Wedding Chapel Strikes Discord in Pacific Beach

Times Staff Writer

A tiny, turn-of-the-century wedding chapel, displaced in a multimillion-dollar renovation of the Catamaran Motor Hotel in Pacific Beach, is seeking a new home in Kate O. Sessions Park. But the move has sparked a controversy that has split beach community opinion cleanly down the middle.

The chapel, only 700-square-feet in size and seating snugly only about 50 wedding guests, sat on a palm-studded site on the grounds of the Catamaran and, for more than 25 years, was a popular site for weddings. It was moved off the hotel grounds two weeks ago to a vacant lot at Bayard Street and Grand Avenue so that construction could begin on a multilevel parking garage that is part of the Catamaran's renovation and expansion.

The city's Park and Recreation Board will hear the pros and cons of putting the chapel in the 70-acre municipal park at its 1:30 p.m. meeting today. It will have a 6-to-5 recommendation from its coastal area committee in favor of the move, and an equally split negative vote from the Pacific Beach Planning Group against putting the chapel in the park.

John Fry, president and founder of the Pacific Beach Historical Society and an active Pacific Beach Town Council member, admits that the issue of the chapel has the community at sixes and sevens, but he sides with the proponents of the move.

The chapel, he said, is the last remaining building of the Fred T. Scripps estate that occupied the Catamaran grounds until 1959, when the home was razed to make way for the hotel.

"It's all that's left of the old Scripps mansion and it seems a shame that we can't find a place and a use for it," Fry said. At the Scripps mansion, Braemar, built around the turn of the century, the chapel was the family dining hall and served as the community meeting hall in the early days, he said. It was the meeting site for the Pacific Beach Women's Club, one of the first such clubs in the county, and for the community Reading Club, an early-day literary society.

"Although it is not listed as a historic site, it has historical significance to the community, both as an early-day community hall and as a chapel where thousands of couples have been married," Fry said. "I doubt that there is anyone who has been around the city for five years or more who hasn't been a guest at one or more weddings at the chapel."

Vernon Taylor and his sister, Edna Taylor O'Brien, came to the rescue of the chapel in the nick of time, donating $8,700 and the resting place for the building. But the reprieve is temporary because the Grand Avenue lot where the chapel now sits is committed as a Christmas tree sales lot starting Nov. 15.

Ruth Smith, a 30-year community activist and member of City Beautiful, girded for battle when she heard of plans to place the little chapel smack in the middle of the Kate Sessions Park's grassy playing fields, an area that commands a breathtaking view of Mission Bay, San Diego's downtown skyline and south to Mexico and the Coronado Islands. The site now is occupied by a flagpole, put there by Smith and City Beautiful in 1962.

When she heard that Councilman Mike Gotch had proposed placing the chapel where her flagpole was, Smith went to the Coast Area Committee meeting last week determined that the proposal would pass "only over my dead body." She called in the Women's Club, the Garden Club and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars to help her in the battle. When the final committee vote came around, however, Smith became the swing vote that granted narrow approval to placing the chapel in the park.

"It would be placed in a different place, about 500 feet from the entrance and south of the drive in an area which is less popular as a picnic grounds and passive play area," Smith said. "And it would be nestled in a grove of trees, a pretty spot, but not one which would block anyone's view."

Smith hopes that, with the addition of the chapel building, the hillside park will be modernized with the addition of lights "and maybe even a telephone," which would aid in curbing the growing vandalism. If she had her way, however, the chapel would be placed in the 50 undeveloped acres of the park, which Smith and her cohorts "have been trying for 30 years to get developed so that people can use and enjoy the area."

Fry said that the Town Council membership also is of two minds about where the chapel should be placed. Originally, when Catamaran expansion plans were announced a year ago, "most of us felt that the building should be placed in a more centrally located place, where it could be used as a Town Council office and as a community building."

The Town Council had its eye on the Farnum Elementary School on Cass Street, a campus that had closed several years ago and was on the market. But, Fry said, a residential developer had proposed a residential project on the property that would yield the San Diego Unified School District an estimated $25 million in revenues over the next century, "so we figured we didn't have much of a chance because the district sorely needs the money."

The Town Council plan had been to convince the city to purchase the site as a community resource center for densely developed Pacific Beach, where the school buildings could have been converted to a child day-care center, senior citizens services, a community auditorium and other uses.

"The chapel would have been perfect there," he said wistfully.

The final decision on placement of the chapel in the park will be made by the City Council, city park officials said. Opposing the move are residents' associations surrounding the park and the Pacific Beach Planning Group, which generally favor preserving the open space and the view in the park and do not want any buildings there.

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