Dingbat Eyesores, Loving Eye

— On a recent Saturday afternoon, Phil Chart and his girlfriend Janice Morten went out to -- what else? -- sketch an old house.

"What I like about San Diego is the variety of its neighborhoods," says Chart. "And they make for great dates. You go out with a girl and pick any one of these neighborhoods, and you go to its 'downtown.' You go to downtown South Park, say, get a cup of coffee, and then walk around a neighborhood that's unlike every other neighborhood in town."

Chart, 30, says he's an architecture "enthusiast," not a professional. "I came from Mission Viejo, which is the opposite of this; it's all cookie-cutter. I landed in Hillcrest and University Heights and Normal Heights and Kensington and Mission Hills, and walking around these neighborhoods is a delight because they're homogenous in style but diverse in detail. They're lovely."

In 2000 Chart graduated from SDSU with a bachelor's degree in sociology. "I wish I'd studied when I was there," he tells me. He has lived in five different places since coming to San Diego, including a garage in Talmadge during his student days. Currently he lives near Old Trolley Barn Park in University Heights and works downtown as a concierge in a high-rise condominium complex.

Chart's passion for architecture has been informed by Morten's training. She is a student at downtown San Diego's NewSchool of Architecture and Design. But already by 1998, when Chart left Orange County, he had read James Howard Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. A seminal contribution to the "new urbanism" movement, the book lambastes the way automobile culture assaults neighborhoods' capacity to provide, within walking distance, everything their residents need. One hears Kunstler's echo in Chart's description of Mission Viejo as "designed for the automobile. People don't even notice the architecture in neighborhoods like that," he says, "because they're driving through at 50 miles an hour. And modern zoning likes to keep things separate so that you have to drive to churches and schools and shopping centers. I much prefer mixed-use neighborhoods, like Normal Heights and North Park."

Where can you best capture, I ask, the feel of the old San Diego neighborhoods? In their bars, perhaps? "I'm a café person, and the cafés are a much more recent phenomenon," says Chart. "But yes, bars like the Red Fox Room on El Cajon Boulevard, Nunu's in Hillcrest, the Alibi in Uptown, and the Whistle Stop in South Park are great. They take you back sometimes to pre-World War II days when neighborhoods allowed more interaction, like the porches on the old Craftsman homes. But I like the cafés because they don't discriminate. Kids can go in there. If you want to get the feel of a neighborhood now, go into its café. A lot of socializing takes place in cafés. It does in bars too. But after a few drinks the discussions can break down. On the other hand, you go into some cafés and there's little talking because everybody stares into a laptop. It's a strange sort of social interaction."

I went with Chart several weeks ago to some of his favorite neighborhood spots. In Golden Hill we look at an old Victorian home. It has stone walls and, on one side, a three-storey turret with a pointed top. A porch on the opposite side gives the building an asymmetry that Chart likes for its "oddity."

We come to another. "This is the one I sketched," he says, pointing to a house near 24th and E Streets in Golden Hill. "At first glance you might think it's a Victorian, but look at those arches over the front door and the windows. Those are more Craftsman style. What you have here, to my untrained eye, is a hybrid; it looks like a bridge between Victorian America and Craftsman America. The architect wants to build a Victorian, but his clients -- maybe the young yuppies of the early 1900s -- are saying, 'Hey, there's this new Craftsman thing we're really hip about.' So they got a blend of the styles. And I tell you, drawing that was holy hell. Look at those details, that wonderful yellow wood ornamentation on the pillars. No one would do that nowadays. Those windows front and center, there are 6 of them, and above them are 12 smaller ones with great little details. It's fantastic. It took me more than half an hour to sketch this because the detail is so intense, whereas the modern stucco you could draw in five minutes. It's just a bunch of lines."

Next door is a house of who knows what style. "That's worthy of a picture, it's so ugly," says Chart, pulling out his digital camera. "And it's right beside this beautiful home. It looks like a portable classroom. Why? Cheap, I guess."

For sheer ugliness it's hard to beat "dingbats." The term has emerged in architectural circles in recent years as a label for inexpensive apartment complexes shaped like big square boxes. Many of them were built in San Diego during the 1970s, when "no one in city government was at the wheel," according to Chart. We find a dingbat at 24th and C. "This is a hideous square. Probably some old Victorians were here, a little decrepit, so they took them down. You'd think the Politburo designed these places. But some architect just wanted to pack in more people to maximize profits and didn't care about the neighborhood. Usually there is a small amount of ridiculous ornamentation on these things, stuff you'd see in bowling alleys. They'll put a metal elongated star on the side, and that'll be all on a giant square like this. It's hilarious. There are so many better ways to fit a lot of people in a neighborhood. Divide a big Victorian into four apartments, for instance."

In front, perpendicular to the street, we notice parking slots marked out on cement, a common practice at dingbats. "When you do the parking like that," says Chart, "you take out the parkway strip and the sidewalk. Parkway strips are so important, that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street; that's where you put your street trees."

Chart figures that the current Uptown neighborhood lost a few nice Craftsman bungalows to an apartment building on Robinson Avenue between Tenth and Vermont. "It's this massive brownish stucco Spanish Revival monster taking up half the block," says Chart. The perpendicular parking places in front extend the length of the building. "They're trying to go condo in that building," he complains, "and they'll probably do it." What that will do, he argues, is extend the life of an ugly building.

The area that lost the most old homes in San Diego is between University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights. The area was upzoned for higher density in the '60s and '70s. On 35th Street "it's now wall-to-wall dingbats," says Chart. "If you notice architecture, it's painful to drive through there. It's just this row of boxes."

But Chart prefers to focus on the positive. We drive to South Park and circle east into Burlingame, whose pink sidewalks famously set it apart. At Kalmia Street and San Marcos Avenue we come upon the "library tower" that Chart says he learned about several years ago. "Now, it does clash with the neighborhood; it's out of place," he says. "But the owner did a great job. It looks like he started with a plain stucco box, a cheap Spanish Revival. And he kept the original form, preserving the squarishness and plainness of it, the white stucco walls. But he built this whimsical tower on top. And as I recall reading somewhere, it really is a library tower. It's for his book collection. I've walked by a number of times, and the guy obviously appreciates the fact that people like his house. I've seen him up there in the tower, and he's waved to me a couple of times. He seems like a good guy -- and proud of what he's done."

Nearby we come upon a larger square stucco house with vertical blue strips on its front. "There's the white stucco," says Chart, "so it's Mediterranean, and he's added this glorious light blue. Then there's the big picture window. Got to show that off. I dare say he was doing something like Greek isle, trying to bring to San Diego a little Santorini and Chios, a couple of Greek party islands all the backpackers go to, including myself. Being there is like walking around a film set. Winding little streets and all white stucco."

And farther on appears a large house with reddish brown shingle siding. "It has elements that make it look like a Swiss chateau," remarks Chart. "This one could be up in the Alps somewhere. You know, Günther and Heidi are in there getting ready to go skiing.

"I get such a kick out of walking here just because it's so different. The fun thing is going around and trying to read these buildings, especially as an amateur. You're trying to figure out where they're from, trying to decode them."

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