger in the song, “Little Boxes.” Little boxes on the hillside/ Little boxes made of ticky-tacky/ Little boxes, little boxes/ Little boxes all the same... Others consisted of single-story ranch-style homes.

Wealthier homeowners in communities such as Point Loma, Del Cerro and La Jolla built custom ranch homes that often stretched the width of the property. Builders also went with the Mid-Century Modern style, the architectural manifestation of the design movement that was popular in the United States as well as Europe from the end of the Second World War through the 1960s. It is characterized by clean, simple designs; as Architectural Digest noted in a January 2023 story, it was both funky and functional, “influenced by the optimism of the post-World War II boom and by the exploration of a range of materials, including steel, concrete, and newly available insulated glass.”

The 1970s saw the ramping up of master-planned communities, where the common thread was not so much style as it was color: vast seas of beige, white, and even pink stretching out over acres of private homes. This continued through the 1980s all the way into the early 2000s, with prime examples in what was originally called North City West (now Carmel Valley and Del Mar Heights). “My brother, who is nine years older than me, grew up in San Diego, left town for Northern California, and then came back in the 1980s,” says Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, a non-profit organization founded in 1969 that is devoted to the preservation of the historic architecture and landmarks around the San Diego. “He told me one time, ‘I wish I could get the contract for paint in San Diego, because nearly everything I see I what I call San Diego beige.’ It wasn’t like that when he left in the 1960s.”

With the Great Recession, residential construction all but ground to a halt, and recovery was slow. But in recent years, the housing shortage created by years of little to no construction has led to a boom in residential development, this time growing out and up into multi-family dwellings, primarily apartments. You see them everywhere, all over downtown and as “in-fill” projects in older residential communities from Chula Vista to Vista. And, once again, there’s a prevalent look: boxy buildings that overpower the parcel of land on which they sit, sometimes resembling an oversize Amazon package, other times looking like something a toddler might have built with a set of building blocks, and almost always painted in varying pastel hues. Examples include the massive new 840-unit Town and Country project in Mission Valley, the 442-unit Vive Lux apartment complex in Kearny Mesa, and much smaller complexes of the kind that over the last couple of years have been popping up in Pacific Beach, North Park, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Carlsbad’s barrio and village, south Oceanside and Vista.

Located at 1428 Soledad Avenue in La Jolla, what’s known as the “House of Dreams” was built in the early 1900s by a “world traveler” named Florence Howard, who had a keen interest in Asiatic art and style.

Roger Showley, the former San Diego Union-Tribune architecture critic who is still considered the city’s chief arbiter of good taste, isn’t a fan. “I’d say it’s ‘No-Style Style,’” he says. “There’s no reference to place or context. They could be built anywhere, which is the guiding principle of Modernism. Most of these are high-rise apartments and the common element is balconies. That’s a nice amenity for residents, who often use them for storage. But it makes for a monotonous appearance from the street or distance. The downtown high-rises built by Bosa are basically transplants from their Vancouver high-rises. In dense cities like that, these blocks of 20-60-story towers can resemble a field of asparagus.” Showley maintains that architecture “lost its way in the 1970s with the advent of Post-Modernism, which mashed up historic styles and painted them in pastels.”

* * *

Despite the power of prevailing currents, over the years, the architectural styles of San Diego’s waves of residential construction have been augmented by several outliers — styles that embraced exoticism, such as Polynesian, Oriental and, of course, the aforementioned Egyptian. “People notice them as they drive around,” says Coons, “but they don’t give much thought to the style, because they don’t see a lot of them. It brightens their journey to work or the store, to see these whimsical styles. But if you study them, they can be of great interest.”

Architect Stiegler, whose firm, IS Architecture, has been doing business in San Diego for 35 years, agrees. “I’d say the mild climate, through every design era, has allowed for experimentation,” she says. “And, thus, our city is graced with some wonderful, one-off gems — gems that if you keep an eye out for them, you are rewarded by seeing someone’s idyllic dream once upon a time.”

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The two Cardiff Egyptian houses are not the only local surviving examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in San Diego County, but there aren’t many others. Two apartment complexes at 3772 and 3783 Park Boulevard, near the zoo, also look much as they did when they were built in the 1920s; the latter building was recently repainted to highlight its Egyptian elements. The building itself is white with red trim; the bas-relief columns on either side of the main entryway have been painted black, and the Pharaoh heads that sit atop each column are now a bright mustard. When the sun hits them just right, they look like gold.

There’s no telling how many more homes and apartments built in the Egyptian Revival style have been lost to time. As a 1992 Journal of San Diego History article noted, “the Egyptian craze especially flourished in Southern California. Fantastic architectural designs were accepted more readily there because of the specific influence of movie-making in Southern California, a lack of ‘old money’ blue-blood families, a general 1920s atmosphere of ‘anything goes,’ and an upsurge in the construction of ‘period revival’ homes and buildings.” San Diego’s climate also was a factor, the article maintains: “Sunny days and snow-free winters actually made this style a sensible choice for San Diego. Egypt’s hot, dry climate had allowed her temples, stores, and homes to be built with flat roofs and open courtyard gardens.”

“The Egyptian Revival style is a personal favorite of mine,” says Coons. “I have a great affection for it, as it harkens back to the Egyptian love of life, with elements from nature embodied in their stone architecture. Carved stone architecture is a discipline that they invented. I’d love to own one.”

Two apartment complexes at 3772 and 3783 Park Boulevard, near the zoo, also look much as they did when they were built in the 1920s; the latter building was recently repainted to highlight its Egyptian elements.

Another architectural style that flourished briefly here in San Diego is Polynesian. Triggered by World War II soldiers returning from the Pacific Theater and sweetened by Thor Heyerdahl’s 1950 best-seller Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, tiki culture was all the rage in the 1950s into the ‘60s, and has recently experienced a resurgence — spurred, in part, by the craft cocktail trend. The Tiki Oasis, launched in 2001, is an annual festival that each year draws thousands of attendees to Mission Valley for four days and five nights of exotic tropical cocktails, live entertainment, educational seminars, and a marketplace of more than 150 artists and makers. There’s also been a flurry of homeowners building their own backyard tiki bars, some of them profiled in a June 2023 San Diego Magazine feature.

But the Polynesian style of architecture, like Egyptian Revival, was popular only for a brief period in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s an offshoot of Mid-Century Modern, with A-frame roofs, post-and-beam construction, and floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. Shelter Island is ground zero for this architectural outlier, largely because of a “special overlay zone,” created when the former sandbar was developed in the 1950s, that required all buildings to have a Polynesian theme. This played right into tourism marketing campaigns that touted San Diego as “a little bit of Hawaii,” according to a brochure published by the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO).

The SOHO brochure paints a quite compelling word picture: “These...buildings’ outward appearances were supposed to evoke the architectural traditions gleaned from various Pacific Islander cultures: truncated-roofed jonglos, circular huts, or soaring A-framed halau loa (big meeting house) and halau wa’a (canoe sheds). The latter were often featured on sway-back roofs, projecting out over porte-cocheres, with plain or highly decorative corbelled wood pole or squared ridge beams or rafters. Sometimes the latter ended in decorative canoe-bow finials or extended like outriggers all the way to the ground, down into brick or rock planters. Close up features included exterior wood plank siding, natural stone (especially lava rock), and earth-colored concrete bricks. Located on or near large bodies of water, their landscape details were meant to accentuate a South Sea Island’s land-water interface. Lush, semi-tropical plants, including palms, hibiscus, plumeria, and impatiens, were located on little man-made islands surrounded by flowing streams, waterfalls, pools, and/or lagoons set amid real or faux-lava rock boulders. Shade-loving philodendrons, bromeliads, ferns, and orchids completed the effect. Strategically located throughout the gardens were the style’s eponymous Polynesian-inspired wood, stone, or cast concrete Tiki totem poles or moai statues….”

The grande dame of Polynesian-style homes just might be a gorgeous single-family home on the southeast corner of Cornish Drive and Monaco Street in Sunset Cliffs.

Prominent Polynesian structures on Shelter Island that are still standing include the Bali Hai Restaurant and the Half Moon Inn, home of the popular Humphreys by the Bay concert series; the Catamaran Resort Hotel in Pacific Beach; and much of Vacation Village — now known as Paradise Point — in the heart of Mission Bay. Another landmark, the Hanalei Hotel in Mission Valley, known for its gigantic A-frame entryway, lost its look during an extensive remodel in 2006.

As with the Egyptian Revival style, homes built with the Polynesian theme are hard to find, although Coons estimates up to 200 residential examples remain, “less, if they’re full-on tiki.” Several Polynesian-style homes built in the late 1950s and early ‘60s can be found in the older part of Clairemont, near the intersection of Barnhurst Drive and Charger Boulevard, Coons says. More homes can be found on Point Loma and in Del Cerro. The grande dame just might be a gorgeous single-family home on the southeast corner of Cornish Drive and Monaco Street in Sunset Cliffs. “Another major one is the Kalama Kai Apartments at 4444 West Point Loma Boulevard,” Coons says. “The popularity of the Polynesian style in San Diego represents our final realization that it is indeed an integral part of the Pacific Rim.”

Closely related to the Polynesian Revival style is Oriental: homes with pagoda-like elements such as upturned corners of roofs. Stiegler says this style dates back to the post-Victorian, pre-World War I days, with Coons noting that it was popularized in San Diego by returning servicemen, including some who fought in China before World War II when that country was under siege by Japan. These “second-generation” homes often feature Chinese decorative motifs on door entry handles and soji-like screens in the interiors. Homes with Oriental elements are scattered around the county, with one on Skyline Drive in Carlsbad and several in La Jolla, near where the Green Dragon Colony — 12 artists’ cottages built in the late 1800s in the heart of the village by Anna Held, a former governess for the family of Ulysses S. Grant Jr., the 18th president’s son — once stood.

“In fact, there’s one for sale right now in La Jolla that’s pretty terrific,” Coons says. “There are very few of them left, but this one’s pretty pure.” Located at 1428 Soledad Avenue, what’s known as the “House of Dreams” was built in the early 1900s and was profiled last May in the La Jolla Light newspaper. According to the article, the home was built by a “world traveler” named Florence Howard, who had a keen interest in Asiatic art and style. The house is currently listed for sale at $6,245,000. The Zillow listing calls it a “1911 Asian Arts & Crafts style 4BD/2.5BA ocean view home topped w/ crow’s nest bonus room plus a matching studio over garage.”

“I was just in this one the other day,” Stiegler adds. “It was just one woman’s vision with a great carpenter to execute.”

The Art Deco style that flourished in places like Miami in the 1930s and 1940s also touched down in San Diego, although it was modified to reflect the area’s ties to the aircraft industry. “We call it Streamline Art Moderne,” Coons says. “We were known as the aircraft capital of the world, and the aircraft industry was centered around Pacific Highway, with plants like Rohr and Convair. Streamline Art Moderne was a pretty major substyle for San Diego during the early 1940s. Streamline buildings were prominent along today’s Pacific Highway, and then it spread into the nearby neighborhoods, especially Loma Portal, which is where many of the aircraft industry executives lived. They saw the style and it was the modern thing, the trend. It denoted the future.”

Streamline Art Modern homes were characterized by flat roofs and steamship railings along the parapet, Coons says, “and what they call speed lines – horizontal lines in the stucco. While San Diego is no longer thought of for its Art Deco architecture, it once had a significant inventory, with literally dozens of great Streamline Art Moderne homes and commercial buildings lost to the dozers over the years.” Coons says the community of Loma Portal , in the northeast part of the Point Loma peninsula, has several remaining Streamline Modern homes, with a particularly strong example on the southwest corner of Kingsley and Locust.

One final odd outlier in San Diego architectural styles is the Tile Neo-Mansard, a twist on — some would say bastardization of — the Spanish style, with flat roofs and tiles that hang below the roof line like bangs. It’s a look that flourished in the 1970s, the same era as bad fashion, bad cars and bad presidents. The Tile Neo-Mansard style was popular with both apartments and commercial buildings throughout Southern California, and in San Diego, it is strongly identified with the myriad apartment buildings — most with six to nine units and no front yards, just concrete parking spaces — nicknamed the “Huffman Six-Pack” after the developer who put them up. “I hate those things,” Coons says. “They look like boxes with tile fringes tacked on.”

According to the Huffman Properties Inc. website, builder Ray Huffman began focusing on apartments in the 1960s when most of his fellow developers were concentrating on single-family homes. “After he got the building process down to a science, Ray was able to construct a property in approximately 110 days,” the website says. “Ray had created a ‘Ford Assembly Line’ for San Diego apartment construction. There was a period where Ray would have as many as 70 apartment buildings under construction at one time, all at different locations spread throughout San Diego County.”

A 1982 Reader article noted that “North Park contains so many of his apartments that the entire area is occasionally referred to as “a monument to Ray Huffman.” The Tile Neo-Mansard isn’t the dominant architectural style Huffman employed for his apartments, which often are a mish-mash of styles. But it’s the one that stands out, Coons says, because it was so distinct — distinct enough that other developers took note, and by the early 1970s, the Huffman Six-Pack became the model for other apartment builders. “So not only do we have those lousy Huffman Six-Packs, but we also have knock-offs that went up all over the place: Ocean Beach, City Heights, University Heights. They stuck them in all sorts of neighborhoods as in-fill. Eventually people rose up and fought those and ultimately forced the [San Diego] City Council to issue a moratorium.”

While the Tile Neo-Mansard style here in San Diego was used mostly for apartments, “there are also some private homes, unfortunately,” Coons says. “I’ve seen them in Pacific Beach and some in Point Loma. They’re exceedingly ugly.”

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But city wants to raise hotel taxes – not a help
The Egyptian Revival school of architecture briefly flourished after the 1921 hit movie The Sheik and the discovery, just a year later, of the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The Egyptian Revival school of architecture briefly flourished after the 1921 hit movie The Sheik and the discovery, just a year later, of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

There’s a hilltop house in Cardiff, at 959 Cornish Drive, that is not like the others in the tony seaside neighborhood. The house itself resembles a giant box, light yellow in color, with the front door flanked by a pair of painted columns. Near the top of columns are murals that look like pieces of ancient Egyptian art, complete with profiles of Pharoahs. The walls next to the columns feature ornate, bas-relief columns. Winged suns hover over each of the two front windows.


The house was built in 1923 by a developer named O.L. Steel, who had apparently taken a fancy to the Egyptian Revival school of architecture that briefly flourished after the 1921 hit movie The Sheik and the discovery, just a year later, of the tomb of Tutankhamen, which sent Americans clamoring for all things Egyptian. Architecture was not immune, and among the famous buildings constructed in the Egyptian Revival style are the recently restored and reopened Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and the Pythian Temple in New York City, which is now a high-end condo complex.

Developer Steel built the house on Cornish Drive as something of a prototype of what he hoped would become a tract of Egyptian-style homes surrounded by avocado groves. He built a second, smaller home down the hill in the 1200 block of San Dieguito Drive, but his ambitious plans for a whole community of similar homes never materialized.

* * *

Historically, residential construction in San Diego has come in waves, often following a distinct architectural style and generally centered around the single-family home. First, in the early 1800s, came the adobes, the best known example of which is La Casa de Estudillo in Old Town State Historic Park. These were built by the Spanish and Mexican settlers who displaced the native Kumeyaay. Then came the Victorians, some grand and ornate, others more toned down — a style known as Folk Victorian. A handful of both Victorian styles still stand and may be seen in Old Town, on Golden Hill, and as far north as Highland Street in Carlsbad.

Next, in the early 1900s, came the quaint Craftsman bungalows, with their thick wooden casings around the doors and windows and wide front porches flanked by stately columns supporting the protruding roof. Craftsman-style homes still dominate such old-San Diego neighborhoods as Mission Hills, University Heights, Bankers Hill, and Hillcrest.

The Kalama Kai Apartments at 4444 West Point Loma Boulevard is an example of a residential Polynesian structure.

A little later, from the 1920s up until World War II, came the Spanish Colonial Revival-style homes, generally white, with textured stucco walls and red terracotta tile roofs. These were inspired by the Balboa Park buildings of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1917, which in turn had been inspired by the designers’ travels through Mexico and their romanticized ideas of the Hispanic heritage of the Canal Zone. The homes sprang up in communities such as North Park, Kensington, Talmadge, Mission Hills, Point Loma, and Burlingame. Years later, they influenced the building style in large, master-planned communities such as Rancho Bernardo. The Spanish Colonial Revival style was so popular, says preservation architect Ione R. Stiegler, “that one of our leading architects at the time felt the style was so appropriate to our local climate that he simply called it ‘Southern California Architecture.’” (At the same time that the Spanish Colonial Revival style flourished, some builders drifted toward the Mediterranean Revival style, a mixture of Spanish and Italian architecture characterized by a rectangular floor plan with massive, symmetrical primary façades, windows shaped like arches or circles, and wrought iron balconies.)

The post-World War II housing boom saw the first vast housing tracts as San Diego crept outward into suburbia: Clairemont and Allied Gardens being among the first suburbs. Some tracts, such as those in the oldest parts of Clairemont, featured boxy, cookie-cutter cottages and duplexes of the kind derided by folksinger Pete Seeger in the song, “Little Boxes.” Little boxes on the hillside/ Little boxes made of ticky-tacky/ Little boxes, little boxes/ Little boxes all the same... Others consisted of single-story ranch-style homes.

Wealthier homeowners in communities such as Point Loma, Del Cerro and La Jolla built custom ranch homes that often stretched the width of the property. Builders also went with the Mid-Century Modern style, the architectural manifestation of the design movement that was popular in the United States as well as Europe from the end of the Second World War through the 1960s. It is characterized by clean, simple designs; as Architectural Digest noted in a January 2023 story, it was both funky and functional, “influenced by the optimism of the post-World War II boom and by the exploration of a range of materials, including steel, concrete, and newly available insulated glass.”

The 1970s saw the ramping up of master-planned communities, where the common thread was not so much style as it was color: vast seas of beige, white, and even pink stretching out over acres of private homes. This continued through the 1980s all the way into the early 2000s, with prime examples in what was originally called North City West (now Carmel Valley and Del Mar Heights). “My brother, who is nine years older than me, grew up in San Diego, left town for Northern California, and then came back in the 1980s,” says Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, a non-profit organization founded in 1969 that is devoted to the preservation of the historic architecture and landmarks around the San Diego. “He told me one time, ‘I wish I could get the contract for paint in San Diego, because nearly everything I see I what I call San Diego beige.’ It wasn’t like that when he left in the 1960s.”

With the Great Recession, residential construction all but ground to a halt, and recovery was slow. But in recent years, the housing shortage created by years of little to no construction has led to a boom in residential development, this time growing out and up into multi-family dwellings, primarily apartments. You see them everywhere, all over downtown and as “in-fill” projects in older residential communities from Chula Vista to Vista. And, once again, there’s a prevalent look: boxy buildings that overpower the parcel of land on which they sit, sometimes resembling an oversize Amazon package, other times looking like something a toddler might have built with a set of building blocks, and almost always painted in varying pastel hues. Examples include the massive new 840-unit Town and Country project in Mission Valley, the 442-unit Vive Lux apartment complex in Kearny Mesa, and much smaller complexes of the kind that over the last couple of years have been popping up in Pacific Beach, North Park, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Carlsbad’s barrio and village, south Oceanside and Vista.

Located at 1428 Soledad Avenue in La Jolla, what’s known as the “House of Dreams” was built in the early 1900s by a “world traveler” named Florence Howard, who had a keen interest in Asiatic art and style.

Roger Showley, the former San Diego Union-Tribune architecture critic who is still considered the city’s chief arbiter of good taste, isn’t a fan. “I’d say it’s ‘No-Style Style,’” he says. “There’s no reference to place or context. They could be built anywhere, which is the guiding principle of Modernism. Most of these are high-rise apartments and the common element is balconies. That’s a nice amenity for residents, who often use them for storage. But it makes for a monotonous appearance from the street or distance. The downtown high-rises built by Bosa are basically transplants from their Vancouver high-rises. In dense cities like that, these blocks of 20-60-story towers can resemble a field of asparagus.” Showley maintains that architecture “lost its way in the 1970s with the advent of Post-Modernism, which mashed up historic styles and painted them in pastels.”

* * *

Despite the power of prevailing currents, over the years, the architectural styles of San Diego’s waves of residential construction have been augmented by several outliers — styles that embraced exoticism, such as Polynesian, Oriental and, of course, the aforementioned Egyptian. “People notice them as they drive around,” says Coons, “but they don’t give much thought to the style, because they don’t see a lot of them. It brightens their journey to work or the store, to see these whimsical styles. But if you study them, they can be of great interest.”

Architect Stiegler, whose firm, IS Architecture, has been doing business in San Diego for 35 years, agrees. “I’d say the mild climate, through every design era, has allowed for experimentation,” she says. “And, thus, our city is graced with some wonderful, one-off gems — gems that if you keep an eye out for them, you are rewarded by seeing someone’s idyllic dream once upon a time.”

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The two Cardiff Egyptian houses are not the only local surviving examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in San Diego County, but there aren’t many others. Two apartment complexes at 3772 and 3783 Park Boulevard, near the zoo, also look much as they did when they were built in the 1920s; the latter building was recently repainted to highlight its Egyptian elements. The building itself is white with red trim; the bas-relief columns on either side of the main entryway have been painted black, and the Pharaoh heads that sit atop each column are now a bright mustard. When the sun hits them just right, they look like gold.

There’s no telling how many more homes and apartments built in the Egyptian Revival style have been lost to time. As a 1992 Journal of San Diego History article noted, “the Egyptian craze especially flourished in Southern California. Fantastic architectural designs were accepted more readily there because of the specific influence of movie-making in Southern California, a lack of ‘old money’ blue-blood families, a general 1920s atmosphere of ‘anything goes,’ and an upsurge in the construction of ‘period revival’ homes and buildings.” San Diego’s climate also was a factor, the article maintains: “Sunny days and snow-free winters actually made this style a sensible choice for San Diego. Egypt’s hot, dry climate had allowed her temples, stores, and homes to be built with flat roofs and open courtyard gardens.”

“The Egyptian Revival style is a personal favorite of mine,” says Coons. “I have a great affection for it, as it harkens back to the Egyptian love of life, with elements from nature embodied in their stone architecture. Carved stone architecture is a discipline that they invented. I’d love to own one.”

Two apartment complexes at 3772 and 3783 Park Boulevard, near the zoo, also look much as they did when they were built in the 1920s; the latter building was recently repainted to highlight its Egyptian elements.

Another architectural style that flourished briefly here in San Diego is Polynesian. Triggered by World War II soldiers returning from the Pacific Theater and sweetened by Thor Heyerdahl’s 1950 best-seller Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, tiki culture was all the rage in the 1950s into the ‘60s, and has recently experienced a resurgence — spurred, in part, by the craft cocktail trend. The Tiki Oasis, launched in 2001, is an annual festival that each year draws thousands of attendees to Mission Valley for four days and five nights of exotic tropical cocktails, live entertainment, educational seminars, and a marketplace of more than 150 artists and makers. There’s also been a flurry of homeowners building their own backyard tiki bars, some of them profiled in a June 2023 San Diego Magazine feature.

But the Polynesian style of architecture, like Egyptian Revival, was popular only for a brief period in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s an offshoot of Mid-Century Modern, with A-frame roofs, post-and-beam construction, and floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. Shelter Island is ground zero for this architectural outlier, largely because of a “special overlay zone,” created when the former sandbar was developed in the 1950s, that required all buildings to have a Polynesian theme. This played right into tourism marketing campaigns that touted San Diego as “a little bit of Hawaii,” according to a brochure published by the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO).

The SOHO brochure paints a quite compelling word picture: “These...buildings’ outward appearances were supposed to evoke the architectural traditions gleaned from various Pacific Islander cultures: truncated-roofed jonglos, circular huts, or soaring A-framed halau loa (big meeting house) and halau wa’a (canoe sheds). The latter were often featured on sway-back roofs, projecting out over porte-cocheres, with plain or highly decorative corbelled wood pole or squared ridge beams or rafters. Sometimes the latter ended in decorative canoe-bow finials or extended like outriggers all the way to the ground, down into brick or rock planters. Close up features included exterior wood plank siding, natural stone (especially lava rock), and earth-colored concrete bricks. Located on or near large bodies of water, their landscape details were meant to accentuate a South Sea Island’s land-water interface. Lush, semi-tropical plants, including palms, hibiscus, plumeria, and impatiens, were located on little man-made islands surrounded by flowing streams, waterfalls, pools, and/or lagoons set amid real or faux-lava rock boulders. Shade-loving philodendrons, bromeliads, ferns, and orchids completed the effect. Strategically located throughout the gardens were the style’s eponymous Polynesian-inspired wood, stone, or cast concrete Tiki totem poles or moai statues….”

The grande dame of Polynesian-style homes just might be a gorgeous single-family home on the southeast corner of Cornish Drive and Monaco Street in Sunset Cliffs.

Prominent Polynesian structures on Shelter Island that are still standing include the Bali Hai Restaurant and the Half Moon Inn, home of the popular Humphreys by the Bay concert series; the Catamaran Resort Hotel in Pacific Beach; and much of Vacation Village — now known as Paradise Point — in the heart of Mission Bay. Another landmark, the Hanalei Hotel in Mission Valley, known for its gigantic A-frame entryway, lost its look during an extensive remodel in 2006.

As with the Egyptian Revival style, homes built with the Polynesian theme are hard to find, although Coons estimates up to 200 residential examples remain, “less, if they’re full-on tiki.” Several Polynesian-style homes built in the late 1950s and early ‘60s can be found in the older part of Clairemont, near the intersection of Barnhurst Drive and Charger Boulevard, Coons says. More homes can be found on Point Loma and in Del Cerro. The grande dame just might be a gorgeous single-family home on the southeast corner of Cornish Drive and Monaco Street in Sunset Cliffs. “Another major one is the Kalama Kai Apartments at 4444 West Point Loma Boulevard,” Coons says. “The popularity of the Polynesian style in San Diego represents our final realization that it is indeed an integral part of the Pacific Rim.”

Closely related to the Polynesian Revival style is Oriental: homes with pagoda-like elements such as upturned corners of roofs. Stiegler says this style dates back to the post-Victorian, pre-World War I days, with Coons noting that it was popularized in San Diego by returning servicemen, including some who fought in China before World War II when that country was under siege by Japan. These “second-generation” homes often feature Chinese decorative motifs on door entry handles and soji-like screens in the interiors. Homes with Oriental elements are scattered around the county, with one on Skyline Drive in Carlsbad and several in La Jolla, near where the Green Dragon Colony — 12 artists’ cottages built in the late 1800s in the heart of the village by Anna Held, a former governess for the family of Ulysses S. Grant Jr., the 18th president’s son — once stood.

“In fact, there’s one for sale right now in La Jolla that’s pretty terrific,” Coons says. “There are very few of them left, but this one’s pretty pure.” Located at 1428 Soledad Avenue, what’s known as the “House of Dreams” was built in the early 1900s and was profiled last May in the La Jolla Light newspaper. According to the article, the home was built by a “world traveler” named Florence Howard, who had a keen interest in Asiatic art and style. The house is currently listed for sale at $6,245,000. The Zillow listing calls it a “1911 Asian Arts & Crafts style 4BD/2.5BA ocean view home topped w/ crow’s nest bonus room plus a matching studio over garage.”

“I was just in this one the other day,” Stiegler adds. “It was just one woman’s vision with a great carpenter to execute.”

The Art Deco style that flourished in places like Miami in the 1930s and 1940s also touched down in San Diego, although it was modified to reflect the area’s ties to the aircraft industry. “We call it Streamline Art Moderne,” Coons says. “We were known as the aircraft capital of the world, and the aircraft industry was centered around Pacific Highway, with plants like Rohr and Convair. Streamline Art Moderne was a pretty major substyle for San Diego during the early 1940s. Streamline buildings were prominent along today’s Pacific Highway, and then it spread into the nearby neighborhoods, especially Loma Portal, which is where many of the aircraft industry executives lived. They saw the style and it was the modern thing, the trend. It denoted the future.”

Streamline Art Modern homes were characterized by flat roofs and steamship railings along the parapet, Coons says, “and what they call speed lines – horizontal lines in the stucco. While San Diego is no longer thought of for its Art Deco architecture, it once had a significant inventory, with literally dozens of great Streamline Art Moderne homes and commercial buildings lost to the dozers over the years.” Coons says the community of Loma Portal , in the northeast part of the Point Loma peninsula, has several remaining Streamline Modern homes, with a particularly strong example on the southwest corner of Kingsley and Locust.

One final odd outlier in San Diego architectural styles is the Tile Neo-Mansard, a twist on — some would say bastardization of — the Spanish style, with flat roofs and tiles that hang below the roof line like bangs. It’s a look that flourished in the 1970s, the same era as bad fashion, bad cars and bad presidents. The Tile Neo-Mansard style was popular with both apartments and commercial buildings throughout Southern California, and in San Diego, it is strongly identified with the myriad apartment buildings — most with six to nine units and no front yards, just concrete parking spaces — nicknamed the “Huffman Six-Pack” after the developer who put them up. “I hate those things,” Coons says. “They look like boxes with tile fringes tacked on.”

According to the Huffman Properties Inc. website, builder Ray Huffman began focusing on apartments in the 1960s when most of his fellow developers were concentrating on single-family homes. “After he got the building process down to a science, Ray was able to construct a property in approximately 110 days,” the website says. “Ray had created a ‘Ford Assembly Line’ for San Diego apartment construction. There was a period where Ray would have as many as 70 apartment buildings under construction at one time, all at different locations spread throughout San Diego County.”

A 1982 Reader article noted that “North Park contains so many of his apartments that the entire area is occasionally referred to as “a monument to Ray Huffman.” The Tile Neo-Mansard isn’t the dominant architectural style Huffman employed for his apartments, which often are a mish-mash of styles. But it’s the one that stands out, Coons says, because it was so distinct — distinct enough that other developers took note, and by the early 1970s, the Huffman Six-Pack became the model for other apartment builders. “So not only do we have those lousy Huffman Six-Packs, but we also have knock-offs that went up all over the place: Ocean Beach, City Heights, University Heights. They stuck them in all sorts of neighborhoods as in-fill. Eventually people rose up and fought those and ultimately forced the [San Diego] City Council to issue a moratorium.”

While the Tile Neo-Mansard style here in San Diego was used mostly for apartments, “there are also some private homes, unfortunately,” Coons says. “I’ve seen them in Pacific Beach and some in Point Loma. They’re exceedingly ugly.”

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