Architect Honored for Preservation : Award: Wayne Donaldson, hailed for work in Gaslamp, is named fellow of American Institute of Architects.


In recognition of architect Wayne Donaldson’s many efforts on behalf of historic preservation, the American Institute of Architects has named him a fellow, a prestigious honor bestowed annually on only a handful of architects.

San Diego City Architect Mike Stepner is the only other new fellow from San Diego this year. He and Donaldson and 121 of their peers will be inducted into the AIA’s College of Fellows at the AIA’s national convention in Boston in June.

Stepner and Donaldson bring to 22 the number of fellows from San Diego since 1965, the earliest record available.


As city architect since 1988, Stepner has become a familiar public figure by moderating forums, speaking and advising the City Council on important issues.

But, despite the best efforts of Donaldson and a few others, historic preservation still isn’t a high priority in San Diego, and Donaldson’s contributions remain relatively unfamiliar to the public.

Some shining examples of his commitment to historic preservation are in the Gaslamp Quarter, where Donaldson has probably had a hand in more preservation projects than any other San Diego architect.

He was the architect for the restoration of such Gaslamp Quarter landmarks as the Horton Park Plaza Hotel (formerly the Jewelers’ Exchange), the Horton Grand Hotel (actually two historic hotels reassembled on their current site) and the San Diego Hardware Building.

He is now working with developer Mike Kriozere, president of Urban West, to incorporate the old brick Citrus Soap Factory downtown into a 321-unit residential project known as CityFront Terrace.

Donaldson is also increasingly in demand outside San Diego. His largest out-of-town project is the reconstruction and expansion of Laguna Beach High School, in its original Mission Revival style.


But some of Donaldson’s most important work on behalf of preservation has been beneath the surface of buildings and behind the scenes in government and politics.

Time and again during the 1980s, he found innovative ways to make old buildings earthquake-safe. Often, he devoted months to convincing building code officials of the merits of his ideas.

When developers decided to transform the 10-story landmark Jewelers’ Exchange building at 5th Avenue and E Street into the Horton Park Plaza Hotel, they called on Donaldson.

Instead of gutting the building and giving it a new frame, as building codes suggested would be necessary, Donaldson found a way to retrofit, at a savings of $1.2 million. He retained original hollow clay tile walls, which left the exterior true to its original appearance.

On the same project, Donaldson, inspired by a tour of Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake there, showed state building inspectors a new way of looking at seismic safety.

In Mexico City, Donaldson had wondered why some buildings escaped quake damage while others perished. He concluded that damage depended on varied soil conditions and how close buildings were to fault lines.


So he persuaded the California Historic Building Safety Board to consider seismic safety by zones. Rather than adhering to stringent blanket requirements for San Diego, the Horton Park Plaza Hotel, opened in 1987, is seismically engineered for its specific site, which saved money.

“Wayne has few peers with his range, personal commitment and capacity to speak with authority,” said David Swarens, past president and board member of Save Our Heritage Organization. “This city is pretty lucky to have him.”

Added James Robbins, president of the San Diego AIA chapter, which has honored several of Donaldson’s projects over the years:

“I don’t think that anybody has made a more significant contribution to historic preservation in San Diego. He has been the heart and soul of the Gaslamp restoration.”

Donaldson, 48, lives preservation as well as talks it. For the past seven years, his offices have occupied a wide-open, loft-like space on the third floor of the circa-1926 San Diego Hardware Building. A conference room holds a pair of elegant Art Deco wall sconces from the Cabrillo Theatre, and large windows frame Victorian-era buildings outside.

At night, Donaldson goes home to a 1924 Craftsman bungalow in Mission Hills that he shares with wife Nancy and 10-year-old daughter.


Donaldson has served on countless committees related to historic preservation.

He has been involved with the Gaslamp Quarter since he started his own company in 1978 in partnership with San Diego architect J. Spencer Lake (they split after a year), in offices on Market Street downtown. He is a member of the state’s Building Standards Commission, Seismic Safety Commission and Historical Building Safety Board. Donaldson was also a member of the city’s Historical Site Board for five years during the mid-1980s, and he chaired the Gaslamp Quarter Council in 1982 and ’83.

Looking back, he regrets the demolition of such historic downtown buildings as the Cabrillo and Plaza theaters to make way for the Horton Plaza shopping center.

“We lost six buildings that were on the National Register” of Historic Places, he said. “I don’t think that would be allowed to happen today.”

He also regrets that Horton Plaza is closed off along 4th Avenue, contributing little in the way of foot traffic to the struggling Gaslamp.

“People can drive into that parking garage (at Horton Plaza),” he mused, “and never know we’re here” in the Gaslamp Quarter.

The selection of Donaldson and Stepner as fellows in the same year couldn’t be more ironic, since the two have opposing views on the city’s handling of a new historical preservation ordinance.


Stepner is spearheading a rewrite that could soften the strict rules of the ordinance originally drafted by veteran city planner Ron Buckley, long an ally of preservationists. Donaldson is part of a nine-member Historic Preservation Ordinance Review Committee created at the San Diego City Council’s request, but he doesn’t think the ordinance should be weakened.

Preservationists see the review as an attempt to take the teeth out of Buckley’s ordinance in order to placate an opposing faction that believes staunch historic preservation policies intrude on the property rights of individuals.

San Diego’s frequent disregard for historic buildings is in marked contrast to the way old buildings are revered in Europe, where Donaldson received a significant portion of his college training in architecture.

From 1966 to 1968, he did undergraduate work at Uppsala University in Sweden, and in 1972 pursued graduate studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and in Stuttgart, Germany.

He holds a master’s degree in architecture from Strathclyde and a bachelor’s from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

“I remember standing in a building built during the 1620s, telling a professor how worn the marble staircase was,” Donaldson said, recalling his studies in Sweden. “He said it had probably been replaced four or five times. I was impressed with such wonderful conservation of history.”


In the United States, standard procedure is often to replace authentic, old parts with new, “improved” versions that don’t complement a building’s original design.

“In Europe, historic preservation is integrated into their whole life,” Donaldson said. “You grow up in buildings 200 and 300 years old, and most architects spend half of their time dealing with old buildings. They understand the uniqueness of the buildings they grew up with.

“I don’t think we do that. Yet buildings to me are the only visual signs of our history. A rock with a plaque on it doesn’t tell me anything.”

Donaldson also owns his own construction company, Sixteen Penny, which he formed during the early 1980s because he was unable to find contractors who understood the intricacies of working on delicate, old buildings.

His interest in structural innovation began early. During the 1960s and ‘70s, he experimented with inflatable and tension-cable fabric structures.

For five months during the summer of 1971 in Scotland, he and his wife lived in an inflatable, experimental “Biostructure.” And, in 1972, Donaldson, a licensed pilot who often flies himself to meetings outside San Diego, designed, built and piloted an experimental, inflatable hang glider he called Pneu.


Donaldson was born in South Carolina and raised in Oceanside. He moved during his teens to Bakersfield, where he graduated from high school and attended community college for two years.

It was in Bakersfield that Donaldson developed a passion for tinkering with cars and drag-raced a 1932 Model A five-window Ford coupe equipped with a ’57 T-bird engine. These days, Donaldson scratches his tinkering itch with a 1946, four-passenger Stinson airplane he is restoring.

When Donaldson and Lake opened their business in 1978, they vowed to practice for only 10 years. Then they would move on to other pursuits. To symbolize that commitment, they even chose a phone number that ends “-7888.” Though they split long ago, Donaldson has kept the number.

“Now that I missed my first milestone, I’m going to have to revise my phone number to 2010,” Donaldson said, laughing. “Preservation architecture is now more than my work. It’s my life.”