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Obituary: Bertha B. Mitchell House

By Beth Montes

Bertha Mitchell House

SOHO files


Another tragedy has unfolded in the City of San Diego. It was completely preventable, desperately opposed, and absolutely unnecessary. The 1904 Bertha B. Mitchell House was, until the last fortnight, located at 2720 4th Avenue, at Nutmeg. One of three surviving triangular parapet structures, the home was a Hebbard & Gill masterpiece; designed in the English Country Manor variant of the Craftsman style the firm utilized with great skill from about 1896-1907. The Bertha Mitchell House and the Marston House were designed at the same time; the similarities are self-evident, though the Mitchell House was one of the few all brick (clinker brick, no less) structures from the period.

Mrs. Mitchell and her son, Lt. Dewitt Mitchell, were progressive philanthropists, and are remembered most for their large donations used to originate and fund the Legal Aid Society Trust, which became our current Public Defender's Office. Lt. Mitchell died young, at the age of 27 years, but Mrs. Mitchell occupied the property until the mid-1920's.

In 1928, the Terpezone Clinic opened in the house. The clinic was billed as a place which treated many ails, among them tuberculosis, bronchitis, laryngitis, asthma, hay fever, and whooping cough. Subsequent to the clinic's occupation, the building served as two restaurants, then a boarding house and apartment before becoming the Elk's Lodge in the 1950's. Unfortunately, after more than 70 years of creative reuse, the noteworthy home met its destruction at the hands of a developer with limited imagination and desire.

In 1991, SOHO recognized the building's tenuous position. The Elk's Lodge members had deferred maintenance on the structure for most of the nearly half century they had occupied the site, and were looking to sell and move on. SOHO submitted the house to the Historic Site Board for designation, but the Board voted to note and file, rather than designate after a misguided letter writing campaign undertaken by the Lodge members.

In the late 1990's, the Lodge entered into a long escrow with Mayfair, a developer which proposed tearing down the structure in order to build a 34 unit condominium building on a 30, 000 square foot lot spanning Nutmeg Street from 3rd to 4th Avenues. Again, SOHO attempted to stave off disaster by bringing the house forward for historic designation. This time in May 2000, against staff recommendation, the board voted to designate the site a local historic landmark. Mayfair went ahead and closed escrow on the site in June 2000, knowing full well the building had been designated historic.

Soon, Mayfair submitted documentation stating overriding public considerations and asking for a demolition permit even though the property was an historic landmark. These considerations being that the company claimed it couldn't make any money with the Mitchell House still on the site, and that the lot was zoned for fewer units than the current high-density climate would call for on that site. The Historic Resources Board, the Planning Commission, and the City Council all bought the arguments.

Once again there are no guarantees that the project will be built in a timely fashion or even built at all. How many of San Diego's grand old homes have been destroyed to make way for projects which never manifested themselves? Two come immediately to mind, the Irving Gill house formerly at First & Robinson and the Julia Dent Grant House, designed by William Sterling Hebbard, formerly at 6th and Quince.

The council's concerns could have been addressed by the St. Paul's Center's proposal. St. Paul's Center offered to buy the Mitchell House from Mayfair. They would reimburse Mayfair for the original purchase price of the lot and any expenses they had incurred in the pursuit of their condominium project. And, St. Paul's Center would have saved the house, and reused it; most likely for the very senior housing council is seeking.

San Diegan's must ask themselves how much longer they will allow travesties such as this to continue? Think about it the next time you drive by the corner of 4th and Nutmeg. References: 1) Oral interview with Erik Hanson, November 17, 2001; 2) Historic report prepared by Alex Bevil, May 2000

2001 - Volume 32, Issue 4

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