By Michael Good | House Calls
Neighborhoods evolve. Some for the better. Some for the worse. Some even go extinct.
The San Diego neighborhood of South Park has changed, adapted and flirted with extinction numerous times over the last 158 years. For the first 35 of those, it was more a neighborhood of the imagination than a community of plaster, wood, paint and people; the area was traded by investors, developers, buyers and sellers — with little actually getting built.
The name “South Park” first appeared on a deed in 1870. However, it wasn’t until 1890 that the area was subdivided by Erastus Bartlett, a shipping magnate from Maine. Bartlett didn’t live to see his dream for an exclusive neighborhood at the southwest corner of Balboa Park become a reality.
It was his grandson, E. Bartlett Webster, and Webster’s partners who finally put shovel to soil. Bartlett Estate Company graded and paved streets, put in sidewalks and curbs, ran water and electric lines, and planted palm trees.
For the time, this was a significant innovation — a ready-made neighborhood without the mud, dust and chickens of the typical 19th-century American suburb.
In its day, South Park was new and innovative. Selling lots in a neighborhood with all the amenities — including paved streets — was a novelty in early 20th-century San Diego. (As was a developer that actually built houses, rather than just sold lots.)
South Park scored a number of other firsts in its early years. It was the first housing tract in San Diego to have its public transportation in place at the time of its opening. A trolley line was up and running when the neighborhood had its official opening in May 1906.
It also was the first to require a minimum investment for homebuyers; houses had to cost at least $3,500, a lofty sum at the time. There also was a comprehensive list of covenants, codes and restrictions — including a ban on commercial buildings and apartments.
Not all of these rules survived. Eventually, the developers lowered the investment requirement to $2,500, opened a commercial district and invited other builders to participate.
Many of San Diego’s finest designers and architects left their mark on South Park including Irving Gill, David Owen Dryden, William S. Hebbard, Henry H. Preibisius, Charles and Edward Quayle, Richard Requa and Emmor Brooke Weaver.
South Park’s other big first? The neighborhood was first born among the city’s restrictive residential districts. Mission Hills, Kensington and Burlingame all came years later.
The housing tract’s birth coincided with the height of the arts and crafts movement. Some of San Diego’s grandest examples of the style were built there, on oversize lots overlooking Balboa Park. By the time home building came to a halt with America’s entry into World War I, South Park was halfway built out — with spectacular, high-style arts and crafts homes.
In the ’20s, South Park became less of a destination for San Diego’s elite and more a middle-class family neighborhood. While the homes that were built were smaller, they were no less detailed.
Over the years, the neighborhood weathered a number of economic and social upheavals, including the Great Depression; an onslaught of Navy personnel looking for a room to rent, until they were transferred, six months later, to Norfolk, Virginia; the GI Bill, which steered veterans to the freeway suburbs; and drugs, crime, hippies and hipsters.
Today, South Park may appear the victim of its own success. Everyone wants to eat and drink there, and often fight you for a parking space in front of your meticulously restored Craftsman bungalow.
The miracle is that the houses remain, spared from the wrecking ball. This is because South Park’s residents — rich or poor, quirky or respectable, artist or banker — have been willing to fight for their neighborhood. The latest effort has resulted in historic designation, including 299 of the better-preserved, architecturally significant houses. They still survive in roughly the footprint of the original South Park tract from those dreamy, palm-lined days of 1906.
Even before it was historically designated, South Park served as an inspiration for bungalow dwellers throughout San Diego. For the last 20 years, the neighborhood has hosted The Old House Fair, providing a patch of asphalt for owners and contractors of old houses to scope each other out at the corner of Beech and 30th streets.
Like South Park, the Old House Fair evolved over the years. Recently, in a tail-wagging-the-dog sort of situation, the event became more of a neighborhood street festival than a meet-and-greet for contractors and their prospective clients. This led to bigger crowds and better business for the Golden Hill merchants who sponsored the event. However, it was a source of vexation for craftsmen and women, who found themselves competing with the face-painters, reggae performers, sausage slingers and beer vendors.
Now all that is history.
“There is no street fair this year,” Sara Dunbar, one of the event’s organizers, said. “This year, we’re getting back to the idea of historic preservation.
“We’re getting back to the heart of what the Old House Fair is all about,” she continued. “There’s something great about a street festival, and we love it. But we would rather pull back. We really want to be a resource for people who want to restore their old house.”
Jean Rivaldi, a real estate broker, stepped into Maureen Ceccarelli’s well-worn shoes last year. Maureen Ceccarelli, the former mastermind and master-of-ceremonies of the Old House Fair, has retired.
The event, which was previously held in mid-June, will be in May this year. It will now be inside at the Side Bar, which is the overflow space adjacent to The Rose Wine Bar.
Only exhibitors focused on historic renovation and preservation will be present.
“Our focus is to give people the information they need,” Rivaldi said. “To get back to the roots of what the event is all about. Some people were excited last year when we added things. Some people were very unexcited. I think we just got too far out from the audience with the street fair. And the beer garden.”
The new and restored Old House Fair takes place this year on Saturday, May 19, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 2219 30th St.
This year you can also tour the sanctuary of the former Brooklyn Heights Presbyterian Church (now Christ United), at the corner of 30th and Fir streets. Neither wine nor beer will be served, but there will be organ music.
For more information about the event, visit oldhousefairsd.com.
— Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.