National City's eclectic architecture

When the bungalows came to town

Frank Kimball House and Museum. National City was incorporated in 1887 and within a few years was dotted with ornate Victorian homes.
  • Frank Kimball House and Museum. National City was incorporated in 1887 and within a few years was dotted with ornate Victorian homes.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

— T.S. Eliot.

“The Hollow Men"

My introduction to National City occurred on May 2. The phone was ringing.

“Aren't you doing a story on National City?” my sister asked.

“Why?"

“It’s on the news.”

My television screen glowed yellow-orange as tiny SWAT soldiers, standing in nervous clusters, watched a fiery mushroom cloud explode skyward from a white bungalow. Above the raging flames bellowed death-black pillars of smoke. It seemed as though Hell was vomiting its horrible contents into the air above as the CBS caption confirmed: National City.

Victorian house on National Avenue with signs painted over

Victorian house on National Avenue with signs painted over

An architecture writer’s job is formulaic. We are assigned projects — say, to review a new building by Frank Gehry or chronicle the history of a Southern (California mission. Then we do extensive research on the subject at libraries, archives, historical societies, and architects' offices until we emerge mole-eyed, weary, yet enlightened. Throughout this quest, we are guided by “muses” — retired blue-haired matrons-cum-historians who shower us with brochures, pamphlets, clippings, photographs, journals, and maps and insist, just short of Uzi-point, that we accompany them on detailed tours of their architectural kingdoms. When we have thus visited our sites, interviewed all relevant parties, fact-checked, edited, and finished our cold, cold coffees, we turn in our stories and sleep for a half-day or so.

“The exit for National City? Sorry, I can't help you — I don't go that far south.”

— San Diego Highway Patrol officer

“FORKLIFTS FOR RENT” were the first words that greeted me when I arrived in National City. My radio was broadcasting previews of the night's television offerings: a genetic experiment gone awry...a stalker hunting single women. I flipped the dial to a classical station as I passed an industrial expanse of corrugated sheet-metal buildings, all surrounded by cement lots, weedy soil patches, and abandoned machinery. Somehow the congregation of geometrical edifices resembled a postmodern Emerald City. The Wizard had already been exposed. Now he was gone, and his kingdom was overwrought with rust, weeds, and broken glass.

Beyond this Bladerunner-Oz was a highway overpass, then, past that, a row of wood-shingled tract homes — California bungalows almost uniform in their appearance: weather-beaten wood, peeling paint, low-slung roofs, barred windows and doors. The walkways were littered with tools, car parts, and toys; in scorched-yellow yards, overgrown weeds and fantastically shaped succulents shrieked for rain.

I drove further into National City and studied these ubiquitous bungalows. Forever present were foreboding bars on their windows and doors, “Keep out," “Do Not Enter," “Stay Away,” they said, each with a hint of individuality. Visible were thick vertical bars, ornate bars, latticework bars, tic-tac-toe bars, all painted in various shades of white, yellow, turquoise, and even cerulean blue. But how odd, I kept thinking to myself, that they all have bars....

The California bungalow had its origins in India, another crackling-hot destination in need of cheap, cool housing. The bengalas, as the conquering Brits called them, were small, open, one-story huts with wide verandas that encouraged breezes and visitors to circulate freely. During the late 19th Century, middle-class Americans, wearied of Victorian wedding-cake architecture, embraced the bengalas as suitable structures for their own frenetic lifestyles. The little houses were erected as "getaway huts” in seaside-resort towns like Cape Cod and Newport Beach, Rhode Island. At first, they remained simplistic in design and cheap, both in appearance and price. The ideal bungalow, wrote architectural scribe Henry Saylor in 1911, looked “as if it had been built for less money than it actually cost" — quite a feat, considering that in the 1910s, these houses sold for under $600.

By the 1920s, wealthy Americans began to urge architects to create more innovative variations on the Bungalow theme. Up sprouted Oriental-style bungalows with pagoda roofs; Tudor-style bungalows with ponderous, half-timbering ornamentations; Craftsman-style bungalows, replete with spacious sleeping porches, redwood beams, and stained-glass windows; even misplaced Swiss chalets, smack in the midst of snowless San Diego County.

Yet, despite these developments in bungalow design, the little houses primarily remained homes “for people of modest means” — newlyweds, first-time buyers, laborers, and dreamers who needed temporary lodgings while they saved up for more substantial, pretentious digs. Some of the most utilitarian bungalows of the 1920s were only 20 feet wide by 22 feet deep and sported living rooms that took up nearly half the home's floor space. These “poor man's bungalows” were constructed with the cheapest materials available: low-grade lumber, plaster, adobe, and stucco. But despite this they retained an undeniable allure: they were open, inviting, and cool.

It is 1964, and my family is on its way to a Manhattan wedding. We are lost. We drive through a dangerous part of New York City, as my mother desperately scans a crumpled map. We sit stiffly, silently in our formal clothes — my father in his dark suit; my mother, sister, and I in matching pink dresses, as our gleaming Chrysler (doors locked!) whizzes past rows of excrement-toned tenement buildings — strangely bereft of movement and noise. “Why do they have bars on all the windows and doors?” I ask. In my short existence, I had only seen such decorative fixtures on jails. “To protect people inside from robbers," my father answers. “So why don’t we have bars?” I ask. “Too dangerous," my father replies. He grins, having now discovered the on-ramp to the highway, and accelerates fitfully. “Those bars can kill you. What if there’s a fire? You can't get out."

It is midday in National City. I arrive at the National City Public Library, an earth-toned bungaloid structure, and begin to gather materials about the town’s history. I read about the Kumeyaay Indians, original inhabitants of this area, who were renamed Diegueños by Spanish missionaries who converted the Indians to Christianity. forced them to toil as laborers, road builders, and whalers, then appropriated the Indians' land in the name of Jesus Christ. Years later, when the land became Mexican territory, it was ceded to Don Juan Forster, the well-heeled owner of San Juan Capistrano. Mission Viejo, and what is now Camp Pendleton. In 1868, American builder/contractor Frank Kimball purchased the land, rechristening it “National City." It was incorporated in 1887 and within a few years was dotted with ornate Victorian homes.

I shift through the pamphlets, brochures, yellowed book pages, and photocopies, but find nothing more. The story has ended here. Right at the time when the bungalows came to town.

“I better warn you, some of that material seems to be inaccurate....”

— archivist, National City Public Library

In many ways, architecture writers are like supraterrranean archaeologists. We meander through cities, suburbs, and rural vistas, appraising buildings for dues to an area’s past. These “dues” are often found on lots, in gate enclosed neighborhoods, and at strip malls, instead of under piles of rock, dirt, tar, and sand dunes. Sometimes — unlike pottery shards, bone fragments, and goddess talismans — they are quite large — even 80 stories high— which makes our job somewhat easier than that of the sunstroke-stricken, skin-cancer-dodging archaeologist. Easier most of the time.

Buildings offer colorful tales about a region's unique development; an Eastlake church (1870s) may be nestled between a Spanish Mission-style theater (1920s) and a high-tech bank (1980s); we therefore know that this street has been aggressively evolving for over a century. If a gaggle of majestic, refurbished English Tudor-style homes eclipse a trio of decrepit pueblo style shacks, we can wager that conquering yuppies have descended upon a working-class neighborhood, with contractors, interior designers, and cleaning teams in tow.

But what must an architecture writer wonder when a town's history abruptly ends with a description of Victorian “painted ladies”? Did the leading turn-of-the-century amanuenses shred their plat maps, stamp on their fountain pens, and shriek. “Enough!” when “Invasion of the Utilitarian Bungalows” occurred? Had there been an Oliver Stonian cover-up, in which top-secret architectural documents were spirited away, then burned to prevent the discovery of...graft? Corruption? Unspeakably had design? Or did this little town of 55,000, where 43 percent of all households earn under $25,000, not have any blue-haired, inheritance-fueled muses to meticulously chronicle its past?

I glance at three National City “Historical Points of Interest” listings. They are typed and dated, respectively, 1965, 1971, and 1984. Someone has scrawled “update” beside most of the house descriptions: “burned down”; “vacant—unsafe"; “converted to apartments”; and “razed — unsafe.” One building has no written update beside it. My heartbeat quickens. Might I be able to visit it?

Architecture Writer “This school is it standing? I’d like to see it.” National City Resident “Oh, yes, dear, it’s still there, corner of Ninth and E, and you can’t miss it. But, honey, it doesn't look anything like that picture you’re holding up. Was completely changed....”

Visit rich neighborhoods, like Craftsman-insane Pasadena, and you will find in their bookstores, libraries, and historic homes treasure-troves of historic material. Not 20-year-old Xeroxed lists of buildings, mind you, but expensive, glossy-paged encyclopedic tomes, shiny brochures, and impressive historical society magazines (all, of course, shot by America's top architectural photographers). You can also sign up for tours of their preserved million-dollar uber-bungalows — tours led by docents so knowledgeable about the homes’ histories, they can recite the names of now-defunct lumberyards that furnished the houses’ timber 90 years ago.

Wealth has always enjoyed a love affair with history — witness the framed coat-of-arms above Western European descendants’ desks, or the obsessively researched family trees that confirm that Mr. and Mrs. Harvard alumni are related to persecuted Mayflower exiles. Wealth likes to know its past. Wealth likes to savor its successes. But poverty is myopic. Why commit to writing the heartbreaking tales of abandoned homes, foreclosures, decaying landmarks, and migrating white populations, it asks, when tomorrow the tragedies will repeat?

Architecture Writer “I was told you’re assembling an updated listing of National City’s historic homes.”

National City Planning Commission Representative: “No, somebody got that wrong. All we have is this old list [dated 1984], and, well, I wouldn't rely on it —it’s not very accurate."

It is growing dark. Soon I must leave National City. I begin my drive up and down National City’s regimented grid-patterned streets. I stop at “Brick Row” at 906-940 A Avenue, ten cheerful Victorian apartments created by architect R.C Ball, who also designed Folsom Prison. I drive past the Frank Kimball House and Museum, 921 A Avenue, an Italianate two-story home once owned by National City’s celebrated founder. I drive past the Moses Kimball House, a Queen Anne at 2202 East Tenth Street, and pay a short visit to the t draftsman-inspired Granger Music Hall, 1615 East Fourth Street, which is now included in the National Register of Historic Places.

I want to visit the white stucco bungalow that I saw on my television set on May 2. National City's weekly paper, the Star News, has included no mention of its disturbing conflagration amid stories about an animal shelter cattery project, a 50th anniversary Maytime band review, and the Chula Vista Boys' and Girls' Club auction. I must secure the bungalow’s address from theSan Diego Union-Tribune.

I drive down East Plaza Boulevard and at first pass a series of contemporary commercial buildings — a red Monterey-style Boll Weevil restaurant (“Home of the Steerburger!”); a glass, postmodern McDonald’s Play Place (“Toys and Fun Galore!"), a Spanish-Revival, earth-toned Family Loompya Seafood Market (“Scrumptious Fish on Sale!”)—and then I encounter a procession of bungalows.

They are no different from their other National City brethren — modest, weather-beaten, with bars on their windows and doors.

Except one.

Its exposed blackness is terrifying

Stripped of its roof, gutted, seared, rendered naked by two gaping tractor-sized holes in its front facade, the bungalow’s face seems frozen in a soul-shattering scream. Even the two stately palms that flank its entranceway have been roasted and decapitated by the fireball that had erupted — supposedly — from a lobbed tear gas cannister.

These ruins are eerily quiet as an afternoon breeze runs across their blackened timbers. On the stone wall that once protected the bungalow’s inhabitants from robbers is perched a cheap bouquet.

I do not know if this bungalow had bars on its windows and doors. It does not now.

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