The YMCA building in the distance remains. MTS buses look different. And the Art Deco bowling alley across the street is long gone.
It is one of San Diego’s most familiar landmarks. The regal Art Deco Streamline Moderne Fat City building located at 2137 Pacific Highway. It is home to Fat City Bar and Steakhouse, China Camp (now closed), and Denny’s. Its owner, Tom Fat, renown restaurateur and prominent figure in San Diego’s Asian Pacific Islander community, passed away in 2007 at age 66. Some four years later the landmark building that is/was home to his highly successful eateries appears headed for demolition.
Tom Fat took over the boarded-up site in 1977 and brought the classic art deco complex back to its former glory. He practiced sustainability before anyone even heard about it. That trait was likely learned from his father Frank Fat. In 1939, Tom’s father took over a run-down building in Sacramento, only a block from the Capitol building, and turned it into the celebrated Frank Fat’s restaurant.
The restoration and remodeling took nearly 3 years. The crowning touch was the installation of a mile of neon–certainly San Diego’s most wonderfully opulent neon showcases. A richly colorful and now rare art form. Tom Fat paid homage to an elegant era of design by bringing back this building’s flamboyance and flair.
Tom Fat’s great work earned him a 1981 Orchid Award–one of San Diego’s highest architectural honors. Fat City’s neon art and architecture became feature articles in San Diego Magazine, Designer’s West, Times Magazine, Lighting Dimension, and the Smithsonian Neon Art photo magazine.
The restaurants helped energize the restaurant scene of all downtown. The Fat City Steakhouse became ground zero for power lunches and dinners where local leaders were known to gather. Tom Fat was highly involved in and dedicated to the community. He was close to elected representatives, and many called upon him for advice.
Our research is still in progress. But we know this Art Deco treasure was built between 1940 and 1942 as Big Top Restaurants. Then a few years later it was just known as Top’s. The early name most famously associated as proprietor was Yale Kahn. He and his brothers were sons of Russian Immigrants who instilled a sense of hard work in their children. Brothers Irvin, Henry and Julius Kahn made their mark in San Diego with real estate development in Clairemont, University City, Rancho Penasquitos, and Mira Mesa.
But Yale Kahn was a fulcrum around which all the major popular nightclub entertainment in San Diego spun. The San Diego Union stated â€œYale Kahn, a man whose knack for business earned him a spot in San Diego historyâ€ (San Diego Union November 8, 1959). Constantly in the news media spotlight during the 1950s, the Kahn brothers brought nationally and internationally famous performing acts to his restaurants and nightclubs and rubbed shoulders with politicians and business people throughout the region.
At Top’s Nightclub Yale brought in top stars of the day. Nat King Cole, Shelley Winters, Nelson Eddy, Van Johnson, Don Ameche, Susan Hayward, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, to name a few. He made Top’s an entertainment capitol in San Diego.
Yale Kahn also ran the Texas Liquor Houses, the Roaring 20’s Nightclub on Fletcher Parkway in El Cajon, the nightclub in the Clairemont Bowl and Bradley’s (restaurant and nightclub) at Horton Plaza in the mid 1950s, making entertainment available to families. But one of Kahn’s most popular venues were the Chuck Wagon Restaurants in San Diego–most notably the Midway Chuck Wagon with its Gaslamp Room.
The Midway Chuck Wagon and Gaslamp Room drew enormous crowds to see such famous entertainers as Louis Prima, Billy Daniels, Shelly Berman, Mort Saul, and Dr. Dean (hypnotist). Regis Philbin worked there as a Master of Ceremony.
Some common links between Tom Fat and the Kahn Brothers. They all stood in high esteem in the eyes of politicians and business people in the San Diego Region. Top’s night club attracted both political and business leaders, just as Fat City Steakhouse did years later. This magnificent structure stands as witness to their noble efforts, these exemplary business leaders in San Diego history.
Tom Fat once told an interviewer: “I have learned, through the years, that I am my father’s son. He had an immense influence over everything I’ve done. Foremost was giving back to the community, which Fat had done since coming to San Diego in 1976 to expand his family’s business.
Yale Kahn and his brothers built the Circle Arts Theater on Kearny Mesa. It was a dome shaped fine performing arts center, a theater in the round. They were also admired philanthropists with United Way and the United Jewish Fund.
As a business and community leader, Tom Fat served or chaired numerous organizations, boards and task forces, including the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, Super Bowl Host Committee, San Diego Restaurant Association, San Diego Foundation, San Diego Film Commission, Little Italy Association and Asian Business Association, which he helped found. He was also instrumental in expanding the Kyoto Laureate Symposium Series, held here annually.
But of all the things that mattered most in Tom Fat’s life, San Diego’s Asian Pacific Islander community came first. They saw Tom Fat as its heart, soul and, in some ways, its conscience.
The legacies of Yale Kahn and Tom Fat are intimately linked with the superb Art Deco building at 2137 Pacific Highway. And it will be demolished for the above. For THAT!
At a time when we should be observing and utilizing the best practices in sustainability, we continue to burden our rapidly shrinking landfills with huge amounts of demolition rubble of grand historic buildings such as Top’s/Fat City. Evaporating their embodied energy.
This senseless disregard for history–and of such compelling legacies–is something that is almost sickening to try and describe. The feeling you get when you hear about someone taking a hammer to a rare museum sculpture, a knife to a beloved painting, book burnings, or using antiquities for target practice. What words can accurately describe a mindset that doesn’t value our past, the memories of those who came before us, or the cultural riches we inherit?
At this point we are gathering our research to help defend this important historic resources. For now, be aware and outraged this project is even being considered. We will track this development to make sure it goes through the process properly. That the Historical Resources Board has a chance to weigh in, and that feasible alternatives to demolition are properly studied.
Your comments to this posting will be valuable to submit as part of the public dialog, so please don’t hesitate to speak up here. It will help send a message to save this building.
Save Our Heritage Organisation’s May Day at Balboa Park’s Marston House Museum. A crowd gathers at the formal garden awaiting refreshments at the tea garden.
There was live music at the tea garden and at various areas of the grounds.
From the tea garden toward the residence, the geranium show on the other side of the hedge draws a throng of flower and gardening enthusiasts. A feature of the day’s fare was “ask the experts,” a chance to speak with and learn from master gardeners.
The geranium has come to symbolize George Marston’s legacy. He represents a choice of beauty and geraniums over soot and smokestacks.
An array of exclusively grown geraniums were for sale, including the popular “Geranium George.” Geranium sales for the day were brisk.
Dedicated enthusiastic volunteers are among the hallmarks of SOHO’s success operating the Marston House Museum. Meet Jeannette Dutton. Besides being a long time SOHO member, Jeannette is very involved in the San Diego Floral Association, Friends of the Marston House, and the Marston House May Day committee.
May Day at the Marston House featured an amazing gathering of plein-air painters and their art. Following are many of the talented artists and samples of their outstanding work.
The Marston family members on hand to enjoy the day’s festivities. Peg and Ann Marston.
Besides the art show, there was an array of exhibits and displays. This table featured the Women’s History Museum.
Here is the San Diego Bee Keeping Society.
Two highlights of the day. First was a City proclamation spoken by Councilmember Todd Gloria honoring artist Suzy Spafford and her renown work “Suzy’s Zoo.” The other big May Day moment was a release of hundreds of monarch butterflies.
Sarai Johnson prepares to release a large basket full of monarch butterflies.
Children loved lending a helping hand.
Adults also enjoyed the butterflies–and some became adorned with them.
The success of the first annual May Day at the Marston House points to even more fun and festivities next year.
Proceeds from the event go to restoration of the Marston House Museum and gardens.
There’s always lots going on with SOHO. Please visit SOHOsandiego.org
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
What a fun night it was. Here is a look back at the evening through pictures and quotes from those who were part of the sell out premiere.
Ticket sales seemed kind of slow to me at first. But a lot of times people don’t make up their minds until its very close to the date. None the less I was still concerned.
Then came this story on the front page of the Uptown News written by the wonderful Ann Jarmusch. That was a big help.
Then on March 21, 2010 there was a record turn out for SOHO’s Annual Historic Home Tour. Many visitors took with them from a large stack copies of the Uptown News with a Premiere flier attached.
Then on the afternoon on March 29, it was official–all tickets had been sold.Â photo Maggie McCann
It never occurred to me people would want autographs! Here I’m with Todd Pittman and David Marshall. photo Glen Davis
The evening was special for many reasons. Here old friends and neighbors from school days Frank and Kathy Luxem made the trip all the way from OC. I hadn’t seen them in decades!Â photo Glen Davis
The event was attended by San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria. photo Glen Davis
Friend and former San Diego Deputy City Attorney Alex Sachs. photo Maggie McCann
David Swarens and Barry Hager at the wine and cheese reception before the show. photo Maggie McCann.
Architect John Eisenhart foreground, Rufus Quail in the background. Maggie McCann
Victor Santana and Kensington’s Celia Conover photo Maggie McCann
Ron May, Stephen Whitburn, Councilmember Todd Gloria
Signing still more autographs! photo Maggie McCann
Introducing the film.Â photo Glen Davis
SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons, SOHO Director of Events and Education Alana Coons.Â It was their faith in the project and putting the resources of the organization behind promoting the event that made it such a successful evening. photo Maggie McCann
I also got a big help from Ann Garwood and Nancy Moors who promoted the film in HillQuest.Â photo Maggie McCann
Dale May looking great.Â Architect Paul Johnson in the background.Â photo Maggie McCann
Ernie Bonn, the champion of bringing the University Heights Library to the Teacher’s Annex building next to the Ed. Center.
photo Maggie McCann
Roxanne GovariÂ Dan, your movie last night was outstanding. I am so Happy for you and for Our community to have such talent among us.
William PurvesÂ Dan congratulations on a terrific job well done! It really lays out the enormity of what SOHO has accomplished over the years; even liked the nice touch at the end of listing all the board members through the years, lest anyone get the idea these kinds of things happen by themselves! I hope this gets wide exposure for both SOHO and you.
Diane WelchÂ Hi Dan, it was great to see you in person last night Paul and I loved the SOHO documentary. It was inspirational, informative and entertaining. Two thumbs up from the Welchs!
Rd Riccoboni Â Congratulations on your film last night Dan! It was terrific!! What a great contribution to our local and state history! Thank you!
Todd GloriaÂ Â Congratulations on a terrific event last night Dan! I really enjoyed the film and learned a lot. Thank you for sharing your filmmaking talent with us and helping to educate more San Diegans about the importance of historic preservation.
Jack HettchenÂ Â Dan, very happy that I was able to come and see your fantastic production. Thanks for the great evening and the history lesson on SOHO and San Diego. You should be very proud !
Ron MayÂ Â Outstanding job, Dan! Really a wonderful production thar brought everyone together. There is nothing like it in existence and you should be incredibly proud.
Kristin Harms Â Congratulations, Dan, on a wonderful production and tribute to historic preservation in San Diego. Two thumbs up!
Veronica McGowan Â Brilliant – wonderful – marvelous
I did not think it would be as emotional an experience as it was for me
but Thank you thank you so much – awesome 40 year retrospect – wow.
Todd Pitman Â Dan … Great work….. Congratulations.
Ernie Bonn Great production, Dan, just don’t head to Hollywood, we need you here.
Don RudisillÂ Â Ruth and I went to Dan’s opening premier of his documentary, showing SOHO’s successes and opportunities missed from the last 40 years. AtÂ the beginning Dan came on stage and did a fine job of introducing his film. Dan had interviewed the many people important in the preservation movement and had them speaking, telling the story of how SOHO started. He kept our attention for a full hour. There was a good turnout for the event. The Old Town Little Theatre was almost full. He really is good at this.
The Ballpark redevelopment project. Originally it was touted as a way to get rid of a bunch of old warehouses. The only problem was, there’s a rich legacy of history and architecture in those old warehouses. SOHO helped educate both the public and the developer about the value of this historic district.
A development and preservation agreement was reached that allowed the redevelopment project to move forward while retaining and preserving 11 historic buildings in a 9 block area.Â It was one of the largest preservation agreements ever in the United States.
Western Metal Supply Co. and Petco Park. World renown architect Antoine Predock designed the stadium, but the most striking feature–and everyone talks about it–is the preserved Western Metal Supply Building. The idea of this particular adaptive reuse came from San Diego architect Wayne Donaldson.Â Technically the stadium is an modern addition to this historic building.
The 1916 Simon Levi Building preserved at its original site at 7th and J.
The neo classical Levi Wholesale Grocery Company, 1927. The later day Kvass Construction lettering has recently been replaced with the Simon Levi Company letters.
Power Station A.Â San Diego’s only neoclassical power station.Â It was dismantled years ago, but with the ball park agreement it was reconstructed.
Street view, Power Station A.
The Windows are original.
The 1920’s Kidd and Krone Auto Parts at 10th and J is now Pizza joint
Kidd and Krone Auto Parts window and door detail.
TR Produce building, 1933.Â The modern construction is suspended above, not attached, thus preserving TR’s roof and ceiling’s clerestory lighting.
Carnation Dairy Building, 1928- 1930.Â Although not a part of the ballpark agreement, it is covered under warehouse district design guidelines.
KOLBECK AUTO WORKS. This is not part of the Ballpark agreement, but it contributes to the overall character of the Historic Warehouse District and was historically designated by the San Diego Historical Resources Board by a vote of 8-0 on June 26, 2008.Â It’s located at 1220 J Street next to Rosario Hall. It is unique for the use of the long-span trusses on a short building. The Board designated it asÂ a good example of industrial vernacular architecture.
San Diego City Council, however, over turned the designation. SOHO is currently working with the owner so the site can be developed while saving the building at the same time. SOHO seeks the rightful reinstatement the historic designation as well.
This is one of the jewels of the Warehouse District, the Art Deco Fire Station, 1937.
It was built by the WPA and is slated to become a restaurant
Little Church, MexicanÂ Presbyterian. It dates from the turn of the previous century. Several denominations occupied the space before it became a residence.Â It awaits for a current redevelopment project at the site to begin before it is restored and utilized.
Mexican Presbyterian Church Window Detail
Rosario Hall, 1870.Â San Diego’s oldest saloon and meeting hall.Â Today home of The Mission restaurant.
Showley Brothers Candy Factory, 1924. It was preserved after being moved 280 feet.Â It was the largest brick building ever moved in the western United States. It is the same family ofÂ the Union Tribune’s Roger Showley. Original signage was recreated.
Schiefer and Sons Aeroplane Factory, 1917.Â Today a popular restaurant occupies the ground floor.
Bledsoe Company Furniture Warehouse, 1925. Note the large flap hinge doors.
The Western Wholesale Drug Company Warehouse. 1927
San Diego’s Historic Warehouse District is a model example of how redevelopment can work hand in hand with historic preservation.
San Diego was able redevelop these 9 city blocks without destroying its identity. A great achievement for SOHO that is great for San Diego.