A Vision for The California Theatre

The great historic theaters and office buildings in downtown Los Angeles are being revitalized. Old L.A. is becoming the new L.A. It is because the city has turned away from its course of neglect and demolition of its historic downtown structures. Instead it has chosen to put redevelopment funds into adaptive reuse–with special emphasis on residential lofts and affordable housing.

What has been accomplished with a number of Los Angeles movie palaces can be accomplished here in San Diego with our beleaguered California Theatre.

The nine story tower would make excellent office, retail, and living lofts–including affordable housing.  New construction adjacent to the theatre could dramatically expand all of those potential uses.

As recently as 2003 there were proposals such as this hotel project that would have saved the theatre and redeveloped downtown at the same time. For anyone having trouble visualizing how the historic building could be incorporated with such a project, this is a great illustration.

Making this the new City Hall I believe would be an excellent choice. Having the theater itself as Council chambers would set it apart from any other  city hall in North America. Perhaps the world.

One great part about this idea is that it would require a minimal amount of demolition–saving our landfill space. The lot next to the California Theatre is already vacant. Let’s think Green.

Another possible project could include a variety of uses. But especially keeping the lower portion for movie theatre purposes. Keep the main auditorium, but have the new portion as modern multi plex cinemas. It could be the home of an annual San Diego Film Festival. In fact it could be a festival center for a lot of events. A San Diego Jazz festival. Have a festival for each of a variety of  musical forms. Folk, Mariachi, Big Band, Punk, etc, etc. etc…

And if your passion is affordable housing, why not let this site be a showcase for your vision? Set an example for the entire country. That several important goals of the community can be met in one project. Preserving historic architecture and providing affordable housing along with other needed uses.

Show Her Some Respect

No you’re not in Detroit or near the subway station somewhere  in New York City. This is the latest on how San Diego’s historic California Theater is being treated. It wasn’t a gang that let loose on this once regal movie palace. It is “art” commissioned by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.

Just what every local would like to show out of town guests. That we actually pay people to spray up buildings. Never mind that it is a historic landmark desperately trying to survive.

The California Theater is a Spanish Revival treasure. It was the most ornate of all San Diego movie theaters. The building itself was part of an evening’s entertainment; its magnificence a reason to see a movie there.

Sadly today The California sits nearly dilapidated. In the words of an urban poet: “She’s a wounded survivor, limping but displaying her teeth.”

Showing her teeth, or from this view, showing her bones–the distinctive California Theater bow string trusses.

The “In Spot” ad is painted on the theatre entrance and office tower along Fourth Avenue. That portion is nine stories high. The auditorium stands nearly five stories high and contains 2,200 seats–by far San Diego’s largest movie palace. The proscenium area facing third avenue is six stories high.

Besides the “In Spot,” The billboard art at the back of the California Theater also speaks to a different era of San Diego history, not to mention that of old Tijuana as well. For decades the Caliente Race Track was a major tourist attraction. The “fabulous 5-10” was a Caliente innovation that was copied widely at U.S. race tracks.

The Caliente dog racing advertisement was painted over. However, a bit still shows through. The race dogs used to chase “‘Pepito,’ the mechanical bunny.” The sport fell out of favor when when people became aware of the sports inhumanity.

Details of the Spanish Colonial Revival ornament.

It was upon opening in 1927 that the California was celebrated as “the cathedral of the motion picture” and “an enduring contribution to the artistic beauty of the entire Southland”

Cracks and damage to the figures.

At its grand opening on April 22, 1927, the theatre presented Constance Talmadge and Antonio Moreno in “The Venus of Venice”, Fanchon and Marco’s “Book ideas.”

The movies I saw here included several James Bond pictures. I remember seeing a Mel Brooks double feature of The Producers and Blazing Saddles. The California went dark as a movie theatre in 1976.

In 1978 an arson fire destroyed the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. The California became the temporary Old Globe Theater during reconstruction.

The interior was decorated in gold leaf and murals. The side walls of the auditorium were inspired by a Spanish church. A huge Wurlitzer organ was also a proud asset. Things were looking up for the California in 1988 when the building was spruced up a bit.

It was about that time I saw concerts there. English Beat and The Specials were two I recall.

The California’s run as a concert venue was short lived. By 1990 it was slated for demolition. However, the wrecking has been held off.

In the mean time it suffers demolition by neglect. Each passing year makes it more difficult to bring her back. And now the insult and degradation of her being used as a urban canvass for an “art” project. C’mon, let’s show her some respect.

California Theatre

“Open All Night” The California in the 1940s

Balcony Staircase



Reference Source, San Diego Historical Society

“Jack London Was Standing Right There!”

After moving from their ranch in Healdsburg, the Bridingers moved to Santa Rosa. They lived for awhile “in town,” then moved to a ranch outside of town.

Helen, Santa Rosa. No indication of Helen’s friend with the head dress and suede clothing.

Before Mexican and Spanish settlers were in Santa Rosa in the early 1800’s, Pomo, Miwok, and Wappo Indians  populated the area. The first known permanent European settlement of Santa Rosa was the homestead of the Carrillo family. By the 1850s, a Wells Fargo post and general store were established in what is now downtown Santa Rosa.

The Occidental Hotel Building, 4th and B, Santa Rosa

In the mid-1850s, several prominent locals, including Julio Carrillo, son of Maria Carrillo, laid out the grid street pattern for Santa Rosa with a public square in the center, a pattern which largely remains as the street pattern for downtown Santa Rosa to this day despite changes to the central square, now called Old Courthouse Square.

In 1867, the county recognized Santa Rosa as an incorporated city and in 1868 the state officially confirmed the incorporation, making it officially the third incorporated city in Sonoma County, after Petaluma, incorporated in 1858, and Healdsburg, incorporated in 1867.

The Luther Burbank Rose Parade, Santa Rosa. Note the same Occidental Hotel (left) as in the previous photo. The Hotel building was replaced by a typical looking shopping mall. The building seen in the middle remains today, but heavily remodeled.

Luther Burbank, the famed horticulturist, made his home in Santa Rosa for more than fifty years. On his garden site and in nearby Sebastopol, Burbank conducted the plant-breeding experiments that brought him world renown. His objective was to improve the quality of plants and thereby increase the world’s food supply. In his working career Burbank introduced more than 800 new varieties of plants including over 200 varieties of fruits, many vegetables, nuts and grains, and hundreds of ornamental flowers. Note Southern California’s city of Burbank has no connection to Luther Burbank. It was David Burbank, a dentist, that founded Burbank, California.

“Then we moved to Santa Rosa and I went to grammar school there. I skipped 3rd grade and went into 4th grade.

I enjoyed English. One teacher I thought was terrific; she was named Francis L. Omira.”

“All the kids called Mrs. Omira “funny little old maid.” Kids told me “Gee, I hope you don’t get her, blah, blah, blah–she’s mean! But I had her and I thought she was one of the best teachers I ever had. We did a lot of writing and composition–I enjoyed her. Isn’t that funny how people will put somebody down? She was a great teacher.  I just got along wonderfully with her. I learned more from her than any other teacher I had.”

“Mother Bridinger was very strict. I had one teacher who assigned a book to read. I got the book out of the library and Mother wouldn’t let me read it. “Oh, that’s NOT for young people!” So I had to take it back and she told the Librarian to be very careful about what I picked out–which was stupid! I wasn’t even allowed to read the newspaper!”

“They’d take me to movies. My mother got indignant about something she’d get up and make us leave!”

Helen, Lawrence; right.

“When we lived on the ranch at Healdsburg a boy came to live with us named Lawrence–they were going to adopt him. When we moved to Santa Rosa, Lawrence was in his first year of high school.

“Leon piled so much ranch work on him to the point he ran away several times. One time he wanted me to run away with him to the mountains-and painted such a beautiful picture. You know how kids are. I didn’t go. But finally his real mother came to get him when I was 13 or 14. Lawrence later joined the Army and was a career Army man–and we stayed in touch.”

Leon and Helen.

“Mother Bridinger and I got along fine. But Leon, I didn’t like him. As a child I liked him–you know how little kids are impressed. He’d make faces and tease me. But as I got older I could not stand him. He called himself “Pennsylvania Dutch.” But there was nothing Dutch about him, he was Ohio German! Opinionated, stubborn–he knew it all. Nobody else knew anything.”

“Leon had a lot of goats. This little friend and I used to heard the goats. We’d poke them along the hillside so they’d eat. We’d watch them and then bring them back. A man and his wife worked on the ranch–they’d milk the goats. Leon would too–I guess. He was working at the bank.

At the county fair he would exhibit them. I can remember I posed for a picture pretending to milk the goats! I think I was about 13 then. Jack London was standing right there!”

Image, Piedmont Historical Photo Archive

Jack London and Xaviar Martinez. Both London and Martinez were members of the Piedmont Bohemian set in the early 1900’s. This picture was taken after London had moved to Sonoma County and shows him sitting for a portrait by Martinez. London’s most famous works are The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, The Iron Heel, and Martin Eden.

One of Jack London’s books “Valley of the Moon” is named for the section of the Sonoma Valley around Glen Ellen with the same name.

Next Chapter, “Valley of the Moon.” The Bridingers take a drive to Glen Ellen, to the town of Sonoma, and go camping near the Russian River.

Up The Russian River

Part two of my family history, The Delanos. After Helen’s mother Julia dies in Silverton, Colorado, Helen is adopted by Julia’s sister May Delano Bridinger and her husband Leon. Wearing a white muff and a sign “I am an orphan,” Helen travels alone by train to California to join her new family.

These bridges are still intact along the Russian River

“We were living in Alameda when Leon (father Bridinger) got TB. He was working for the Diamond Rubber Company. We then moved to the country, Kernville first. Then up the Russian River. I went with him while Mother closed everything in Alameda.

I first went to school when we lived in Healdsburg. It was a one room school way up on a hill. I’d have to walk to school one mile. It was way up on a hill and there were six grades. There was an Indian boy who sat in back of me. His name was Sam. He was always pestering me! (laugh).

But that one room school. That was fascinating–kids in the sixth grade were grown up as far as I was concerned!

Healdsburg Plaza, the town square, photo Healdsburg Museum

Healdsburg Plaza today. Mature Trees, but still the focal point of central Healdsburg.

“In back of the little ranch where we lived there was an Indian reservation. Every Saturday Indians would trek by into the little town because there was a band concert in the little square.”

For thousands of years before White settlement, the lush area now called Healdsburg was home to the Pomo Indians. These early residents built their villages in the open, fertile valleys along the Russian River. They hunted the elk, bears, and mountain lions that roamed the dense oak and madrone forests along the meandering river.

Healdsburg Plaza with Fitch Mountain in the background. Healdsburg claims Captain Henry Delano Fitch just as much as Old Town San Diego. Fitch held a Mexican Land Grant in Healdsburg. He lived long enough to learn that gold was discovered in the area, but died before he could relocate from San Diego. His family however migrated to Healdsburg and built a large house that became known as “The Fitch Castle.”

Captain Henry Delano Fitch. Painting, Healdsburg Museum.

May Delano Bridinger and Helen Bridinger weren’t the first Delanos in Healdsburg. After the Mexican government established the vast 48,000-acre Rancho Sotoyome, this enormous land grant was awarded to sea captain Henry Delano Fitch in 1841. Fitch promptly hired trapper Cyrus Alexander to manage his bountiful rancho (the magnificent Alexander Valley is named for this early tenant).

Fitch’s father, Beriah, was a master of whaling ships whose ancestors in America date back to the 1600’s.

His mother was Sarah Delano.

The Delanos in America descend from Philippe de Lannoy. The family name was was anglicized to Delano. He was a Pilgrim of Flemish descent arriving at Plymouth, Massachusetts on November 9, 1621 at the age of 19. His was the Pilgrim ship after the Mayflower called the Fortune.

His descendants include Philip Delano Jr., Frederic Adrian Delano, Jonathan Delano and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Calvin Coolidge, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Robert Redfield, Captain Paul Delano, and Alan B. Shepard.

Delano family forebears include the Pilgrim who chartered the Mayflower, seven of its passengers and three signers of the Mayflower Compact.

The Fitch Family Residence “The Fitch Castle,” began in 1840’s by Cyrus Alexander. Photo, Healdsburg Museum

The California gold rush of 1849 brought itinerants, squatters, and failed miners to the more generous farming land of the rancho. Over the years, these squatters settled on the verdant land owned by the Fitch family. In 1857, a fight named the “Westside Road Wars” commenced among the squatters. One of the winners of this colorful conflict was Harmon Heald, an Ohio entrepreneur. “Healdsburg” was incorporated in 1867.

The Fitch Castle. The couple seated in front is said  to be Anita Fitch Grant and her husband  J.D. Grant. Photo, Healdsburg Museum

Captain Henry Delano Fitch is not only an important name in Sonoma County history, but in San Diego history as well. Fitch was San Diego’s first permanent American resident, its first storekeeper, and an early “Mayor” of San Diego. The San Diego home of Fitch and his wife, Josefa Carrillo, still stands in Old Town San Diego. “The Carrillo Adobe,” is the oldest house in San Diego.

After gold was discovered near Fitch’s rancho in Healdsburg, he was anxious to move permanently to Sonoma County. But he died in 1849.

Fitch was buried in the church cemetery is in today’s Presido Park, San Diego.

Archeologist Ron May was part of the crew that discovered his grave on a “dig” in 1968. The letter F slowly began to to appear on the coffin lid. May and the crew knew this had to be none other than Fitch. Finally they read the initials H.D.F.  The lid to his coffin is decorated by designs made by the copper heads of nails. There is a cross, and under it, two hearts.

Ron May tells us “H.D.F was at least six foot, five inches.  According to Paul H. Ezell, who organized a Fitch reunion, there was a bible with a note that HDF actually died from poisoning in San Francisco and his body shipped to San Diego. His daughter, Natalia Fitch, was found adjacent to him and she too died in 1849.”

Fitch was one of the most colorful and romantic figures of early California history. His courtship and marriage of Josefa Carrillo is legendary.

The Healdsburg Museum

There’s a rivalry between Healdsburg and Old Town San Diego as to whom has dibbs on Captain Henry. A bidding war took place over the Captain’s ornate desk which he had delivered to San Diego around Cape Horn. Healdsburg, and one determined (wealthy) benefactor, prevailed in the bidding war. The desk now resides in the Healdsburg Museum. The building is an old Carnegie Library building, restored and looking good.

“Then we moved to Santa Rosa. Our ranch was just outside Santa Rosa but for a while we lived in town.

It was huge house, two story with a dutch-like roof on Humboldt Street. No gingerbread or anything like that.

It had a living room, dining room, kitchen, a little room in the back, a big back porch, and a little front room they called a parlor. They never did anything in there except there was a desk and  once in a while they’d write in there. And there was a huge bedroom clear across the front of the house. And then two other bedrooms and just one bath upstairs!

“Mother Bridinger wouldn’t talk about my mother Julia or what happened to my father.
They thought that I was so young that I would forget and think that Mother Bridinger and Leon were my real parents. I would go to bed at night and wonder “which is real and which is a dream.” But I always remembered.

“My mother Julia had taken a lot of snap shots. And I found them one day when I was older–in my teens, I guess. I think my Mother Bridinger knew I had found them. Next time I looked they were destroyed. Isn’t that awful?”

dazzled by the footlights

Apparently Helen had no knowledge of her natural mother’s stage renown as a singer and musician of San Francisco theater. It seems she never knew Julia had refused to live the role of a proper Victorian housewife by not giving up her San Francisco theater and stage career where she was an accomplished singer and musician. It’s a story that seems to have considerable indignation and outrage – if not total scandal-in 1902 San Francisco. The headlines practically demonize Julia.

Dazzled artcle

San Francisco Call January 30. 1902

SF CALL 4_29_02clip

San Francisco Call April 28, 1902.

The Humbolt Street House today.

Next, School Days and Life On The Ranch.

L.A. Trip, May 29, 2010

I took a trip to Los Angeles on Saturday to do some research at the downtown library. I snapped some shots as I walked about the richly historic downtown.  Here’s the Loew’s State Theatre, 1921, 703 S. Broadway. The red brick and terracotta building is slated for adaptive reuse for residential lofts.

A highlight of the day was lunch at Coles for French Dip sandwiches.

I’m a big fan of Philippe’s but Cole’s is great too.  Coles with its selection of draft beers and table service is something to look forward to.

The wood interior and comfortable red booths provide a great atmosphere.

The Palace Theatre, 1911, 630 S. Broadway. It was the third home of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit in Los Angeles. It is now the oldest remaining original Orpheum theatre in the country. The greatest singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, and animal acts in vaudeville performed here for fifteen years, until the Orpheum moved to its fourth and final location at Ninth Street and Broadway in 1926.

G. Albert Lansburgh, who designed both the 1911 and 1926 Orpheum Theatres, was one of the principal theatre designers in the west between 1909 and 1930. In addition to commissions in Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis and New Orleans, his works included the Warner Bros. Theatre Building in Hollywood (1927), and the interiors of the local Wiltern and El Capitan theatres.

Loosely styled after a Florentine early Renaissance palazzo, the façade features multicolored terra-cotta swags, flowers, fairies, and theatrical masks illustrating the spirit of entertainment. Four panels depicting the muses of vaudeville – Song, Dance, Music, and Drama – were sculpted by noted Spanish sculptor Domingo Mora. While the structure’s exterior displays Italian influences, its interior decoration is distinctly French, with garland-draped columns and a color scheme of pale pastels.

The theatre currently operates as a rental facility for special events and location filming.

I took a ride on the 1901 Angels Flight, the”World’s Shortest Railway.” It was built to move residents of the fashionable Victorian neighborhood, Bunker Hill, to the downtown flat land below.

Its creator was an engineer Col. James Ward Eddy. He was also Civil War hero and a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s.

Angels Flight at its original location, 1905. Photo Wikipedia Commons.

Angels flight first faced demolition in 1935, but Angelenos protested and it was saved. However the railway was closed in 1969 when the Bunker Hill area underwent horrible redevelopment which destroyed and displaced a community of almost 22,000 working-class families renting rooms in architecturally significant buildings, to a modern mixed-use district of high-rise commercial buildings and modern apartment and condominium complexes which imposed an extremely inappropriate  design in what historically had been neighborhood of rich character. Note the great architecture in the photo. All demolished.

Angels Flight was reconstructed at 351 S. Hill Street, a half block away from its original site, and reopened in 1996. Sadly it closed once more in 2000 after an accident killed a passenger. But only a short time ago, in March, 2010,  Angelenos and visitors once again were able to utilize and enjoy the ride on this historic funicular railroad. Angel Flight’s hydraulic system was re-engineered. The fare is ¢25 each way–or as they would say in the old days “two bits,” to denote a quarter of a dollar.

A view from the top of Angel’s Flight. That’s the Continental Building, 1903, located at 408 S. Spring Street. It was the first skyscraper built in Los Angeles.

For residents of Bunker Hill, Angels Flight was an important link to Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, which opened in 1917. This view shows only a little of the neon displayed here.

Clifton’s Cafeteria terrazzo. One of the most ornate terrazzos you’ll ever see. Numerous panels depict defining Los Angeles sites.

Clifton’s Cafeteria is located at 648 S. Broadway. The interior is a unique wilderness wonderland with waterfall, stream and a forest chapel with a neon cross. And the food is good!

The Eastern Columbia Building, 1929, at 849 S. Broadway.

This art deco palace is clad in glossy turquoise terra cotta trimmed with deep blue and gold terra cotta.
It is decorated with sunburst patterns, geometric shapes, zig-zags, chevrons and stylized animal and plant forms. It was originally a department store.
The Streamline Moderne Cocoa Cola Building, 1937, at 1334 S. Central Avenue. Shaped like an 1890s-era ocean liner, this utilitarian structure is complete with porthole windows, ship doors, a promenade deck, catwalk and metal riveting.

Let’s Save the State Theatre Terrazzo

Image courtesy of the El Cajon Boulevard BIA.

San Diego was once dotted with neighborhood movie theaters that were as much a neighborhood fixture as the coffee shop or the dime store.  The State Theatre at 4730 El Cajon Boulevard was San Diego’s state-of-the-art neighborhood movie theatre when it opened on August 28, 1940.

The 125 foot spire was the tallest in San Diego at the time and the flashing multicolored beacon could be seen for 5 miles. It was the first building interior completely illuminated by black light. The marquee was the largest in Southern California and used 946 letters in 64,050 square feet of neon illuminated area. It was touted as the most original architecture ever attempted outside a World’s Fair– Notes from the opening day brochure (pictured above), donated to the Boulevard BIA by Moreta Cyphert.

Photo Courtesy of the El Cajon Boulevard BIA

The 1000 seat theatre was designed by renown architect S. Charles Lee. His output was prolific.  Lee’s work once spanned across North America. Besides the State Theatre, San Diego County once boasted a number of S. Charles Lee designs.

Near the foot of Broadway were two S. Charles Lee works. The Tower Bowl, and directly across the street the Tower Theatre. Both demolished.

An S. Charles Lee treasure survives in National City. The Bay Theatre. It survives today operating as a church.

What is gratifying to see about the Bay Theatre besides its survival, is its original terrazzo. Today not only are neighborhood movie theatres a rare site, but so are these highly durable and beautiful floors. Terrazzo was an important design element of neighborhood movie theatres. It points to a time when attention to pleasing and beautiful detail was provided in architecture and our built environment.

The Loma Theatre was by S. Charles Lee. The building was saved from demolition and adaptively reused as a bookstore. But what they failed to do is keep the beautiful terrazzo–and the Loma had one of the best ones in San Diego.

I recall coming here after the bookstore opened wanting to enjoy the beautiful terrazzo I remembered. But this is what I saw. Terrazzo gone and replaced by plain old concrete tracing some of the original terrazzo lines.

Consider the Star Theatre in Oceanside.

Imagine how depressing this view would be with just plain old concrete instead of the star motif terrazzo.

A preservation victory for the Village Theatre terrazzo in Coronado. The developer renovating the building wanted to demolish the historic terrazzo and replace it with new. The issue went before both Coronado’s Historical Resources Commission and City Council.

It was argued that the condition of the Village Theater terrazzo made it impossible to do anything but condemn it to demolition. Thankfully a group of concerned citizens, architects and preservationists challenged that.

The truth is terrazzo is restorable. Correction of cracks, stains and wear can be handled by terrazzo specialists. The brilliant luster can be brought back with modern surface grinders and epoxy sealers.

Our State Historic Preservation Officer Wayne Donaldson weighed in on the issue.

“I appreciate the opportunity to provide an assessment of this authentic, beautiful and distinctive feature in your community.

As SHPO and as a practicing architect for the last 38 years I have public and private practice expertise in the repair and restoration of deteriorated historic terrazzo, some in worse condition than this.  After close examination to the existing terrazzo it is my conclusion this terrazzo is highly restorable.  Furthermore it is an important asset to the historic fabric of your downtown and is a unique addition to the streetscape.  It does not need to be demolished and replaced to provide a useable, beautiful and pleasing end product.

“The cost of restoration will be substantially lower than full replacement when demolition, off-site disposal, soil treatment, construction of the concrete base, utility coordination, new terrazzo, working with the merchants, closure of the sidewalk, the cost of the previous invested energy and the loss of a unique Coronado resource. In addition restoring the terrazzo is a sustainable action.” From the February 26, 2010 letter from Wayne Donaldson to the Coronado Mayor and City Council.

The Coronado Historic Resource Commission voted to designate the Village Theatre terrazzo historic. And that was approved unanimously by Coronado City Council along with proposals to restore as much of the original terrazzo as possible.

San Diego Central Library

This is an important preservation victory in the San Diego region. It helps shine light on what has become one of the most rare and beautiful aspects of our cultural landscape, historic terrazzo.

Central Library

They are more than just common sidewalks. They should be valued as public art.

Photo Courtesy of El Cajon Boulevard BIA

Councilmember Gloria peeling modern carpet away from historic terrazzo. This was the highlight of a ceremony announcing restoration of the historic La Fayette Hotel.

Tragically the magnificent State Theater was demolished in 1987.

Adding insult to injury, look at the building that replaced what was once touted as the most original architecture ever attempted outside a World’s Fair. A few years ago I was delighted and surprised to discover at least the State Theatre terrazzo lives on!

Bad news is that Sandag/MTS proposes to demolish the State Theatre terrazzo for a new bus stop. The process of project notification and acceptance of an EIR has come and gone. But any number of concerned citizens and preservationists would have spoken up if the hearing was known to be about an important public art work and piece of our historic landscape.

A key problem was that the resource only had basic review. The terrazzo was viewed not having context because the theare was gone. However it does deserve consideration as an historic object, public art work, or historic feature of the street environment.

The Campus Drive in was torn down. There is no longer a context of that.  But we still treasure the neon majorette an historic object, for its beauty as public art,  and an important historic icon of El Cajon Boulevard history.

The same consideration should be afforded S. Charles Lee’s State Theatre terrazzo. As we’ve seen with the Village Theatre terrazzo, the argument that it is too old and too broken are mistaken. And as we’ve seen with the restoration of the La Fayette Hotel, historic terrazzo certainly seems to be coming back in vogue.

How SOHO Saved the Hotel Del Coronado

Out of context this a drawing that might not raise too many eyebrows. Except the context was a plan for a “new look” Hotel Del Coronado.

In 1997 planned modern four story buildings were going to surround the Hotel Del on all four sides–including the ocean side.

Not only would the project shroud Hotel Del from view, but it would have destroyed historic features throughout the property. All of the redwood interior of the Hotel Del was to be painted white, making the 1880’s Victorian hotel into a Tommy Bahama theme resort.

An unsuspecting community did not realize how far these plans by the Del owners, Travelers Insurance, were in progress before heeding the alarm bell rung by SOHO. Bruce and Alana Coons spearheaded the effort to Save the Del.

They made it a major campaign in the community, in the press, and throughout the land. It kicked in at the national level when policy holders began canceling their insurance policies as people learned of the destructive plans.

But what SOHO does equally as well as running an effective preservation battle, it knows how to negotiate the peace. Hotel Del was not only saved but current ownership is now an ally in preserving this iconic treasure. Through the years SOHO has negotiated a significant number of preservation agreements. The Ballpark and Historic Warehouse District, Old Police Headquarters, Temple Beth Israel, and the Veterans War Memorial Building, Torrey Pines Glider Port, just to name a few.

Learn more about Save Our Heritage Organisation, SOHO at SOHOsandiego.org

Save The Villa Montezuma

The centerpiece of the Sherman Heights Historic District, the 1887 Jesse Shepard Residence, the “Villa Montezuma.”  It was designed by one of San Diego’s finest Victorian era architectural firms Comstock and Trotsche.  The house is in a class by itself in San Diego architectural history.  It’s a National Landmark.  And is known nationally and internationally as an architectural work of art.

In April 1970 Save Our Heritage Organisation, SOHO, was barely a year old when it dedicated itself to saving this great Victorian.  Joining in support was the Historical Site Board, the A.I.A., and the San Diego Historical Society.

For a time SOHO and the Historical Society worked in tandem until SOHO achieved its Non-Profit status.  Until then cross members such as Kay Porter, Harry Evans and Nick Fintzelberg raised funds for the Villa through the Historical Society.  SOHO founder Robert Miles Parker,  and Nick Fintzelberg testified in Court to stop the planned demolition–and they were successful.  This was a leading happening in the history of Preservation in San Diego.  It lead to the Keeper of the National Register, William Murtagh, coming to town by invitation of SOHO.

It was Murtagh’s first visit to San Diego–and SOHO gave him the grand tour.  A ten-seat van was employed for the occaison.   It was to be driven by Nick Fintzelberg,  but he came came down with appendicitis, so Carol Lindemulder was recruited for driving duty.   On board along with Murtagh were John Henderson, Bob Ferris and Homer Delawie among others.  Miles Parker rode along as narrator and guide.

“Miles could never drive in any way that made sense,” Said Lindemulder.   “He’d be talking and pointing to the right, then say ‘Carol turn left!’ I’d be in the wrong lane–it was wild.  It is amazing Murtagh survived the whole thing!”

“Then we had a luncheon for him downtown at the Home Federal Building.  Mary Ward, Kay Porter, Clare Craine, among others were there too.  At the luncheon Murtagh reviewed for us every necessary detail in submitting the designation of a building for the  inclusion on the National register.  He brought pamphlets and information sheets that showed what kind of information you needed to have.  Mary Ward became a specialist in getting buildings designated.  I can’t even think of how many designations she went on to write in her life.  But those architects learned the same thing too–all because of the Keeper of the National Register coming to town telling us how to do this, which some of us knew nothing about.”

Miles Parker doesn’t recall the wild van ride and the specific details of the day as vividly as Carol.  But he did say the occasion ” worked well for Homer Delawie, Nick, Carol, and Sally Johns.”

Carol continued, “Out of those early happenings–saving the Villa Montezuma, then the Keeper coming, etc., you can say to this day, the importance of the Historical Site Board was strengthened, you can look at the State Historical Building code, the State Historical Commission, and the Mills Act.  San Diego has been represented on those State Boards–primarily by architects.  It was because of those early events–and what the Keeper brought–that got us off the ground and running.  Milford Wayne Donaldson, of course, was later with SOHO.  But he was very much a part of what was going on–and is now State Historic Preservation Officer.

Carol Lindemulder concluded, “When I look at the whole picture of what happened at the beginning, and all the fingers that came after that, is quite fantastic.  None of us could have seen how that would become the history of SOHO.  And how that would effect all historic preservation throughout California–and certainly in the major San Diego area.”

In 2001 SOHO’s Bruce Coons worked as a consultant to Architect Milford Wayne Donaldson on the exterior restoration of the Villa Montezuma.  SOHO board member David Marshall was Project Architect.

“We did a lot of work on ladders with our razor blades scraping away at the layers of paint trying to find the original color scheme.  Bruce and I were sharing ladders, trading razor blades back and forth trying to find those colors until we finally got the match,” Said Marshall.

Bruce Coons remembers “The effort was complicated by the fact that the Villa had gone through paint removal several times in the past, down to bare wood, leaving only the smallest fragments of the original pigment and in many instances, none at all.”

“The available evidence was reviewed, which included paint scrapings, historic photos, books on Victorian color schemes, a previous report by Will Chandler, my own investigations, conversations with people who have worked on the building over the past 30 years, and giving the most weight to the paint analysis by Historic Paint and Architectural Services. A good picture of the original colors began to emerge.”

“I then reviewed the data against common practice of the time, such as: suggested color schemes for Queen Anne Houses, color affinity charts, and another Queen Anne structure built by the same architects also in 1887. The combination of this material presented a strong case for the most accurate color scheme. There may have been additional colors not yet been found, but all major colors have been identified and placed in appropriate locations. Where not attainable colors were placed according to common practice of the time.”

“With this basic 1887 color scheme identified, we now have a true and accurate representation of the house as built when Jesse Shepard resided there.”

In conclusion Bruce said “bringing the colors together for the Villa was a great thrill for me. For the kind of work I do the Villa Montezuma was the ultimate project, and one near to my heart, having wanted to see it in its original state for thirty years.”

David added “When the project was all restored and done, it won some awarads–it was a really great project.  That paint is still on the building and is getting close to needing another paint job.”

Jesse Shepard

Sadly the house has been closed-up for 3 years. It was placed on SOHO’s most endangered list as it sat deteriorating.  Earlier this year San Diego Historical Society relinquish the house to the City due to financial problems.

The current vacant status of the Villa Montezuma has been very detrimental to the National Landmark over the past four years.

The good News is that SOHO is offering its expertise in House Museum operations and historic architectural restoration to the City of San Diego. To stand up for the house it saved 40 years ago.

SOHO’s resume in this regard is one of the best in the nation.

It brought Old Town San Diego’s Whaley House from a falling apart state to being a site visited by people from all over the world. It’s featured on cable programs regularly. Careful period interpretation has guided on-going and continual restoration work–which itself is part of SOHO educational program. SOHO even revived theater productions at the Whaley House, which was also San Diego’s first commercial theater. Before SOHO it had been dark for over a hundred years.

The public had never enjoyed the Whaley House so completely before SOHO took over.

Then when SOHO took over Balboa Park’s Marston House, the resource went from a mildewy shuttered state to standing tall and proud in only 23 days. On May 21, 2010 more people visited the Marston House than in  the entire previous year.

SOHO will be just as successful in making the Villa Montezuma a major cultural tourist destination– which is great News for city tourism, the resource, and for everybody who cherishes this vitally important historical landmark.

Please sign the on line petition to Save the Villa Montezuma

Also view my short film titled Save the Villa Montezuma

Skeleton Hill

Archaeologists have determined the ancient people that lived in the region of what we today call La Jolla Farms are among the oldest in North America. It is an area Kumeyaay Natives regard as sacred. They refer to it as Skeleton Hill.

With so much evidence of ancient human activity here, the view from Skeleton Hill must have been no less captivating for them as it is for us today. The modern day residence on the site was built by William H. Black in 1952. The beach seen here bears his name, Black’s Beach.

This site is among the 200 acres of La Jolla pueblo land Black purchased in 1949. Black hired William Lumpkins to design his residence–a Master Architect renown for his Pueblo Revival designs and his use of adobe as a modern building material.

Adobe structures are now rare in San Diego. The Black residence is unique being a modern-day adobe.

The argument is persuasive that adobe forms the most organic of all architecture.

The gentle rounded edges and soft lines impart a warm character.

William H. Black was a Texas-oil millionaire who came to La Jolla as a financier and land developer.

Horses and Stables were part of his La Jolla Farms vision.

In 1967 UCSD bought the residence and 130 acres of La Jolla Farms property.  It served as the residence for six UCSD Chancellors.  And it was the site of countless public meetings, parties, and networking/seminar functions.

But as University House aged it developed a lot of problems old houses often need help with–plumbing, electrical, and structural issues to name a few.

By the end of 2003 University House was no longer used.  It was closed.  UCSD decided the structure was too problematic to deal with.  They proposed demolition and redevelopment of the site.

Native Americans were immediately out in front opposing redevelopment of the sacred grounds.  The Kumeyaay firmly believe the ancients found here are their fore bearers. For years they suffered in a spiritual sense every time a trench or swimming pool was dug resulting with someone being taken from their resting place. In the past 80 years at least 29 people were unearthed here.  The Kumeyaay seek to recover people removed from the site. And they want those at rest to remain in place.  The Native Americans funded their own legal action and vigorously opposed UCSD’s plans.

Saving the William Black residence became a top priority for Save Our Heritage Organisation, SOHO.  They also began legal action.  SOHO provided expert testimony at hearings and made available legal and consulting assistance.

The third and equally vigorous front in opposition to the project was the La Jolla Historical Society.  Their report achieved designation of the site on the National Register of Historic Places.  And they made it clear they would challenge every permit applied for, and stand in opposition at every hearing.

The opposition coalition went well beyond those three strong voices.  Elected officials spoke in support of the Native Americans, including State Senators Christine Kehoe and Denise Ducheny.  The California Coastal Commission reminded UCSD a full hearing was required through them before any permit would be issued for the project.  Even the typically pro-development Union-Tribune didn’t support UCSD’s tear down and rebuild plan.

Ultimately UCSD listened to the Native Americans and the Historic Preservationists.  Today UCSD is a committed preservationist partner in restoring this great cultural asset.

My thanks to UCSD’s media office, and particularly Jim Daly, Principal Architect and Project Manager.  Their help and assistance gaining access to the property was most generous.

To Celebrate And Preserve A Legacy

Jack In The Box #1. Was located at El Cajon Blvd. at 63rd.  Jack in the Box was the first “hamburger stand” to utilize intercom technology and the drive-thru window. McDonald’s and Wendy’s didn’t have drive-thrus until the 1970s!

1951 Southern California.  The rise of the car culture and rapid service convenience. It was the year Robert O. Peterson matched hamburgers with the speed and convenience of the automobile.  An American Drive-Through icon was born, Jack In The Box.

Jack In The Box, 30th and Upas, North Park.

The Company has brilliantly kept pace or has been ahead of changing times.  However  in the process we are on the verge of losing the last remaining identifiable architectural elements of the original Jack In The Boxes.  Why is this important to note and be concerned about?  The answer is found in consideration of two great individuals and their legacies.  Robert O. Peterson and his architect Russell Forester.

The story of San Diego’s cultural history can not be fairly told without a chapter about Robert Oscar Peterson, the founder of Jack In The Box.  The brand is not only a San Diego success story, but there are at least 2100 shops in 18 States, making this a story of national significance as well.

But  through and through it is all about San Diego. Peterson grew up in North Park.  He attended Jefferson Grammar School and Graduated from Hoover High.  He attended San Diego State majoring in economics and graduated from UCLA.

To pay for his last year of college he rented Balboa Park’s Cafe To The World (present site of the Timkin Gallery) and charged admission for Friday night dances.  At least two notable names in history were a part of this enterprise.  A young Gregory Peck tore tickets.  Art Linkletter was a bouncer.

As stated in the above newspaper clip from 1983 “Robert Oscar Peterson has exerted a profound effect on the life of San Diego.”  He was an active supporter of cultural and fine arts in San Diego. He was backer the Symphony and San Diego Zoo.  And he had a great eye for architecture.

It could very well be argued Peterson’s best business decision was the choice of his architect, Russell Forester.  He also grew up in San Diego–graduating from La Jolla High in 1938.  From 1943 to 1946 he was a draftsman with the Army Corps of Engineers, along with another great name in San Diego architecture Lloyd Ruocco.  Forester began his formal education in 1950 at the Institute of Design in Chicago.

Forester admirer Don Schmidt, recalls his conversation with Forester in 2000/2001. “I wrote him a letter and I followed up with a phone call. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he was extremely nice to me and was very patient. A rare person in any time! He worked for William Kessling in the late 40’s/early 50’s. Kessling was not technically an architect, so Russell would clean up the plans so they would be presentable to the city. He said the designs were all Kessling, including the famous McConnell House on Spindrift, photographed for Life magazine by Julius Shulman in 1947.”

The Peterson Residence in Point Loma, 1965. Russel Forester, Architect.  Photos, Jaye Furlonger.

Russell Forester is listed among San Diego’s Master Architects in the City’s San Diego Modernism Historic Context Statement

Forrester brought forth Mies Van Der Rohe’s steel and glass design sensibility of the International Style.  Here, however, the organic arrangement of space and gardens hint of Japanese inspiration.

The Peterson Residence, “The House Jack In The Box Built.”

The architecture is familiar to anyone who grew up in mid-century San Diego.  It was so commonly a part of our urban landscape no one could have imagined the day these buildings would become rare or extinct.  But that is what is happening.  “Keeping up with the times” has meant more and more changes to the originals.

A “Mark II” Russell Forester Jack In The Box on Washington Street in San Diego undergoing change.

If there ever is a time for Jack In The Box to go “Back To The Future,” this would be it. While there are still a few shops around with some identifying Russel Forester features.  It would be a worthy accomplishment  to save one or two of the oldest shops, both Mark 1 and Mark II designs, as permanent landmarks and monuments to a great entrepreneur and brilliant architect.  Doing so could have tremendous business potential as well.  It’s a great P.R. opportunity and a chance to boost community historic character.  Here are some great success stories to illustrate how this has worked elsewhere:

“Back To The Future” has proven very successful at the world’s oldest McDonald’s in Downey, CA.

The shop features all original neon trim and signage.  An antique panel truck out front attracts passers by.  Car clubs gather here regularly to show their shiny fenders as well as to chow on burgers and fries.

In addition to the fully restored hamburger stand, there’s a pavillion next door (red neon trim) that serves as indoor eating space, gift shop and McDonald’s history museum.  It is simply a wonderful educational experience–especially for young people to learn about an exciting by-gone era, American mid-century.

Even the folks not dining at the museum pavillion have a chance to learn history while waiting in line to place their order.

Besides being a busy food operation, the site is a source of community pride.  People gather here to socialize, to see and be seen, and to help create the sense of community that is sometimes lost in the fast pace urban landscape today.  It is great P.R. for McDonald’s. And another example of the many benefits of historic preservation.

Another successful “Back To The Future” operation is Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank.  Fully restored to its 1949 glory with a hint of 50’s Googie on the outside patio area.  These photos were taken close to midnight.  The restaurant was still packed with business.

Bob’s Big Boy, Burbank is a museum in itself.  Packed with historic mementos and old photos.  You can even sit at the booth where The Beatles had their meal.

As with the McDonald’s in Downey, vintage car cruises are popular here.  Bob’s has even brought back car-hop service for designated busy nights.

The Retro business model has worked so well for Bob’s, they were able to recognize a golden opportunity for expanding it.  Here’s the story of Harvey’s Broiler, later known as Johnie’s, in Downey:

What you see here is a work in progress.  The on going reconstruction of the legendary Harvey’s/Johnie’s Broiler in Downey, CA.

The effort exerted in the attempted demolition and then the successful saving of this 1958 diner is an epic tale.

In its mid century hay-day, the site was a mecca for teenage car-cruise culture.  It was a classic Googie style diner and car hop.  It has been the site of countless film and television shoots.

It declined in the 80’s and 90’s.  By the end of 2001 it shut down as a diner and became a used car dealership.  But an appreciative following was not happy saying good-bye to their beloved diner.  A coalition  “Save Harvey’s Broiler” was formed in 2002.  It began the process of nominating the building for the California Register of Historic Resources.  The owner, however, was not cooperative.

Then one Sunday afternoon,  a man named Ardas Yanik “allegedly” hopped aboard a bull dozer and maniacally attacked the building.  As debris spilled helter skelter onto the sidewalks, horrified and outraged citizens called the police.  But by the time the crime was stopped, the damage was done.  Mr. Yanik, who was identified as the lessee of the property,  pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor charges involving unpermitted destruction of a structure, conducting the demolition in the presence of live wires, and illegal dumping.  He was sentenced to three years of probation and community service.

The building seemed mortally wounded.  However a coalition of concerned interests and the sheer will of a community would not let this cherished landmark go away.

Seizing a great opportunity to operate another retro diner, Bob’s Big Boy is rebuilding Harvey’s Broiler, bringing it back to its former glory–including car hop service.

Does this “Mark I” Jack In The Box at El Cajon Boulevard at Kansas Street in Robert Peterson’s childhood neighborhood of North Park have retro- theme potential?  It is one of the oldest (1961) Jack In The Boxes with remaining Russel Forester features.

This section of El Cajon Boulevard is part of historic U.S. Highway 80 “America’s Broadway.”  It is an area with all the elements in place to become a mid century revival zone.  First, the shop appears completely restorable.  Reinstalling the criss-cross pattern steel siding at the walk up window, the historic neon signage, and the  The Box on top with the large clown head looking down would draw great attention and from locals and visitors alike.

A restored Jack In The Box drive-in would have a great next-door historic neighbor, Rudford’s.  The two could be a powerful one-two punch in attracting the kind of activity Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank and McDonald’s in Downey is known for.  Vintage car cruises and neighborhood gatherings.

El Cajon Boulevard was once known as San Diego’s car cruise mecca.  Ceremonial recreations of that era would be great fun–and great business.

This nearby Denny’s with its many preserved late 1960’s Googie elements is also reflective of this important era of El Cajon Boulevard.

El Cajon Boulevard’s Historic Red Fox Room at Layfayette Hotel.

Other eateries may fit in as well because of their historic neon. There could be possible “Taste Of” events during the year featuring food sampling at these various landmarks.

But there are more possibilities to explore as well.

Former Jack In The Box site at 24th and Market in San Diego in the 1970’s.

Note the “spider leg” columns, the exquisite neon lettering above the drive through, and of course the “clown head” jack-in-the-box sign.

24th and Market today.  The “spider legs” remain, but the character, as well as the proprietorship, has changed.

Catty corner to the original Jack In The Box site is a newer very large one.  It clearly seeks a community character appearance rather than a typical one-size-fits-all look.

Perhaps the old site could be reclaimed and then both sites could work for one common purpose.  Have the newer site as the main dining area.  Restore the original site and establish it as a cultural history museum and monument to Peterson and Forester.

There’s a timely opportunity at hand to create a win-win-win situation.  Make a great business decision based on the appeal of nostalgia and fond memories of the “Baby Boomer” generation.  To teach history–cultural and architectural–to their children and grandchildren.  And to enhance neighborhood revitalization.

All these suggestions point to one thesis.  Concerned citizens don’t want to see a great legacy disappear in the name of progress.  Mid Century San Diego had a lot to say about the the shape of Modern America.  We contributed astronauts, entertainers, aviators, business people, scientists, artists and architects–just to mention a few categories. Robert Peterson and Russel Forester were among our greats.

Resources for this article:

Bob’s Big Boy, Burbank CA

McDonald’s, Downey CA

Harvey’s/Johnie’s Broiler

History of Jack In The Box

Modern San Diego

SOHO, Save Our Heritage Organisation

Ron May

Lotta Livin’

Special thanks to Jaye Furlonger.  Photos, newspaper clippings, and insight on the Peterson Residence.

And Dionne “Back To The Future” Carlson.