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Old San Diego Police Headquarters

By Vonn Marie May

The old San Diego Police Headquarters on Harbor Drive at Pacific Highway is on the National Register of Historic Places. However, its fate remains unsure. For the last three years a diligent battle has been fought by the San Diego Police Historical Association along with SOHO. One good thing, the building still stands. Since the departure of the police department in 1987, the structure, under the stewardship of the Port District, has not been maintained or appropriately used. But not to worry, the building is so well constructed it could withstand an earthquake and other forces of man and God. Although as resolute as this forgotten citadel appears, those of us involved in its preservation, and hopefully its adaptive re-use, grow old waiting for the powers-that-be to perceive it as an asset instead of a load of concrete in need of removal.

On a visit to San Diego in 1999 for the National Main Street Conference, President Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation asked local preservationists to show him historic sites that were in imminent peril. We took him to the Headquarters and as we walked into the wonderful courtyard, in a matter of seconds he scoped the site and asked, "Don't they get this?" To which I responded, "NO."

Built in 1938, the Headquarters is an excellent example of eclectic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Master architects, Charles and Edward Quayle and Alberto Treganza teamed with M.H. Golden Construction and produced one of the finer buildings to come out of the post late depression era. Funded in part by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, it keeps company with the County Administration Center, San Diego State University, the 1935 California Pacific Expo, and other city and county improvements inspired by the time.

The site served as the main headquarters for the San Diego Police Department in a rapidly growing city and was referred to as 'Central'. In the department's century-plus history, they held residence in this building for nearly half that time. The San Diego Police Historical Association was formed primarily for the purpose of saving 801 Market (its historical address and a term of endearment by the cops). Their tandem mission is to provide the public with a museum of crime fighting, and while acquiring and curating historical objects, they know that the Headquarters is the chief artifact. "Just to save the building intact is all we want", says Museum Director, Officer Steve Willard, "We don't mind what uses go in there, as long as we know it'll be saved".

Token gestures have been floated in the past from potential developers and the Port. They offered to save the tower by moving it, or save some of the façades and stick them onto a new development, or better yet, demolish the whole thing, or relocate and reconstruct it. Is that any way to treat a landmark? Again I say NO. What we have here is an institutional complex of interconnected buildings arranged in a rectangle around an interior courtyard. The complex is presented in five basic volume units that depart one from another in ornament (styles range from Churrigueresque to Pueblo Deco) and detail, as well as in function, but circulate within as a singular facility. The five units are the Garage, the Assembly/Gymnasium, the Courts, the Jail, and the front administrative public area at the signature arched entry and tower. Each unit is unique enough to stand alone, yet, collectively, create a highly distinct complex.

Sometimes preservation takes time and this issue has occupied a lot of time, to be sure. The Headquarters has appeared on SOHO's endangered list for the last three years, it has become one of our perennials. Something will come from all the hard fought effort. SOHO wants to support an inspired and complete preservation project that honors both the historical relevance and architectural merit of this significant cultural resource....and finally be able to....YES.

2001 - Volume 32, Issue 3

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