Architect Helmut Hahn's glitzy One Great American Plaza is about to rise out of a giant hole in the ground at Kettner Boulevard and Broadway in downtown San Diego. By 1991, the 33-story glass tower will dwarf the neighboring Santa Fe Depot, the city's only building by early 20th-Century California architects John Bakewell and Arthur Brown Jr., which is also the downtown's only Mission Revival masterpiece.
In the early '70s, it appeared the depot, completed in 1915, might be lost to "progress," instead of merely being overshadowed by it. A division of the Santa Fe Railway, owners of the property, wanted to replace it with twin 12-story office towers. At the time, the idea of historic preservation was in an embryonic stage in San Diego, and it was fortunate that the San Diego City Council moved to save the depot.
Much of the Grandeur Remains
Federal money was obtained for rehabilitation and today, the building has much of its original grandeur, even though in 1954 an asphalt parking lot replaced a wonderful outdoor waiting room facing Broadway, a significant loss to the overall effect.
A walk through the depot is inspiring. Yellow, green and blue ceramic tile wainscoting along interior walls uses both Moorish and Southwest Indian patterns, according to a scholarly paper written by San Diego historian Richard Carrico. Simple wood benches stretch in long lines across the red tile floor of the main waiting room. Arches curve high overhead, and, above them, a heavy network of wood beams supports the tile roof. Simple bronze and glass chandeliers are the epitome of the Mission Revival era, an earthy successor to the gaudiness of Victorian ornamentation.
The depot's only blemish is the trees in gigantic planters that clutter the entry and exterior sidewalks.
Amid the huge glass high-rises being built on lower Broadway, the depot seems a quiet wallflower, yet the building and its architects continue to exert a powerful influence on new designs.
The vaulted entry to the new Koll Center just up Broadway echoes the depot's entry arch. The Courtyard, a 40-story apartment high-rise planned for a site at G Street and First Avenue downtown paraphrases the depot more directly, as its architect readily acknowledges.
"First of all, Bakewell & Brown was one of the great California firms," said architect Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain & Pereira Associates in Los Angeles, designers of the 40-story tower.
"Arthur Brown Jr. is in many ways my favorite architect," Johnson said. "What I like about their use of the Mission Revival style is that it's environmentally responsive and aesthetically informal, yet the plan is very formal."
In lay terms, he means the building's straightforward materials and simple design, with many openings to the outdoors, makes people feel at ease, yet the layout of the building along a strong main axis, with a secondary entry axis intersecting it at 90 degrees, imposes strict order.
Johnson's San Diego high-rise design borrows the depot's twin towers and arches along two of its four street level facades. And it will have a rooftop dome reminiscent of both the depot's towers and the California Tower in Balboa Park, designed by Bertram Goodhue.
Bakewell and Brown were both educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in the 1890s. They learned a style of architecture with its roots in ancient Greece and Rome and the Classical Revival of the Renaissance.
Beaux Arts students were well-rounded, trained not only in design and architectural history, but in drawing and watercoloring. For many of them, including Bakewell and Brown, the French experience translated into classical designs built in the United States.
One of Bakewell and Brown's exemplary buildings is the San Francisco City Hall, with its Doric colonnade, elaborate dome and rich finish materials. The restrained Mission Revival style of the Santa Fe Depot is somewhat atypical, and can be attributed at least in part to their clients, the Santa Fe Railway.
Railroad companies gave Mission Revival architecture a high profile early this century by using it for train stations throughout the American Southwest. They found the romantic structures well-suited not only to the climate but to promotional efforts aimed at luring Easterners to sunny California.
Santa Fe, and other railroad companies, built Mission-style depots in Oakland, Davis, Berkeley, San Francisco, Modesto, Visalia, Porterville, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield, Tulare, San Bernardino, Stockton, Merced, Fresno and Sacramento, according to a book on Mission Revival by architectural historian Karen Weitze. Other key Mission-style depots were in San Antonio and Tucson.
The Santa Fe Depot was built near the end of the Mission Revival movement. During the '50s, '60s and '70s, many San Diego architects favored variations on stark modernism, most visible today in the downtown high-rises from that period. In the early '80s, some young architects experimented with postmodernism. Now, San Diego architects seem to be searching for a style more directly related to the region, and there's been a revived Mission Revival of sorts.
Sometimes, the resulting buildings are well designed, like Johnson's new downtown high-rise. Other times, they are mediocre collages of towers and tile and arches, seemingly assembled at random.
'Becomes a Beacon'
"I think these elements are appropriate for The Courtyard because it will be one of the tallest buildings in San Diego," Johnson said. "It becomes a beacon. If we can do it in as high a hand as possible, it seems to be a fair public symbol for San Diego.
"Mission Revival has the problems that any style or attitude about architecture has. In the wrong hands, it leads to meltdown. In California, there's as much bad as good Mission Revival. Some cities have even legislated it into architectural approvals. You have to have shed roofs, colorful tile, plaster walls. But that doesn't ensure high quality Mission style."
Successful use of Mission elements requires more than just the basic forms and materials. The true essence of Mission Revival is an attitude, a straightforward way of designing that requires a solid sense of proportions. To experience this first hand, today's architects need only visit the Sante Fe Depot.
DESIGN NOTES: Bruce Kamerling, the San Diego Historical Society curator and expert on architect Irving Gill, is keeping an office in Gill's historic Marston house on 7th Avenue as the society moves forward with restoration. Kamerling says at least one room should be open to the public by next spring and hopes it will inspire donations of arts-and-crafts style furniture. "We've had some pretty weird offerings, like a huge Victorian bookcase with carved curlicues and a head of Shakespeare." . . . San Diego architect Rob Quigley received mostly positive comments from residents of Sherman Heights in late July after presenting his initial design ideas for a planned new community center. Quigley staff architect Judy Clinton said people were especially interested in the landscaping, which may include creeping vines climbing over some exterior walls.