This Place Is History: Who's winning San Diego's preservation wars?

Klauber House
  • Klauber House
  • San Diego Historical Society/Ticor Collection

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.

30 Years of Casualties

30 Years of Casualties

San Diego Historical Society/Ticor Collection

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,

Balboa Park

American Legion Building

American Legion Building

San Diego Historical Society/Ticor Collection

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.

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