Yesterday, the dreams of a grand new City Hall were deferred.

The City Council declined to override a mayoral veto and put a $296 million City Hall project on the November ballot. It didn’t matter: it was too late to place the issue before voters anyway.

The proposal isn’t dead and may yet return, perhaps with the electorate left out of the decision-making process.

Has this sort of thing happened before? Sure has. As the saga of City Halls in San Diego reveals, architectural glory has been hard to grasp (or retain). Here’s a visual look at the buildings that became City Hall and those that failed to make it off the drawing board.

What Does This City Hall Complex Need? An Opera House!

In 1908, a civic improvement committee tackled the future of San Diego and issued a report envisioning the future of a city that “is far ahead of most cities of its class in its recognition of the mistakes of the past and its appreciation of the opportunities of the present.”

The report declared that the existing City Hall is “obviously temporary” and called for a grand “Public Plaza and Civic Centre” that would include City Hall plus a courthouse, post office and opera house.

“The ends of convenience, of harmonious grouping, and of effective beauty, are served to perfection,” the report said of the plan.

The image below, depicting the complex, is from the report. The project was never built.

City Hall Is Occupied (Forcibly)

For decades beginning in 1891, the city did its business in an ornate four-story building — the style is Florentine-Italianate, if you’re scoring at home — at the corner of G Street and Fifth Avenue.

The building, which is now home to businesses and lofts, was sold earlier this year.

In its day, the building (seen below) was an occasional hotbed of scandal and intrigue.

As the city’s website puts it, Mayor Edwin M. Capps — who served as mayor in separate terms between 1899 and 1917 — “was involved in a scandal over profit-making on the purchase of a smallpox vaccine which was intended for public use.”

There was even more excitement in 1905 when City Hall was occupied by force.

The drama came after Democratic-endorsed retired Army officer John L. Sehon ran for mayor as a reformer and won against a Republican and — hold your hats, ladies and gentlemen — a Socialist. (He got little support.)

Opponents went to court to challenge Sehon’s eligibility for office due to his being a retired military captain.

As a 1908 history put it:

The mayor-elect disappeared from the city and could not be found by the officers who wanted to serve papers in the suit. He returned just before midnight in the last moments of (the previous mayor’s) expiring term, and, at the first minute of the term to which he had been elected, entered the city hall, took forcible possession of the executive offices, and proclaimed himself mayor of San Diego.

It worked: he got to keep the job.

Later, in 1918, there was even more excitement in city politics: Mayor Louis Wilde socked a councilman in the eye amid a feud. But it didn’t happen at City Hall. The incident occurred in another building that’s still around: the U.S. Grant Hotel.

Beauty by the Bay

In 1938, City Hall moved to one of the grandest buildings in the city: the Civic Center, now known as the County Administration Center. The New Deal’s Work Progress Administration helped fund the building, which President Roosevelt dedicated in front of an estimated 1925 people.

A 1998 commemorative anniversary booklet says “local architects didn’t believe (the Civic Center) would ever exist. One reason they didn’t take it too seriously was the Long Beach earthquake. That put a death sentence on a lot of buildings.” (The quake devastated Long Beach in 1933 and prompted new construction codes.)

Still, architects managed to design the building (below), which remains a “The Jewel on the Bay,” as the booklet puts it.

The city, however, stopped sharing the building with the county. It moved its offices to the current City Hall in 1964, losing the bayside grandeur of its former home in favor of a skyscraper.


In 1964, the new City Hall in downtown, seen below, opened its doors. Today, it’s being labeled as deteriorating and a firetrap, since not all floors have fire sprinklers.

The Incredible Shrinking City Hall

City officials believe the current City Hall is too small and too expensive to maintain, so they’ve been pushing for a new one.

The Gerding Edlen development company came up with this design: a 33-floor sail-shaped building that would cost about $440 million and hold 1 million square feet of space.

But by this summer, the plans got downsized and the projected cost shrunk to $294 million.

An opera house is still not included.


Photo sources: 1. San Diego, a Comprehensive Plan for Its Improvement (1908). 2. The Journal of San Diego History 3. Sam Hodgson 4. Sam Hodgson 5. Courtesy image 6. Courtesy image

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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