Architectural design and history

Posted: April 6th, 2018 | News, Top Story | No Comments

Albert H. Fulcher | Contributing editor

OH! San Diego showcases the best in architectural designs

Over the weekend of March 24–25, Open House San Diego (OH! San Diego) held its free, two-day open house with more than 80 “must see” architectural designs throughout Bankers Hill, Balboa Park, Downtown, Barrio Logan and Point Loma. The annual event drew more than of 9,000 site visitors, many of whom got the chance to see behind-the-scenes tours of San Diego’s historic landmarks and never-before-seen buildings.

Ohr Shalom Synagogue in Bankers Hill was featured for its Mediterranean and Moorish architecture during the OH! San Diego two-day open house event. (Photo courtesy of Ohr Shalom)

Open House Worldwide was founded in London more than 25 years ago. OH! San Diego is relatively a new program going into its third year. San Diego was the third city in the United States to develop its own Open House. Los Angeles is following suit; they were on hand over the weekend to see how everything worked here. Featuring architecture of the past, present and in many cases the combination of both, this event gave residents and visitors alike a chance to see and hear the rich history of San Diego.

As with International Open House, it was important to the San Diego Architectural Foundation and for OH! San Diego Founder Susanne Friestedt that the event was free. This gave people the ability to enjoy architecture in a personal way by making the sites accessible.

Each site has its own story, but innovative use of materials, repurposing of space, environmental sustainability, energy efficiency and unique use of public areas were some of the highlights of the designated sites.

Friestedt said it is important to note that as this event grows, it becomes more of a money generator for the city. London, just celebrated its 25th year with more than 750 sites. She said people visited London from all over the world to see its architectural wonders, so she understands the economic boost that this type of event can bring to a city.

With OH! San Diego growing each year, she said they plan to expand into La Jolla in the future and is thoroughly pleased with the turnout this year. Friestedt explained that history and architecture go hand-in-hand, and this year was no exception with some of the top spots in San Diego over the course of the event.

In Balboa Park, the Timken Museum of Art, Mingei International Museu, and The Palisades developed for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. Both were a big draw.

Bankers Hill brought in the crowds with the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Another big draw was the Gruenberg Law Offices that are considered a great contrast of the Bankers Hills Victorian homes look along with the modern glass and concrete Gruenberg building.

One of OH! SD’s hidden gems this year was Gruenberg Law Office in Bankers Hill (Photo courtesy of Gruenberg Law)

In its first year participating, Ohr Shalom Synagogue in Bankers Hill showcased its long history and Mediterranean–Moorish architectural style to the public. It received 263 visits and the Temple Beth Israel, the largest reform congregation in the city at that time, was the first Jewish congregation in San Diego. Its original synagogue built in Downtown now sits in Heritage Park in Old Town. With a growing congregation, it purchased the current property at Third Avenue and Laurel Street and began construction in 1925.

The synagogue’s architect, William H. Wheeler, was an Australian immigrant to the U.S. who designed several notable buildings including the Balboa Theater in Downtown, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hillcrest and the Klauber-Wangenheim Building in Downtown. Ohr Shalom was designed to fit in with the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park in 1915 and the domed, freestanding square synagogue was considered an innovative piece of architecture in the 1920s.

Lynn Mendelsohn, Ohr Shalom vice president of programming and events, said Beth Israel occupied this building until the congregation outgrew the facility. They sold it to a developer who was going to build a large apartment complex, and Beth Temple purchased property across from UTC in University City. The Beth Temple Synagogue there is “absolutely beautiful,” she said.

But this was not the end of Ohr Shalom. A lot of forces in the city — including SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organization), attorney Paul Weil and historian Alex Bevil — got involved with other people and groups in the community and fought the purchase.

“Ohr Shalom was founded ages ago as Ohr El, a congregation of immigrants from Mexico that used this building for high holidays,” Mendelsohn said. “When they saw that this building was up in the air, they joined in and it became a two-way battle.”

This battle evolved over seven years, until the city designated the building as a historical site and the developer deeded the property to Ohr Shalom.

“By then, it was old, leaked, not earthquake compliant,” she continued. “In 2009, we started a capital campaign and took $4.5 million renovating the building. We basically gutted the whole thing. We sent the original stained-glass windows to Iowa to an expert to have them refurbished. We reopened in 2011 in this great old building.”

And beautiful it is. The original windows are works of art with traditional symbols of high holy days with its antiquated look. They light up the spacious rooms in the synagogue with filtered, natural light that brings a sense of reverence to the space, along with beautiful hues that flicker through the rooms. Although completely retrofitted, the building still has an ancient look. While the interior is not as elaborate as many of the primordial designs, its small details make this piece of post-modern architecture stand out.

Woodwork on the Ark is breathtakingly beautiful. In the sanctuary, carved into the Ark is the “Shema,” which states the central tenant of Judaism — that there is only one God. It says, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” Behind the Ark are nine Torah scrolls, including one for Czechoslovakia that was saved from the Holocaust. Another Torah scroll is in a chapel on the first floor of the school building.

In the entrance hall is a magnificent piece of art that displays two trees whose roots intertwine a sitting bench and frame one of the synagogue’s beautiful stained-glass windows. This piece has plaques placed that people can purchase in remembrance of loved ones. It was one of board president Ray Sachs’ fundraising projects.

“Ray Sachs is wonderful,” Mendelsohn said. “We have our annual fundraiser on April 29 to honor him. When he became president in 2012, we still owed $1.1 million. Over the six years of his presidency, we managed — with his leadership — to retire that debt.”

For a full list of all of the architectural sites featured in the OH! San Diego event, visit

— Albert can be reached at

Leave a Comment