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Thursday, August 04, 2005 | A distinctive row of yellow stucco Officers’ Quarters gracefully but authoritatively lines Rosecrans Street at the gateway to the former Naval Training Center on Point Loma. For more than 75 years, these four historic houses and the terraced gardens behind them were home to Navy leadership and their families. Built in 1923, they are now part of NTC Promenade, the 26-building, 28-acre historic district that is undergoing restoration and transformation into a dynamic new arts, science and cultural center for San Diego. Seventeen local nonprofit groups will soon take residence at the sprawling cultural campus, currently in the midst of its phase one renovations.
As highly visible edifices along a busy thoroughfare, the Officers’ Quarters occupy an important place in the overall NTC creative reuse plan. Today, a dozen professionals have formed a volunteer work group to ensure that the Officers’ Quarters & Gardens are restored to their original splendor, and, more important, made accessible to the general public for the first time in their history.
Composed of professionals from the fields of historic preservation, landscape architecture, the tourism industry, public garden management and the Point Loma community, the work group is committed to developing an adaptive reuse strategy that not only preserves but enhances the historical significance of the site. Serving under the guidance of the nonprofit NTC Foundation, to whom it will make final recommendations this fall, the Officers’ Quarters work group recently held an open community forum, seeking public input. Among the 50 attendees, a clear mandate was communicated that echoed the work group’s own emerging vision: Preserve the military heritage of the site and open the homes and gardens to the public.
For eight decades, the well-appointed homes and their four acres of meticulously landscaped gardens overlooking San Diego Bay provided a magnificent setting to welcome dignitaries from around the world. The gardens were at once intimate and yet offered expansive vistas of the bay and the emerging city beyond. The homes and gardens provided a unique sense of place, both within the Naval Training Center and the city.
Indeed, the history of the Officers’ Quarters & Gardens is interwoven with that of the Naval Training Center and, in a greater sense, with the city of San Diego itself, particularly its lush neighbor to the east, Balboa Park.
The genesis of the Naval Training Center was a visit by then Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt to the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. Favorably impressed by San Diego’s charm and balmy climate, and lobbied staunchly by California Congressman William D. Kettner, Roosevelt approved the city as a site for a new naval training facility. During World War I, the Exposition buildings in Balboa Park were used as a temporary naval training base, followed by the construction of the permanent Naval Training Station in the early 1920s. Over the course of the next 75 years, more than two million recruits were trained at the facility by the bay, and hundreds of senior officers and their families took up residence in the stately yellow houses flanking Rosecrans Street.
With its simplicity of design, the NTC master plan reflected San Diego’s interest in the Beaux Arts tradition and the “City Beautiful” movement across the United States. NTC exhibited the strong influence of renowned architect Bertram Goodhue, who also planned the 1915 Balboa Park Exposition and, in 1919, the nearby Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Built in 1923, the Officers’ Quarters are in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, used ubiquitously throughout NTC. The decorative simplicity of the homes includes many design features considered historically significant, such as the fireplaces and the massive entry doors.
In another allusion to Balboa Park, the original landscape plan for NTC was designed by the superintendent of Balboa Park at the time, J. G. Morley. Trees and shrubs called for in the plan were donated by a volunteer committee of San Diego citizens. Virtually all of the plants in the original base landscape plan were repeated in the Officers’ Quarters Gardens, giving them an added historical significance and providing the work group with a blueprint for garden restoration.
The NTC buildings were designed to be enhanced by the landscaping around them, and this is clearly evident in the classical lines of the Officers’ Quarters Gardens, which were terraced in formal levels, thereby offering continuously stunning views of the bay and the city. Classical elements such as statuary and reflecting pools added to the elegant ambience, and served as a backdrop for frequent garden parties held by the officers and their families.
The four large Officers’ Quarters and the four acres of once manicured gardens behind them provide a unique restoration opportunity, but they also represent a restoration challenge, as the homes and gardens are in various states of disrepair and deteriorating structural condition. Officers’ Quarters “A”, however, were treated to some “spit and polish” and a temporary design makeover at the 2004 San Diego Historical Society Design Showcase.
A potential community treasure, the restored site must be financially viable as well as publicly accessible. The City’s Precise Plan for NTC, adopted in 2001 from the Coastal Commission recommendations, requires that at least one of the homes be a museum open to the public. The Officers’ Quarters & Gardens work group is exploring additional adaptive reuse concepts such as a bed and breakfast, small conference or retreat center, wedding and party venue, an artists-in-residence program and outdoor performance space. The reuse vision will also encompass horticultural and garden experiences that complement the other offerings planned for NTC Promenade. The restoration goal is to reflect the site’s military legacy, including San Diego’s pivotal role in U.S. military history, and also to create a fresh legacy of innovative cultural experiences in keeping with the mission of NTC Promenade.
Like many other old houses, the Officers’ Quarters are rich with the personal histories of their inhabitants. The Officers’ Quarters & Gardens work group hopes to engage the community in this unique restoration enterprise not only by eliciting ideas but by learning about the stories, memorabilia and memories that shaped the lives of its residents. NTC staff, for instance, recently learned that a Filipino man, who is currently a high-level Congressional aide, was an Admiral’s Steward at NTC; a banana tree he planted in the Officers’ Quarters Gardens in 1961 still stands.
Nearby, a damaged Greek Pan statue quietly presides over the gardens, awaiting their restoration as a signal to reawaken and once again welcome San Diegans and visitors to this landmark landscape and the elegant homes that overlook it.
Information or inquiries about the Officers’ Quarters & Gardens may be e-mailed to NTC Program Development director Marianne Gregson at
Charlotte Cagan is chair of the NTC Officers Quarters Work Group. She is the former executive director of two botanical gardens and has a strong interest in historic preservation.