Art Deco Treasure Demolished
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Last month, a derelict building on 12th and Broadway in downtown San Diego was demolished by its current owner, the Salvation Army. San Diego's Save Our Heritage Organization requested historic designation for the art deco building, designed by internationally known designer Walter Teague, but was refused by the City Attorney's office. We discuss the regulations relevant to historic preservation.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. People interested in preserving San Diego's older buildings got some very bad news at the end of August. An art deco style building on the corner of Park Boulevard and Broadway was torn down. It was – stood at that location since about 1936. The property is now owned by the Salvation Army. As distressing as the demolition was for preservationists, they say the legal process leading up to it was equally disturbing. And they have some lingering questions about why this property was allowed to bite the dust. I’d like to welcome my guests. Bruce Coons is director of Save Our Heritage Organization, also known as SOHO. Bruce, good morning.
BRUCE COONS (Director, Save Our Heritage Organisation): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Major Henry Graciani is administrator of the Salvation Army Adult Rehab Center. Major Graciani, good morning.
MAJOR HENRY GRACIANI (Administrator, Salvation Army Adult Rehab Center): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Bruce, I’d like you to start out by telling us a little bit about this building.
COONS: Well, it was actually finished in 1937. It was build to promote the new Ford V-8. It was built as a companion in architecture to the Ford Building in Balboa Park. It was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, one of the most famous industrial designers. In fact, he invented the profession of industrial designer, and he was the first president and the dean of industrial designers. A local architect also worked on the project.
CAVANAUGH: Now, tell – describe the building if you can for us so maybe it reminds people that they used to drive past this all the time.
COONS: Yeah, a lot of people remember it as the Ford dealership but – until Pearson Ford moved out to Fairmount and El Cajon. It was one of our very, very best streamline moderne art deco buildings in San Diego. It had a big central tower, originally had black and jade colored tile on the outside. You know, round windows, and had kind of a – inside the main showroom was a kind of oceanliner art deco staircase that went up to the top. But it was a very prominent location. You know, couldn’t have been a better building. Teague’s designs are in museums all around the world. In fact, he designed radios, glassware, buildings. One of his radios is so sought after they go for almost $100,000 each now.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, looking at pictures of this Ford dealership building on Park Boulevard and Broadway, it doesn’t look like the kind of building that the Save Our Heritage Organisation usually works to preserve because it’s so streamlined. It looks rather modern. What is the significance of this building for San Diego?
COONS: Well, this one, because of the direct of influence of Ford’s designer, which was, you know, of their major buildings, which was Walter Dorwin Teague, it’s of international importance. This is, you know, one of the very finest buildings. Most towns don’t have any Walter Dorwin Teague buildings and we had two, this one and the Ford Building in Balboa Park, and here. It is a sight, if it would’ve been properly restored, that people would’ve came from around the world to see.
CAVANAUGH: Now how many significant art deco pieces of architecture does San Diego have?
COONS: We have probably fewer than a dozen really great commercial structures. There’s some more deco houses and there’s other derivations, the Egyptian Revival and other things that we do have. But…
CAVANAUGH: Now, was there some effort underway to get this building designated as historic?
COONS: Well, we’d contacted the city six years ago with the information about this building and how important it was and we were told that, oh, it would go through the process and we didn’t have to worry about trying to designate it separately.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So how does that process usually work?
COONS: Well, usually when – if a demo permit comes up, it goes through a 45 year review, which this one did start out right. It was noticed. We wrote back in and said this is the building that we’ve been talking about for the last 5 years at that time. And we, you know, gave the information out again, and we expected that it would go through the process as normal or we’d be notified that it wasn’t going to go through the process.
CAVANAUGH: So you were basically just waiting for an answer from the city, is that right?
COONS: Right. And then we’d be able to present our evidence and, hopefully, the city would be able to convince the owner to keep the building. If not, then we’d have a chance to talk to the owners.
CAVANAUGH: So how did you find out that this building was, indeed, going to be demolished?
COONS: It was at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, our members a dozer breaking through the eastern wall. Now apparently the demolition had been going on inside for a couple of weeks before that but we didn’t know about that. Of course, we couldn’t contact – We tried to contact everybody from the mayor’s office and CCDC on down and nobody was in, naturally.
CAVANAUGH: And this was the last weekend in August. It just happened a couple of weeks ago.
CAVANAUGH: Did your group make some kind of last ditch effort to maybe stop what was happening?
COONS: Well, we – Like I said, we called everybody including the city attorney’s office and we had our, you know, attorney call the city attorney’s office, you know, but by – They worked again on Saturday. By Monday, there was only a partial of the front façade left…
COONS: …and so…
CAVANAUGH: Right. I’m speaking with Bruce Coons. He’s director of Save Our Heritage Organisation. We’re talking about the Ford dealership building which used to stand on the corner of Park Boulevard and Broadway, the fact that it was possibly – was being reviewed as a possible historic site. It was torn down a couple of weeks ago. And I want to bring in Major Henry Graciani into the conversation because he’s the administrator of the Salvation Army Adult Rehab Center and the Salvation Army now owns that property, owns that location. How did – I don’t want you to be the villain in this piece, Major Graciani. I want you to tell us how you got this building in the first place and what kind of condition it was in.
MAJOR GRACIANI: My understanding, I’ve only been here a couple of months, was recently assigned here. But in 1996, the Salvation Army purchased that property to further its work, to help men and women rebuild their lives. And from what I understand, back when it was purchased in 1996, it had a – basically was ininhabitable (sic). It was not in condition for – to move into. We had never really utilized the facility as far as a building. We used the exterior parking lot. My understanding was that it was not inhabitable at the time. When I got here a couple of months ago, certainly there was no roof. It was infested with bees. Not a facility that, in my mind, could be utilized effectively to enhance the work of the Salvation Army which is to enhance the lives of men and women. And so I appreciate this information and, certainly, we are saddened to hear of this, and the Salvation Army comes into a community specifically and only to enhance a community, to help those who need help and to partner with other agencies whether it be a city or businesses, individuals, to help men and women rebuild their lives. And so this is really unfortunate to hear after, you know, we’d been going through this process and to hear now that it could’ve been a historic facility or something like that. Certainly appreciate the knowledge but I’m saddened because the Salvation Army comes into a community, we’ve been here for decades…
MAJOR GRACIANI: …and simply to enhance a community, simply to help people, simply to help, be it cradle to grave, men and women, children, adults, seniors to better their lives.
CAVANAUGH: What does the Salvation Army want to use this location for now?
MAJOR GRACIANI: Well, again, being here a couple of months, that still has not been determined yet. We had been using it just simply exterior for parking…
MAJOR GRACIANI: …because, as I mentioned, the building itself was ininhabitable (sic). So we have not really determined what the plan is for that facility just yet but from what I understand, the permit process started two years ago through a company contractor we hired and my understanding is that it worked its way through. We finally got the green light. And as Bruce mentioned, we started work on the interior and then worked our way out to the exterior of the facility.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’m wondering, Bruce, when a facility – when an organization, whether it’s a commercial company or a organization like the Salvation Army acquires a building that is so – has been left to deteriorate to that extent where it’s – the roof is caved in, it’s inhabited by bees, what – how much would it take to restore a building to a point that, you know, it would be usable and workable and do businesses find that that’s cost effective?
COONS: Well, you know, usually they do. But in this case, the Salvation Army themselves removed the roof a couple of years ago.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
COONS: And so allowed the rain to get inside, but it was a very durable building. It was a poured concrete building with a steel frame. So it could’ve easily been restored. We were told at one time that they were looking at selling the property, you know, a couple of years ago when the process did start but for a new project.
CAVANAUGH: If a building does not have a historic designation in any way, where people are thinking maybe yes, maybe no, how eager are commercial operators to come in, you know, to buy such a building and turn it into a business considering all the restoration costs that they’re going to have to endure?
COONS: Well, it depends. It depends. You know, obviously a builder that’s looking at building a new project and scraping the site’s not too excited about it but we hope to enlighten them, you know, particularly now. It’s only the historic buildings that are selling in that area of downtown. It has to have something special to bring people down there. And so it’s an incentive to do the project. And there’s been quite a few really good ones. You’re talking about the ballpark in particular, we have 11 historic buildings that were included in the ballpark, and I think everybody thinks that’s a success. That area would not be the kind of success that it is without the historic buildings. It’s becoming the natural extension of the Gaslamp Quarter.
CAVANAUGH: I know that a very crucial part of this whole story about the Ford dealership building is the process that was involved, and let me get back to the process and asking you, Major Graciani, when did the Salvation (sic) request demolition on this property, if you know, and who did you ask?
MAJOR GRACIANI: Well, we hired a contractor and so typically we go to the contractor, the contractor approaches the city, I suppose, and we leave that to the corporation that we’ve hired. And so they’re professionals, you know. We’re in the business of helping rebuild lives so we hired this company, I believe, two years ago and so the process started two years ago. And so in terms of our expertise on what exact process we go through, we leave that to the professionals. Our expertise is helping the community, enhance the community…
MAJOR GRACIANI: …helping people in need.
CAVANAUGH: Did you – was the Salvation (sic) aware that the building was possibly of historic value?
MAJOR GRACIANI: No. No. And I think had – My understanding – I’ve been with the Salvation Army 20 years. You know, we come into a community, as I mentioned earlier, to enhance a community, to serve a community, and if we knew that back then, we would not have purchased that property. We look at expanding our presence only to expand our services. And a facility, we look at as a facility, not just as a building but how can that translate into helping lives? How can that facility help to rebuild a family, help a man get back on his feet, help a woman get back on their feet? Provide low income housing for senior citizens, provide food for those who are going hungry. So we did not know and, quite frankly, had we known we would’ve sought another property somewhere else.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Bruce, where do you see the fault here? What do you see happening in this particular situation that could’ve gone differently?
COONS: Yeah, and we’ve been working pretty well with the City and the CCDC and we had a number of agreements with them. This one broke down. Apparently there was the contractor or Salvation Army applied for a religious exemption for this property and at that point somebody in the City made the decision that it would no longer be processed in the normal fashion. That was wrong. Under CEQA, a potential historic site still has to go through the processing. And they said, well, the project was exempt because it was – said a parking lot on the original application but it’s not – Normally, a parking lot would be exempt from review but not when there’s the presence of a historic building and city staff did say that they believed that it was historic, of course. And at that point, there – they are supposed to notify us that it’s not going to go through a process, and then we get a chance to talk to the property owner and talk to the city and point out where that they’re wrong in the processing. We didn’t get the chance to do that.
COONS: If we’d got a chance to talk to the Salvation Army during this process, I think things would’ve turned out quite a bit different.
CAVANAUGH: So do you think that, indeed, that there was a miscommunication somewhere within the city departments?
COONS: They – they have said that they forgot to notify us. There’s no law currently that says they have to but that’s been the practice and it’s been a verbal agreement that we’ve had with them if they go against the decision that we’re expecting them – We were expecting them to go through the process, take this to the Historic Resources Board to determine its eligibility for listing in the local register and that didn’t happen.
CAVANAUGH: Now are you thinking of perhaps of formalizing that process in the future?
COONS: Yes. Yes.
CAVANAUGH: Short answer.
COONS: We need an ironclad notification process.
COONS: For everybody, so…
COONS: …the Salvation Army isn’t sitting in this situation next to me and we’re not here among…
CAVANAUGH: And is Save Our Heritage Organisation, are you also thinking of perhaps notifying these business owners, people who acquire possible historic designated properties, yourselves?
CAVANAUGH: Or would that be out of bounds?
COONS: That’s a little hard. But I think there needs to be a more formal notification of property owners that have properties that are 45 years or older, which come under review. That doesn’t mean – That’s less than 5% of the building stock in San Diego. It doesn’t mean they’re going to get designated. Far less than a fraction of 1% would ever qualify to be designated. But they do need to know if they have a building 45 years or older that it’s going to be reviewed to see if it is historic before any project can go forward.
CAVANAUGH: Talk to us a little bit more about the religious exemption in the historic designation because I wasn’t aware of that and I’d be interested to hear your take on it. First of all, tell us what it is.
COONS: Well, there’s what – it’s called the Willie Brown Law, was, you know, for…
CAVANAUGH: Former Speaker?
COONS: Yeah, the former Speaker of the California Senate, I believe.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, yes.
COONS: Or the House.
CAVANAUGH: Assembly, yes.
COONS: Assembly. And it was passed that exempts religious organizations who have properties that are determined to be essential to promoting the religious values and the education would be exempt from the California – most California processes including historic designation.
CAVANAUGH: So if a, let’s say a church wanted – had a beautiful, beautiful church and for some reason it was, you know, it was historic, it was 100 years old, and they wanted to tear it down, they just could?
COONS: Pretty much, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. I didn’t know that.
COONS: And it’s happened. There was one, a beautiful one on Park Boulevard which they exempted from the process. However, it doesn’t exempt them from the California Environmental Quality Act and in this case if the building’s already determined to be historic, they still have to go through the process and that just means they can’t receive local designation.
CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line who wants to join the conversation. Alana is calling from Old Town. Oh, okay, sorry. She couldn’t stay on the line. She says the Salvation Army requested nonhistoric regulation. Does that ring a bell with you, Bruce?
COONS: I’m not sure exactly.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, maybe Alana will call back. I want to ask you, Major Graciani, if, indeed, in retrospect – you have said a number of times during our conversation that your, you know, if you had been aware that it was in this process that perhaps the Salvation Army wouldn’t have even bought the building. But is there anything else along the line as this process went on that you’re thinking that maybe – maybe could’ve been handled differently or that the Salvation Army might process as it goes into acquiring other properties down the line?
MAJOR GRACIANI: Certainly we can use every property acquisition, every program expansion as an opportunity to learn how we can better ourselves and better the whole process. And, certainly, there’s something we can learn from this whole process. But I think, you know, I couldn’t speculate in terms of if we had this piece of information or that piece of information, things would’ve panned out differently. What I can say is, you know, we certainly are open to work with anybody. I mean, the Salvation Army doesn’t work in a vacuum. We exist because we have generous donors that support the Salvation Army and we come to this community just to make it better.
MAJOR GRACIANI: And the city, I believe, has that intention. I think both your folks have that intention. How can we enhance the life of our citizens in San Diego and outlying communities? And so certainly there’s some things we can take away from this to learn how we can better the whole process and, really, that’s true of anything, right. In our own personal lives, we go through a process and we hit, you know, some bumps along the road and say, well, how can we make that better next time? And we will definitely do that. But I just wanted to reiterate that the Salvation Army is saddened by this whole process and – but know that it was our intention back when the purchase – building was purchased that it was a good value and it sat right across the street from our facility and allowed us some additional expansion room.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Bruce Coons, you’ve said that the Salvation Army still has to comply with environmental tests before they get to build their parking lot or whatever will be the future for this particular site, and it sounds, from what I’ve read, that you’re going to make sure that they dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ in this process. Is there just a little feeling that, you know, there was some, oh, I don’t know, that this was a little bit fast and loose for one reason or another and you want to make sure that the process is seen through to the end?
COONS: Well, I think any time we want to make sure the process is – I don’t know that we’re particularly trying to emphasize this more than the others. But it’s important – this is also a very important archeological site, one of the biggest mansions of our earliest period downtown was on the site before the dealership. The owner of the stagelines is a big French – our best French mansard mansion was on this site so the archeology’s very important. And we also have agreements with the city and the CCDC on how archeology’s supposed to be handled. And that needs to be done before anything could be built there. Plus, we still have to resolve the issues with the process on this and we intend to pursue that to make sure that this can’t happen in this way…
CAVANAUGH: And how are you going to pursue that? What’s the – What are the steps involved that?
COONS: Well, we’re reviewing it. Our attorneys are reviewing it with the city attorney right now to make sure that this can’t happen again and to make sure the proper decisions – We think that the wrong decisions were made in this case, not only the notification but the process that they chose to follow was in error. And so we’ve got a lot of work to do with the city over the next few months.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like it. And so it sounds like, Major Graciani, you have a property that not only the surface building was of interest but what’s underneath the building is also of interest. So it looks like it’s going to be a while before you see your property coming up on that site.
MAJOR GRACIANI: Well, we’ll see how things play out but certainly, again, we want to work with all the parties interested and we have a professional contractor. We’re trusting him…
MAJOR GRACIANI: …based on his knowledge and his expertise. He’s licensed. And we’ll continue to work with him and we’ll see how things play out.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed. Now before we go, Bruce, I do want to ask, this is a slightly happier note. You’re working on getting national park designation for a local resource. Tell us about that.
COONS: Well, Rancho Guejito, we’re working with most of the environmental groups in the region and the County Board of Supervisors. Rancho Guejito’s over 22,000 acres of pristine California dating – it looks just like it did back in the Rancho and the Spanish periods, the only such property between here and Santa Barbara. It’s true…
CAVANAUGH: And where exactly is it?
COONS: It’s west of Lake Henshaw, south of Palomar Mountain, east of Escondido and north of San Pasqual. It’s really two valleys that are hidden, and even the ridge tops have no new development on it. There’s only one new house on the whole property. There’s a historic adobe and ruins of others and the largest stand of Engelmann Oaks in the world. And it’s just an incredible property and the reason nobody knows about it, there’s only one small private road that goes up the mountain and into these valleys and it’s small enough…
CAVANAUGH: And you’d like to keep it that way.
COONS: We would. It’s just, you know, California the way it was, you know, before the Americans came. So…
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both for clarifying an issue and both being so gracious about it. I do appreciate it. Bruce Coons, thank you.
COONS: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Major Henry Graciani, thank you.
MAJOR GRACIANI: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to combent – comment, that is, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to the first hour of These Days. Stay tuned for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.
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