Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Foot in San Diego: Old Police Headquarters

I headed down to the Old Police Headquarters sale today hoping I would be able to get a look inside. Built in 1938 and located on prime waterfront land at the San Diego Harbor, this huge site has been vacant since 1986 and surrounded by high rises, cruise ships, and Seaport Village. Since it was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 it couldn't just be torn down. Thank God for that.

It is a beautiful Spanish revival building with courtyard and lots of space. It looked more like Moorish-Craftsman to me, but what do I know about architecture? The city is permitting the site to be renovated into retail shops and boutiques, keeping the historic architecture in place.

I couldn't get inside the building as I'd hoped, but I could get a glimpse through the arched doorways that had already been cut in for the future design. I was able to stand on tiptoes and look into the old court house, naturally drawn to the door propped against the wall.

Outside were cell doors, toilets, sinks and, believe it or not, they were selling. One guy bought 13 metal bunks to make a fence, others were going to use the lidless toilets for garden planters. I thought a cell door would make a useful tomato trellis but how the heck to get it back to my house?

Most of the history came from talking with those in the lot. This Mexican-American woman was thirteen in 1945 when her 22 year old brother died as an inmate-set conflagration swept through the jail and killed 5 prisoners. Grief from losing her older brother ("he was in trouble a lot") was still there and I sensed she had come to share her memory of her brother with others. She showed anyone who would look the original newspaper articles and a picture of her brother that was pinned to her sweater. Headlines above the article reported German action in World War II.

A retired police officer who worked at the facility knew all the history of the Headquarters. (When they're not giving you a ticket, police officers are actually nice guys.) The jail, he said, had a capacity of 300 men and women, but at times they had 600. This was the total jail population in 1986. Today, just twenty some years later, San Diego has seven jails and 5000 inmates. Not much to brag about. But he was bragging about how the cooks would throw steaks on the grill for the officers, and they even had a barber shop inside.

Next stop, I'm not sure yet, but I'm kind of getting into this San Diego history thing.


Pat said...

Are you saying you've been getting tickets? And why wouldn't the police officers be nice to you when they give you a ticket? Are you not smiling shyly at them and exhibiting the proper amount of remorse? Heh heh.

Good news about the renovation of that site! Hard to believe it's sat there this long with no interest being shown by SOMEONE.

Pat said...

This comment was e-mailed to us:

Hello, I saw your mention of the old police headquarters and the auction. I work for the Port of San Diego, which has a connection to the station, and your post popped up on my Google Alert. I worked for a newspaper for way too long and I just wanted to compliment you on your detailed description of your visit to the station, including the interesting note about the fire that swept through the place killing five people. I didn't know that. Learn something every day.

The best to you and your twin.

John Gilmore

Thanks for the comment, John!