By Charles Shaw
“The thing about preservation architecture,” said David Marshall, President of Heritage Architecture and Planning, “is that if we do our jobs right, it doesn’t look like we did anything at all. We are the ‘invisible’ architects. We’re not there to reinvent the wheel, we’re there to maintain the legacy of the work of architects who came before us.”
Marshall and San Diego Parks and Recreation Director Stacy LoMedico were recently honored as co-recipients of a 2009 People in Preservation Award, for their collective work to restore two iconic buildings in Balboa Park: the San Diego Museum of Art, and the California Tower. The nine-year, $5.2 million project was the largest “deferred maintenance” restoration project in San Diego history. The awards are given annually by the Save Our Heritage Organisation.
Designed by architect William Templeton Johnson, the San Diego Museum of Art, located on the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park’s National Historic Landmark District, was constructed in 1926 in a style known as “Spanish Colonial Revival.” The California Building, designed by Bertram G. Goodhue, was one of the few permanent buildings constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
“There are certain buildings in the city that are what I call ‘first string’ landmark buildings,” said Marshall, “and the California Building is one of the most well known in the state.”
The Museum of Art in particular was in dire shape and needed extensive renovation to its façade. For decades the city had attempted to repair the “spalling” (splitting off in pieces) and cracking “cast-stone” ornamentation that adorned the structure. Because large pieces had fallen onto the pavement, the city was forced to put in place an eyesore of a plywood barrier across the face of the building that stood for ten years. None of any previous repairs held since the failures were due to the poor quality of the original 1926 castings.
“Unfortunately, when you have to replace the fabric of a building, it takes away from the overall value,” added Marshall. “It’s always repair rather than replace.”
Heritage was one of the few firms qualified to undertake such a complex historical renovation, and they are the only firm in the city that does historic preservation exclusively. Founded in 1978 by Milford Wayne Donaldson, Heritage began as a standard architectural firm located in the Gaslamp Quarter, and had no preservation experience. Around that time the Gaslamp was made an historical district, so Donaldson started working on buildings in neighborhood.
“It’s very much a niche, and something we fell into,” said Marshall. “Most of us are traditionally trained architects, but pretty soon you realize you are working on buildings which are very appreciated by the public. It makes your work so much more important than, say, a housing development or strip mall.”
In the 30 years since, Heritage has grown into a preservation superstar. In 2004 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Milford Donaldson “State Historic Preservation Officer,” and he now heads that department in Sacramento as the state’s Chief Preservationist. David Marshall became Heritage’s new president.
“What people should really know about preservation architecture is that our work is quite compatible with sustainability because we recycle whole buildings,” Marshall said. “So much energy is wasted in demolition, but adaptive reuse is both eco-friendly and energy saving.”
The co-recipient of the PIP award, Stacy LoMedico, has worked for the city for 23 years, and now serves as the director of the second largest public park system in the nation. Some 30-40 million people a year visit some aspect of the San Diego park system, which includes 40,000 acres of parkland, neighborhood open space and canyons used as park space, and 26 miles of beach and bay shoreline.
“I accepted this award on behalf of a very large team that includes the Parks and Recreation staff, our grant writing team, engineering department, field inspectors, managers, and in-house architects,” LoMedico said. “But the real, unsung heroes are the visitors to the Museum Campus who put up with the scaffolding and construction and noise for years.”
LoMedico said she was simply “blown away” by the quality of the preservation work done by Marshall and his team. “When I was at the opening I just stood and stared at it and I could not tell that there had been any work done on it at all.”
Which is something that should make any preservation architect smile.
Charles Shaw is a widely published writer and editor whose work appears in Examiner and the Huffington Post. A longtime community activist, he recently moved to San Diego and lives in the Hillcrest area