Preserving Heritage : Heroic Efforts Garner Prizes From SOHO

Times Staff Writer

Residents of a quiet South Mission Hills neighborhood say they used to shield their eyes from the sight of the old house at the end of their block.

"We never looked at it," John Stoup said. "It was so ugly."

Bobett Bersbach said she also thought it was one of the ugliest homes she had ever seen. But less than a year ago, she sold her La Jolla home and moved into the termite-infested house.

For six months, Bersbach, a real estate agent, sanded and painted the four-room Victorian home on Pioneer Place, some days from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

The dirty green paint came off. Black linoleum tiles and plywood paneling were removed. Exterminators were called.

The exterior became a bright yellow, period furniture and wallpaper were added to rooms, and the Douglas fir floor was restored.

The effort was an "extraordinary contribution to architectural preservation," of the 1906 home built by a Wisconsin farmer, said officials of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, a San Diego historic preservation society. For her efforts SOHO named Bersbach a winner Wednesday in its third annual contest.

The contest was established by the 560-member society to encourage the preservation of old homes and to educate the public on adaptive reuse of the homes, said president Mary Joralmon.

"We are trying to raise the profile of the architecture in San Diego County," Joralmon said. "This year there was a greater variety of entries than previous years."

Doug Austin, a judge of the contest and a local architect, said the five winning projects were chosen from about 30 entries because of the way they conveyed the spirit of the period. Each winner received a plaque, awarded at a dinner Wednesday night.

"All I wanted was one pretty room," said Bersbach, ensconced in a wicker chair in her living room. "Everything I had to work on became an obstacle."

One of the most difficult hurdles was finding an electrician willing to update the wiring in the house, she said.

"There was every kind of wiring possible in this house from all the different periods," she said. "I wanted it to be safe. But many of the electricians would see it and freak."

Bersbach said her search was eventually successful and the wiring has been updated.

"My advice to people who want to do this kind of thing is that they need a lot of patience and a good sense of humor," she said.

The latest addition to the home that now boasts details ranging from a rocking chair on the front porch to intricately patterned wallpaper, is a gas stove dating from the early 1900s. The entire project cost Bersbach $22,000.

Another award winner was the William Heath Davis house, the oldest house in downtown San Diego.

At Island Street and 4th Avenue, the house was imported from Portland, Maine, in 1850, by Davis, one of the early city planners, who envisioned a bay-oriented San Diego.

From 1867 to 1873, the two-story house was occupied by Alonzo E. Horton, the man who bought land in what is now downtown San Diego for 27.5 cents an acre in 1867.

The once-dilapidated structure, now owned by the city, has been transformed, with a finely detailed museum on the first floor and office space for the Gaslamp Quarter Council on the second floor. A basement was also added.

Photographs of Horton and members of his family hang in the parlor, which contains some of the home's original furniture. Worn Persian rugs line the four rooms and the hallway on the first floor.

Each of the first-floor rooms represents a different period of the house's history. The "County Hospital" room contains a hospital bed and medicine bottles that was used when the house served as the county's first hospital, from 1873 to 1881.

"We brought it back to its original condition and made it as historically accurate as possible," said Marc Tarasuck, the lead architect for the project.

Renovations on the New England "salt box" house cost $747,545 and took more than one year to complete, Tarasuck said. The city paid for slightly more than half, and the rest was paid by private fund-raising.

"It was more difficult to renovate than we had expected," he said.

Tarasuck said there had been extensive dry rot, and termite damage to the foundation wood. Steel beams were inserted and a new foundation was laid.

"Hopefully, it will stand for another 200 years," he said.

Other winners were the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in La Mesa, Graham Memorial Church in Coronado and the adaptive reuse of a brewery bottling plant on Hancock Street in San Diego.

SOHO's tour of the sites will be held Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information call SOHO at 297-9327.

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