Mistakes happen, but this one cost our community a 1904 Irving Gill/William Hebbard collaboration that once stood on the northwest corner of First & Robinson. U-T columnist Welton Jones called it “the city’s most shameful debacle in years.” Years later the lot remains empty and forlorn (except now it has white vinyl fencing placed diagonally. Anyone know why?).
Many still shake their heads and ask why this home was lost to the wrecking ball.
“It started with a city blunder, and ended with groans of near century old beams splintering.” — Union-Tribune, September 2, 1999
On Friday morning, March 25, 1999 Sarai Marlow noticed that a wrecking ball had set it sights on the E. Milton Barber house. Her boss, historical architect Paul Johnson, had an office around the corner, and she regularly walked by this great, old house. Sarai, a fiery 28-year-old with an equal love of history, tried in vain to save it.
Preservationists Ben Baltic, Doug Scott and SOHO’s vice president Erik Hanson rushed to the corner site. Corey Braun, head of the city’s Historical Site Board (HSB) who knew a proper review had not been made, also arrived. A city screw-up had allowed the demo permit, and the owners were anxious to execute it. Braun tried to have the police halt the demolition to no avail. Finally, a city inspector arrived with a “stop work” order.
After a “This is not a Gill house” banner went up on the Castagnola family property, activists countered with their own signs alerting the community to the situation and Sarai helped prove the structure’s historicity by locating Gill’s autographed architectural designs archived at UC Santa Barbara.
Baltic, owner of Sunnyslope Lodge (another Gill structure in the neighborhood), reported in an April 2 letter to Councilmember Christine Kehoe that the order remained posted throughout the night, but at 8am it was gone, and a building permit had replaced it. The contractor, served with the stop work order the previous day, parked his truck to block the view.
This time the crew immediately began punching holes in the roof. Johnson was aghast. Many rushed to the site, pleading for the work to be stopped. Neighbor Rick Wilson told the Union-Tribune “they came in like a SWAT team and hit the roof.” Again an inspector was called, and the demo was stopped, but the old house was now exposed to the elements, in essence killing it.
With demolition again halted, the Castagnolas would now have to go through the necessary HSB reviews. Braun thought this would save the house, but on May 7 (even with the stop work order in place) a crew returned to remove windows and doors.
On August 26 Johnson made the HSB presentation to seek an historical designation based on research done by Kathy Flanigan. The board voted 7-2 in favor of designating the house, but was one vote shy of the eight needed. A majority of the 15-member board must approve, unfortunately five members were not present, and the board had one vacancy. The Barber House had received thumbs up from 88% of those present, but sadly the designation was denied. The HSB is currently named the Historic Resources Board (HRB), and the same rules are in effect.
A demolition permit for the E. Milton Barber house was granted the next day, and the house fell victim to the wrecking crew soon after. To add insult to injury, someone inside the fenced property stuck an American flag into the pile of rubble.
Development Impact Fees (DIF) are collected by the city to enhance communities with new projects. Perhaps some of this money might be used to create a community garden on this still vacant lot where Hillcrest lost a sad battle. Visit HillQuest.com for the full (and still expanding) story.
“The bulldozers of greed continue to gnaw at the corners of our city’s heritage.”
— U-T columnist Welton Jones, August 3, 1999
This article was first published in HillQuest Urban Guide, volume 6, 2008
Ry Rivard, a reporter for Voice of San Diego who writes about water and land use, shared this update on June 1, 2015.