By Dave Schwab | SDUN ReporterAfter a two-year battle over whether to repair, restore or replace Kensington’s community sign straddling Adams Avenue, a near-exact replica of the more than 50-year-old original is in a place that most—but not all—are content with.
The new sign was unveiled on Nov. 27 just in time for Kensington’s 100th anniversary. It was paid for by private donations and a $40,000 grant secured by County Supervisor Ron Roberts. San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, Mayor Jerry Sanders and Roberts joined with community members to commemorate the return of the sign as part of the Kensington Centennial Celebration Picnic, which took place at a park adjacent to the sign and the Kensington branch library.
“The overwhelming sense is we’re just happy to have it back up,” said Tom Hebrank, chair of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group. “It was very old, most of the lights were burnt out, birds living in it: It was in need of replacement.”
Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), a regional cultural and historical preservation group, disputed Hebrank’s perception of the original sign’s condition.
Once the sign was deemed historic, plans to design and install a more modern sign were scrapped. Celia Conover is the Kensingtonian who led a group who wrote and submitted the nominating report in March of 2008 that ensured the Kensington sign’s review by the City of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board (HRB); their efforts led to its historical designation as a “landmark feature.” Conover said the new sign is not only a fait accompli but also a “mission accomplished.”
One of the key concerns of the HRB was that it retain its suspended character so that it would continue to have “the effect of floating over Adams Avenue, especially at night when the neon is all you see,” she said. “The residents of Kensington and San Diego interested in preserving our sign’s historical character were very disappointed the original sign cabinet could not be saved, but are pleased to have a replica instead of the altogether new design with a truss suspension.”
Architect John Eisenhart, who was on the HRB board when the Kensington sign was historically designated, credited SOHO and community preservationists for the successful outcome, now back up for all to see. “It now is close to what it was and preserves the unique character of the Kensington sign (cable suspension system) for future generations,” he said.
But not everyone in the community, like 36-year Kensington resident Ann Ozgunduz or Beth Galdieri of Sussex Drive, are so enthused about the new sign, its old design, or the fight to have it historically designated that divided the community.
“The original sign was too modern for an historic community, thus I was thrilled for the opportunity to vote on a new design more representative of Kensington,” Ozgunduz said. “Needless to say, I was shocked when I learned of the delay in manufacturing the sign … The end result is more offensive than the original. Our new sign looks like a K-mart ‘blue light special.’ ”
“ I feel the large unsightly poles from which the cable system is suspended may have been an undesirable compromise; while I personally cherish historic artifacts and pure reproductions, it may have been better to replace our sign with a more attractively supported truss system, albeit less historically authentic,” said Galdieri.
But many in the community, like Winnie Hanford who, along with husband Rich, has owned and operated Kensington Video at 4067 Adams Ave. for 27 years, took a laissez-faire stance regarding the sign’s design.
Having avoided controversy over how modern the sign ought to be, Hanford said, “It’s remarkable how much that sign means to people in Kensington,” noting that some residents have told her, “I moved here because the sign was there.”
Hanford said Kensingtonians were cheering and crying when the sign went back up after being down for several months. “People in Kensington are very possessive of their library, their little coffee shops, anything that’s the original,” she said. “They don’t want things to change.”
Hanford learned just how much the Kensington sign meant to her personally while giving customers directions to her video store before the sign’s replacement. “I’ve been telling people you get off Interstate-15 onto Adams and you see the sign; but then I thought, there’s no sign—what the heck am I saying? Oh my gosh, I used it as a landmark.”
Hanford admitted lights burning out on the original Kensington sign were a problem, often a comical one. “A lot of times we only had the ‘Ken’ in Kensington lit,” she said. “Another time only ‘sin’ was lit up. We got a big kick out of that.”
Tyler Blik, in an e-mail interview, waxed nostalgic about the restored community icon’s significance.
“I witnessed the new sign for the first time and found it delightfully amusing that one of the neon letter forms was not lit … I smiled, recalling all of the community discussions, the wrestling of what proper aesthetic should be honored, and there the sign smiled back at me with a spirit of its past. … Perhaps they should fix it ever so slightly, to where that lonely letter just flickers in the night. My 30-plus years of going to the Ken Cinema, to the Kensington Club, to Kensington Video and the Kensington Café have my heart throbbing again.”
The Kensington monument sign played a pivotal role in the community’s formation, contends local historian Ron May, who worked with Celia Conover to get the sign historically designated.
May said the sign’s origin dates back to a group of business owners who paid for it in 1953. In 1954, he said, those merchants arranged with both the City and County of San Diego to have the sign’s poles erected on public land during a time when Kensington and Talmadge were both outside the city limits.
“A fire burned some houses and the City Fire Department refused service because it was outside their service area, and this spurred Kensington and Talmadge to annex to the City of San Diego,” said May. “At the same time, the businesses erected the sign to promote their local business. The local Ken-Tal Association has been paying for repairs and maintenance of the sign for the past 56 years. The sign has been a landmark to everyone entering the community on Adams Avenue for that period of time.”
In the final days of Councilwoman Toni Atkins’ term, May said she convinced the city to take down the old Kensington sign to inspect it for lead and safety issues. “Once the sign came down, members of the Ken-Tal Association and the contractor broke the sign apart using steel tools, and then declared it could not be restored because it was broken,” he said. “There was a lot of outrage over breaking the sign.”
But because the sign had been historically designated as a landscape feature, May said the city opted to strictly enforce the rules demanding that a replica be created that “looks just like the one destroyed.”
Bruce Coons spoke for many in the community when he said, “It’s great to have it back up. It feels like home: It feels like Kensington.”