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Monday, June 19, 2006 | After a few weeks at sea, the big house with the red tiles and the whitewashed walls must have been a welcoming sight for Manuel Freitas, one of San Diego’s original Portuguese fishing captains and a one-time mainstay of the Point Loma fishing community. On these grounds, you imagine the scent of the blossoms in the air and the smell of fish stew on the stove, mingling with the warm salt of the Pacific to welcome Freitas home from his time at sea.
These days, the Freitas mansion lies bare and boarded. It’s sandwiched between two modern buildings half way up Lawrence Street in the historic neighborhood of La Playa. The yard is overgrown and shabby and spiders scuttle around inside where children once ran to welcome their father home from the boats.
But the memory of Freitas lives on for some Point Lomans. Last year, when a group of neighbors discovered that a developer was planning on pulling down the once-famous fisherman’s family home, they decided to band together and fight to save the Freitas villa from demolition. Just recently, they succeeded, and the tale of how they convinced the city’s Historical Resources Board to give the property historical designation is one that board members said neighborhood activists citywide should study.
Judy White often wondered who would move into the big old house next door.
She wondered how they would preserve the charm and character of the rather dilapidated two-story home with the unusual architecture. She hoped some day, someone would move in who would care for the house and restore it to something of its former glory.
But last September, White discovered the fate of the house. A developer was planning to take the old villa down and to install a block of six condos in its place. The architecture would be modern, White’s views of the bay would be gone, and a little bit of San Diego’s history would disappear forever under the new development.
Incensed, White began to ask around the neighborhood. She wanted to find people like her, who were passionate about maintaining some semblance of the neighborhood’s past and who were willing to fight to protect properties like the house next door.
One morning, she met Kathryn Rhodes out walking her dog. The two women began to talk and realized they shared a common goal.
Rhodes is the archetypal neighborhood guardian. She’s a tenacious lady with a seemingly endless capacity for hard work and research. Her own home is a beautiful, historical property that looks straight out of the pages of a design magazine. Most of all, Rhodes has made it her mission to make La Playa a designated historical district. As San Diego’s second-oldest community after Old Town, Rhodes thinks La Playa is a unique area that deserves to be protected.
White learned Rhodes was maintaining a Web site aimed at members of the community who want to preserve La Playa’s character. Together with a few other community activists, the two ladies began to plot a course to saving the old house on Lawrence Street.
It took them nearly a year.
In April, the city of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board granted the property historical designation. The primary reason for the board’s decision was that the property was once owned by Freitas, a well-known fishing captain and a one-time upstanding member of the community’s original Portuguese community.
As part of their research, White and Rhodes dug up mountains of information about Freitas and the historical significance of the property and its former owner. The Historical Resources Board, a 15-member volunteer committee, can grant historical designation to a property if it can be shown that a historically significant person once lived there. And that designation can save a building from demolition. They decided that Freitas was such a person, and that his now ramshackle home should be preserved and, if possible, restored.
Laura Burnett, vice chairwoman of the Historical Resources Board, said the effort made by White, Rhodes and others should serve as a lesson to other San Diegans who are concerned that their community’s character is being washed away by excessive development.
“They scrambled and got the information to the board,” Burnett said. “Board members really appreciate it when the public can get involved and come to the meeting and put together all the information with that level of clarity and energy and professionalism.”
Burnett acknowledged that the process can involve a significant amount of elbow grease, and stressed that successful applicants for historical designation are usually well-organized and have brought many people from their community in to help with their efforts.
That’s what White and Rhodes did. Their first step was to put flyers in the letter boxes of all their neighbors. It was a call to arms of sort, against development that they said could not only stifle the charm of the neighborhood, but could also erode local property values. The flyers had return slips on them, and White was surprised at how much feedback she received.
“A significant number of people responded. Nobody even knew that this was happening, so they were so thrilled that we let them know. You’ve got to let the neighborhood know because people don’t know anything,” she said.
But it was the work of a few committed players that secured the historical designation. Rhodes produced a 90-page report on Freitas, his role in the community and the significance of what the ladies discovered was known as the “Spanish Eclectic” architecture of the Freitas property.
Freitas himself built the house on Lawrence Street in 1931 and lived there with his family until 1951. He was, according to Rhodes, an important figure in the creation of San Diego’s once great tuna fleet, and owned several ships of more than 100 feet in length. Those boats were later commandeered by the Navy to patrol San Diego Harbor and to deliver supplies to the Navy fleet in the Pacific. In her report, Rhodes writes of Freitas’ role in the battle for Midway in June 1942.
“Captain Freitas, in command of clipper Victoria, delivered barrels of fuel to Midway Island. He was quoted as saying ‘We could tell by the big hurry that something unusual was up. Just before pulling out, they told me the drums were full of aviation gas and to be very careful with cigarettes or sparks from the stack.’ Upon arrival at Midway Island, ‘they rushed us into the lagoon and up to a dock. Unloading started the minute we tied up. Everybody seemed to be excited and in a big rush with everything. It was easy to see that something big was about to happen. When the last drum was off the ship, an officer jumped aboard and said, “Start steamin” skipper. Put some miles between you and Midway. This place is going to get hot.’”
Things also got “hot” at the final Historical Resources Board meeting to decide the fate of the Freitas house. Six local people showed up to argue for historical preservation for the house, and after testimony from them and from a lawyer representing the developer, the members of the board were swayed to vote 8 to 1 in favor of preservation.
For White and her compatriots, the win was a triumph of community activism.
“I am ecstatic about it, but I’m cautiously ecstatic because I know the power of developers – big power can do something that we can’t sometimes foresee,” she said.
White’s cautious because she knows the decision of the board may be overturned on appeal.
Meanwhile, other community activists, like Cynthia Conger, chair of the Peninsula Community Planning Board, can only hope that the rambling white house with its red-tile roof and extraordinary design will remain as a prominent house in the community.
“There is not a single house in all of Point Loma that was owned by a Portuguese fisherman of this distinction that got historical designation for that. Its contribution is immense,” Conger said.