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Should the old Rees-Stealy Medical Clinic be declared historic?

Posted: March 10th, 2017 | Feature, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the proverb goes.

Some people look at the old Rees-Stealy Medical Clinic, located at 2001 Fourth Ave. in Bankers Hill, and see an aging eyesore. Others, however, view the building as a historical structure worthy of preservation.

The property owner, Sharp Healthcare, wants to sell the valuable piece of real estate to developer H.G. Fenton Company. In 2012, Sharp moved out of the clinic building when it opened the sparkly new Sharp Reese-Stealy, Downtown facility at 300 Fir St., cater-cornered from the old location.

But the city’s Historical Resources Board, at its Jan. 12 meeting, heard a staff report that recommended the Rees-Stealy Medical Clinic be designated as a historical resource. The board will vote on the matter on March 23 and any decision can be appealed to the City Council.

The old Rees-Stealy Medical Clinic reflects three different eras of architecture in San Diego. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Meanwhile, the Uptown Planners, at its March 7 meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, weighed into the debate. Its own Historical Preservation Subcommittee had reviewed the case on Feb. 27 and made three recommendations for the full board to consider.

John LaRaia, senior development director/capital provider at H.G. Fenton, told the citizen-elected volunteer board of Uptown Planners that his company is in escrow to buy the property. He said H.G. Fenton opposes the historical designation and a spokeswoman said Sharp Healthcare was also against the proposal.

The property is in a prime location, taking up a full city block that is bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues and Hawthorn and Grape streets. It is one block west of Balboa Park’s west mesa and just a few blocks north of Downtown.

About the only negative things regarding the site are that it is in the flight path of San Diego International Airport and is subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations regarding building heights.

“We don’t have any plans to redevelop the site,” LaRaia told Uptown Planners. Pressed after the meeting about possible plans, LaRaia told San Diego Uptown News that the developer “has no plans in the pipe.”

The clinic’s history

The first phase of the Rees-Stealy Medical Clinic was built in two stages between 1926 and 1928, designed by master architect Louis Gill. One of the pioneers of architecture’s modern movement, Gill built some of San Diego’s most beloved buildings, including the Swedenborgian Church in University Heights.

Designated as Section A of the property, the first phase is located on the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Grape Street. The architectural style is described as Mission/Spanish Eclectic.

The second phase, also designed by Gill, opened in 1938. This is known as Section B and is attached to the north side of the original building. It is located mid-block on Fourth Avenue between Grape and Hawthorn streets. The architectural style is Art Deco.

As the clinic needed more space, Section C was added in 1965. This was attached to the north side of Section B, located on the southeast corner of Fourth and Hawthorn. The Brutalism design was created by master architect Homer Delawie, renowned as a modernist whose San Diego projects included the MTDB Trolley Building and Clock Tower in Downtown, the M. Larry Lawrence Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, and Scripps Ranch High School.

The debate

One main point of contention is that the city’s Historical Resources Board has determined that Sections A, B and C comprise one building — and thus the entire structure should be declared a historical resource because it reflects three different eras of local architecture.

H.G. Fenton would like the property to be considered as three separate buildings and then have each section reviewed individually. Saying they were willing to compromise in an effort to spare the older structures, Uptown Planners agreed with the developer. The consensus is that Section C is a very ugly example of Brutalism, known for its raw style and use of concrete. Perhaps the most beautiful example of Brutalism locally is the Geisel Library at UC San Diego, designed by William Pereira.

LaRaia would not go on record, but those familiar with the proposal believe that H.G. Fenton would like to raze Section C for future development.

H.G. Fenton notoriously demolished the historic Bernie Michels-Thom Carey House on May 29, 2015 — just one day after the Saltbox-style structure, located at 2004 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park, was nominated for consideration on the National Register of Historic Places. The local LGBT community was trying to save the building because it was considered one of the birthplaces of San Diego’s gay-rights movement. In its place, H.G. Fenton is building a large mixed-use complex featuring apartments and retail at street level.

LaRaia told the board that the developer has plans for the “rehabilitation and re-use of Sections A and B.” He said the two older structures “have character, windows and light inside.”

“Section C doesn’t have a lot of windows,” LaRaia added. “Section C is most problematic for us.”

He said H.G. Fenton does not have to proceed with escrow if the entire property is designated as a historical resource.

After the meeting, LaRaia told Uptown News that if Section C is declared historic, it could be a deal-breaker for H.G. Fenton. “Section C is most difficult for us to work with,” he said.

After hearing from the audience and debating, the Uptown Planners took three votes:

  • Motion 1: To support the historic consideration of Section C as separate from Sections A and B. Passed 9-3-1.
  • Motion 2: To support the historic consideration of Sections A and B under Criteria A [historical significance], B [historical persons], C [distinctive characteristics] and D [master architects]. Passed 8-4-1.
  • Motion 3: To recommend historical designation of Section C under Criteria A and B. Failed 6-6-1.

Further reading

To read the staff recommendation to the city’s Historical Resources Board, visit bit.ly/2mGFR5A.

To read the H.G. Fenton report prepared by Brian F. Smith and Associations and submitted to the city’s Development Services Department, visit bit.ly/2lZfdQR.

—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at ken@sdcnn.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

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