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.

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.

Boulevard Memories: The Neon

A fellow Boulevard fan, Steve Freed–who grew up around The Strip–remembers El Cajon Boulevard as “a sea of

“Not only was it a sea of neon,” he said, “but it was animated neon.”

Frank The Trainman, though actually addressed on Park Boulevard, is poised in perfect view at the head of El Cajon Boulevard. Though the storefront attached to this sign was razed, the sign was preserved for the new structure.

This Wonder Weavers sign was among El Cajon Boulevard’s most appealing animated neons, said Steve Freed. Nowadays you can see the holes where the neon was held. But no neon today.

Steve Freed, 1977
Steve brought me some pictures from his photo album to scan and work on. This one was a bit tough to work with, but I included it here because the Magic Corner at Guaranty Chevrolet was a great piece of neon animation. That’s a neon outlined magician figure at the Magic Corner sign. He waved his magic wand.

No more magic at that corner. Just an ugly strip mall. The Guaranty Chevrolet building, now dilapidated, is a furniture store.

The undisputed queen of Boulevard animated neon, The Campus Drive-In Theatre.

S. Freed, 1982

Steve snapped this shot in 1982 just before The Campus Drive In’s final curtain. Although the Majorette was saved the mural and all the artwork associated with the scene surrounding the majorette was demolished. The neon outline of the mountains, campus buildings, and the letters no longer accompany the baton girl.

S. Freed, 1982

Said Steve: “Trees were grown to surrounded the sides of the movie screen because cars used to park and watch a movie from the street.”

S. Freed, 1982
Campus Drive-In Ticket Booth.

S. Freed, 1982
Side street to the ticket booth.

The Campus Drive-In Majorette today at College Grove Shopping Center. I took the liberty of cropping out the marvelous Mervyn’s back-lit plastic sign. She twirls away just a proudly as ever.

There’s not a lot to see at the site where the Drive-In once stood so dramatically.

There are small token neon majorettes sprinkled through the development to pay homage to what once stood there. But otherwise you’d have to say one old icon was replaced a new one. Starbucks.

Steve snapped The Layfayette Hotel in 1977. The neon was still intact.

Changes are due for the Layfayette as well. At one point it faced demolition. Then compromise. The facade was to be saved as a front for a behemoth high rise behind. That apparently is still the plan, except the height has been reduced, “Mitigated.” Let’s hope it works better than other completed hybrid projects around town.

The Red Fox Room at the Layfayette kept the neon.

Neon is coming back. Perhaps it will never again rival the glory days of the 1950’s, but neon is gaining favor once again. This is the new transit plaza on El Cajon Boulevard at Interstate 15.

Next: Boulevard Memories: Sights Then and Now. Comparing various Boulevard sites with “before” and “today” shots.

The Hinterlands

As the Boulevard stretches past La Mesa a different look emerges. Earthen roadside, orange trees and pepper trees.

Interstate 8 seems to lop off one stretch of The Boulevard into a lonely and not particularly busy stretch of road.

A Motel is about all there is on this sliver of The Boulevard.

The Boulevard winds below the Interstate then dips into El Cajon.

On the El Cajon stretch of The Boulevard is one of the last old motor and trailer camps. Under the shade of pepper trees.

Little Sweden

Perhaps the area between Utah Street and 28th Street isn’t enough real estate to be called Little Sweden, but there are a number of structures there built by San Diego’s Swedish community.

Dance Halls were popular teenage hangouts in the 1930’s. Of the many venues in San Diego, Vasa Hall at 3094 El Cajon Boulevard was among the most popular. Here on any given Friday and Saturday night the joint was hoppin’ with Jive, Boogie Woogie, and The Lindy.

I remember when Bit Of Sweden at 2850 El Cajon Blvd. was open for business. I probably ate there. It is now a banquet facility for rent. And sometimes it is also referred to as Vasa Hall or Club.

Sweden’s three crowns; entrance to Bit Of Sweden.

Two other businesses associated with the Swedish community are Rudford’s and the former Gustafson’s Furniture.

The Gustafson Furniture building was in use until a few years ago. Allowed to sag and crumble. There’s a trend to tear down and replace with a similar looking structure. A bit of a compromise between preservation and tasteless development. Although a nice gesture, the Gustafsons replacement seems a bit sterile. Condos replaced the retail space shown above.

Pizza Pie, Chicken Pie and Chicken

Leonardo’s Pizza is the best. “Who sezez? I sezez,” ‘sez’ Tony.


Now hold on. Uncle Jonni argues Uncle Joe’s has the best pizza pie.

Uncle Joe’s. But…under new management since my encounter with Uncle Jonni. Reviews however are good.

No essay of The Boulevard is satisfactory without these two major icons. The water tower and San Diego Chicken Pie Shop. There are legions and generations of San Diegans in testimony that the chicken pie dinner is the cheapest and most satisfying comfort food experience on the planet.

Gone forever. At attention at Keith’s Chicken In The Rough at 32nd and El Cajon. 1939.

I suppose the balloon is a nice try. But not even close to the charm of that old diner. Church’s has a following in San Diego because Hall of Fame Padre Tony Gwynn is part owner.

Headwater and Delta

Frank The Trainman, since 1946. The store at this location on Park Boulevard at the headwater of where El Cajon Boulevard begins was replaced by a credit union building. The neon sign was preserved and remains in various states of repair and operation today. The following blog details one memory of the old store. http://www.ogaugewatch.com/ogaugewatchcom/2006/02/frank_the_train.html

Originally a Piggly Wiggly Shopping Center. It is the hinge, so to speak, of The Boulevard’s front gate. The Boulevard is stilled signed “Business Loop Interstate 8.”

I first described The Boulevard as San Diego’s version of the Mother Road. A term associated with Route 66. I’ve discovered the actual nick name. Old U.S. Highway 80, which The Boulevard was a leg of, was known as The Broadway of North America. Commissioned in 1926 until 1964, U.S. 80 ran from San Diego to Tybee Island, Georgia. Indeed, a road rivaling Route 66.

Heading east, The Boulevard’s delta is Main Street of El Cajon. Colorful jazz musician statues herald your arrival to Main Street and The East County Performing Arts Center.

From El Cajon heading west The San Diego stretch of U.S. 80 went from Main Street to El Cajon Boulevard to Washington Street onto Cabrillo Freeway (co-signed with U.S. 395) through Balboa Park to downtown San Diego and Market Street to terminus at U.S. 101, Pacific Highway.

Anyone up for a road trip? Reconnect old U.S. 80. http://www.gbcnet.com/ushighways/US80/index.html

Happy Hour

It is drinkin’ time on The Boulevard

The gals at Crickets Cocktails

“Hey Bartendah…” turn your sign around.

Drink ‘Em at the T P Lounge.

“Midnight at the Oasis. Bring your camel to bed.”

Second Wind. Of course.


And more liquor.

Rust ‘N’ Dust

The Boulevard is a stream of constant change. An ever present “pardon our dust” sign.

Dust. The Desert Inn, photo circa 1980. A loss of Boulevard neon around College Avenue second in importance only to the loss of the Campus Drive-In Theatre.


Dust. This Streamline Moderne dinner night club. It spent its last days as a Chinese Buffet before being bulldozed.









Dust. Chuck Wagon Restaurants. There were three. Pacific Highway, Midway Drive and El Cajon Blvd.  The Chuck Wagon on Midway Drive was the largest. Besides the expansive downstairs eating area, there was a “Longbranch Saloon,” and the “Gaslamp Room.” Both sections featured live music and entertainment. Most remembered performer, Dr. Michael Dean, the hypnotist. Then a local talent at the time Regis Philbin mangaed the Gaslamp Room in the 1960’s.









Of the three only the Pacific Highway structure remains. Look for it if you will, but it bears no resemblance to its glory days pictured above.

Rust. Old mechanic’s shop.

Rust. A closed Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream store. Windows blacked out and thoroughly “decorated.” (Apologies here to Mr. Hitchcock.)

Rust and Dust–must be. The proprietors descended upon me and the camera like Britney’s bodyguards. “You can’t take pictures here!” They called the police. I said “Good! I’ll be happy to hear the policeman say I can use a camera here on the side walk.” The police said as long as I’m not on private property or pointing my lens into someone’s window, I have every right to shoot pictures on a public street.  The man calmed down and disappeared. But the wife was unrelenting even after the police had left. Weird, huh?

Rust. The Boulevard is a gallery of faded, rusted signs and skeletons of signs.

Dust. Remaining portion of State Theatre’s terrazzo.

Detail, State Theatre terrazzo.

State Theatre and its space needle spire.

State Theatre Interior.

State Theatre snack bar.

Dust. The very first Jack In The Box, 63rd and El Cajon Blvd. Dull, bland commercial architecture is there now.

All is not rust or dust fortunately. The outstanding Featheringill Mortuary and Fairlane Cleaners do survive at 63rd and El Cajon Boulevard.

Keeping “Kewl”

Kids of The Boulevard.

Staying “kewl” on a summer’s day.

Being “kewl.”

Kewl and on the move.


Grand Breakin’ Master.

The Boulevard as play yard.

81º at 7 p.m. Being “kewl” in sweats.

“It’s not called a scooter. It’s a RAZOR.”