The Weirdest Building In Ocean Beach History? An Egyptian Revival Trolley Station Once Stood at Bacon and West Point Loma

by on July 11, 2019 · 10 comments

in Ocean Beach

The trolley sub-station at West Point Loma and Bacon in the 1920s

by Bob Edwards

Imagine you are a resident of inland San Diego in the Summer of 1926. Seeking relief from the 90 degree heat, you and some friends pile into a buddy’s Model A Ford and head down to Ocean Beach to spend the weekend at a cottage another friend has rented at the Camp Holiday Auto Court, adjacent to the Silver Spray apartments.

The cute white cottages on the cliffs are a bit small for your group but you’re spending most of the time on the beach anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. The rental cost, $10 a month, is a little steep, but what the heck, it’s a vacation. Each morning you head down to Benbough’s Ocean Beach Bath House and rent a scratchy, saggy, woolen “bathing costume” for 10 cents and spend your day swimming in the ocean or in the saltwater pool next to the Silver Spray.

Throughout the day you pig out on hot dogs and cotton candy and in the evening you toss back a few brews at one of the bars on Newport. After dinner, you walk down to the New Ocean Beach Dance Pavilion at the foot of Newport where you and a thousand other patrons flirt and foxtrot the night away to the sounds of a live band.

Closer look at the detail.

All good things come to an end, though, and while your friends have no obligations and elect to stay at the beach for a few more weeks, now it’s Monday and you have to be back to work at your swing shift job in downtown San Diego by 2 PM at the latest. You dress in your work clothes, a three piece wool suit with a stiff starched shirt and celluloid collar, and decide to take one last walk north along the boardwalk. After the boardwalk ends at Cape May Avenue, you start trudging through the sand, past the ruins of Wonderland Amusement Park to where you will head inland a few blocks and catch the streetcar back to the city.

The midday sun is blazing hot and you are soaked by the time you turn inland near West Point Loma and head for the trolley stop at Bacon Street. Should have had more lemonade, you think. Your mouth is parched, sweat dripping into your eyes. Your shiny black shoes are pinching your feet and your sunburned neck and shoulders feel raw.

There are a few houses and motels along West Point Loma, but more than half the properties are vacant lots occupied only by rolling sand dunes. On this hellish day, it almost feels like you’re trudging through the desert and that image is completed when you look ahead through the shimmering heat waves above the dunes and see a mirage, a two story Egyptian temple.

But it’s no mirage, it’s real. Surround by palm trees, the temple has tilted stucco walls that are finished to resemble large sandstone blocks. The walls are lined with arched doors, there are painted busts of pharaohs atop tall columns and at the top of the structure, the stylized wings of an Egyptian vulture are carved into the plaster.

“What is this, the Sahara?”, you say to yourself. Or maybe the banks of the Nile, where just a few years before British archaeologists unearthed the treasures of King Tut. Tut-mania is all the rage these days. In fact, you just saw a silent newsreel about the fantastic discovery of the golden mummy at the new Strand Theater on Newport.

With a final effort you arrive at the building and slump down against the shady side of the temple, meditating on King Tut and Egypt and the incongruous presence of this structure in 20th century Ocean Beach.

As your mind drifts, your thoughts are suddenly interrupted by the sound of iron wheels on steel rails and the clanging of the street car as it pulls up to the trolley stop a block away at the intersection of Bacon and Voltaire. You hurry over and climb aboard for your 40 minute trip to downtown.

By the time the trolley crosses the wooden trestle at Famosa Slough, the breeze through the open windows has cooled you down. Your  mind clears from your hallucinatory fever dream of ancient Egypt as you leave behind the relaxing pleasures of Ocean Beach and head back towards reality and your job downtown.

***

When one thinks of the earliest architectural styles in the Beach Area what usually comes to mind are Arts and Crafts-style bungalows, single-walled beach shacks, tile roofed stucco Spanish Revival cottages, and the occasional Art Deco or Victorian home or business. (Of course Native Peoples may have built temporary or seasonal dwellings when they came to the beach for gathering mussels and fishing, but those were probably long gone by the time European Americans started developing OB after 1887).

In addition to these more common styles, there has been a long history of eccentric architecture in San Diego and its beach areas. Although many of the weirder buildings have been torn down, the bizarre onion-domed Theosophical Society Headquarters and the Parthenon-styled Greek Amphitheater at Point Loma Nazarene are still standing. You can also find cool examples of “Tiki Modern” architecture scattered around Shelter Island and other parts of the Point.

One of the weirdest buildings that ever existed in OB, was the King Tut-influenced Egyptian Revival trolley sub-station on the site of what is now the Third Corner Restaurant in north OB.  Built in the 1920s and still standing as late as 1937, the building housed electrical equipment that converted the AC power provided by San Diego Gas and Electric to a form usable by the traction motors that powered the streetcars.

Although there had been Egyptian-styled buildings in Europe and America as early as the Napoleonic wars and France’s invasion of Egypt in the early 1800s, the fad for buildings influenced by the ancient Egyptian civilization really took off after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. The discovery was one of the biggest news stories of the day. Art Deco was in bloom at that time and it incorporated many elements from ancient cultures (Egyptian, Mayan, Assyrian, etc.) into the geometric and streamlined style that characterizes Art Deco.

In 1924, this fad spread to San Diego when three trolley sub-stations were built in the Egyptian Revival style at a cost of about $30,000 for all three buildings.

The Egyptian Garage/Big City Liquor in City Heights gives us an idea of what the OB sub-station may have looked like back in the day.

The OB Rag’s colleague, Anna Daniels, wrote a great article for the San Diego Free Press (“King Tut In City Heights“) about one of these sub-stations that was built at the corner of Euclid and University. After only two years this substation became redundant and the building was repurposed as the Egyptian Garage for many years. It is now the home of Big City Liquor.

The building featured multiple columns topped with the sculpted busts of pharaohs

A second trolley sub-station in the Egyptian style was constructed near 30th and University Ave. in North Park. What remains of that station is visible behind Berger Hardware on University Avenue.

The third building was the Ocean Beach sub-station.

Designed by architect Eugene M. Hoffman for the San Diego Electric Railway Company, the building was completed in July of 1924.  Hoffmann was a German immigrant educated in the United States who started his career in New York and New Jersey and worked for the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White.  That firm designed the original Penn Station in New York City and the Brooklyn Museum among other notable buildings.

After moving to San Diego in 1910, Hoffmann was employed by John D. Spreckles, the wealthy sugar baron. Hoffman worked on many buildings for Spreckles including designing the William Penn Hotel, a remodel job at the Hotel del Coronado, the Spreckles Theater on Broadway in downtown San Diego, and numerous garages, workshops, and power stations for the Spreckles transportation empire.

According to Eric DuVall of the Ocean Beach Historical Society, soon after the OB sub-station was built, it was rendered obsolete “due to advances in Electric Rail technology. Newer cables could carry considerably more power and sub-stations became unnecessary”.

Stylized Egyptian vulture wings at the top of the City Heights building

Eric recently discovered an aerial photo of north Ocean Beach from 1937 that shows that the abandoned sub-station was still standing at that time. Eventually the building was torn down and a series of restaurants has occupied the space for many years. Those restaurants included Charlie Brown’s Windjammer, the Belgian Lion, and the current occupant, the 3rd Corner.

The only images of the OB sub-station that remain are the grainy black and white photo shown in this article and the line drawing, probably from Hoffmann’s original plans, that was published in the San Diego Union.  By examining current photos of the Egyptian Garage/ Big City Liquor building in City Heights, we can get some idea of how the OB sub-station probably looked in all its glory with a new coat of sandstone-colored paint, poly-chromed pharaoh heads, and brilliantly painted Egyptian symbols and floral accents.

A closer look at the Wings.

How cool would it be to have this eccentric and exotic building still standing in our community? Now, besides one old photo and a newspaper clipping, it’s just dust in the wind, all gone like an eroded Egyptian monument blown out to sea after centuries of being blasted by scouring Saharan siroccos. Sucks.

This article was inspired by a photo shown at Eric DuVall’s OB Historical Society presentation “Trolley to the Beach”. The same picture is in Kathy Blavatt’s book Ocean Beach Where Land and Water Meet. Background for the imagined Ocean Beach visit in 1926 came from Kathy’s book and its companion volume Ocean Beach by the OB Historical Society, both published by Arcadia Publishing. Big thanks to Eric DuVall for additional information and guidance and also to Anna Daniels and the former San Diego Free Press.

 

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Eric DuVall July 11, 2019 at 11:17 am

Very well done Bob! What an interesting story. What a blunder tearing that place down. Carumba.

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Avatar ZZ July 11, 2019 at 2:59 pm

Bob, can you post or link to the 1937 aerial photos?

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Avatar Bob Edwards July 11, 2019 at 3:23 pm

Hi ZZ, Are you a member of Facebook? Eric DuVall posted the aerial pic I mentioned on the “Vintage Photos From Point Loma and Ocean Beach” Facebook page which is an incredible and fun resource. If you have avoided being assimilated by the evil Facebook empire, let me know and I’ll see if the OB RAG’s Editordude has your email address (if that’s ok with you) and I can ask him to forward you a copy of the picture.

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Avatar ZZ July 11, 2019 at 4:32 pm

Thanks for the info Bob, I have a facebook i don’t use much, hope i remember the password.

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Avatar Bob Edwards July 11, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Great. Let me know if you can’t find the Facebook group and we’ll get the picture to you somehow.

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Avatar Eric DuVall July 11, 2019 at 11:24 pm

I can send ZZ the photo too Bob, if the Rag is worried about it. It is pretty interesting if you are in to that sort of thing.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie July 12, 2019 at 11:51 am

The OB Rag is not worried – please send it and we can post it.

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Avatar Eric DuVall July 12, 2019 at 7:14 am

The winged disc is always the Sun or Sun God -power, divinity etc. Going back twenty four centuries or so.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie July 12, 2019 at 12:24 pm

This is one of the best articles the OB Rag has published this year! Please take a few moments and enjoy a walk into the past.

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Avatar Judith July 16, 2019 at 1:05 pm

Really enjoyed the OB time travel article and also wish it had been preserved. Great writing, thanks.

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