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City of the Dream, 1940-1970

CHAPTER FIVE: A Fiesta – Re-Living the Days of the Dons

By the 1950’s the breakup of the central City as a trading cen­ter was beginning, a trend already in evidence in other large cities across the nation. The auto was winning out in the shaping of the modern city. There were not enough curbside spaces to accommodate all the autos which were crowding into the central cities. Something had to give. More than 400 cities of 10,000 or more in population had tried to meet the challenge by providing off-street parking lots or garages. In Denver, $3,700,000 in revenue bonds had been sold to finance public parking. Memphis had adopted plans for a 500-car underground garage. Boston had accumulated a $500,000 reserve for similar facilities out of parking meter revenues. San Francisco and Los Angeles were reported taking the same direction.

The San Diego City Council, under the urging of its City Man­ager, O. W. Campbell, came up with a program of its own, a proposal permitting the City Council to issue revenue bonds to establish off-street parking, to be paid back out of parking meter revenues. Mayor Knox insisted that only marginal land on the edge of the business district would be used to relieve downtown congestion, and ridiculed suggestions that as many as sixty full blocks would be taken off the tax rolls.

Proponents, who included the great majority of San Diego’s downtown business and professional leaders, called the pro­gram “as sound as the San Francisco Bay Bridge” which had been built with revenue bonds secured by bridge tolls, and that those who were opposed to it were profiting from the scarcity of available parking space. Elmer H. Blase was chairman of the City-Wide Committee for Off-Street Parking. But, again, it was Mayor Knox who carried the fight, accusing opponents of dis­torting facts to confuse the poor old voters and that such tactics were the same used by Communists and were the surest way to bring socialism to America.

In the view of the opposition, the diversion of parking meter revenue would reduce the general fund and bring about an in­crease in property taxes. Oscar W. Cotton, a realtor and chair­man of the San Diego Committee for Free Enterprise, charged that if the plan was carried out on the basis suggested, it would destroy a major part of San Diego’s downtown area for the bene­fit of a small congested center.

The proposal was easily defeated, by a margin of better than two to one. In the same year, in 1950, Sears, Roebuck and Com­pany announced it was moving its operations from downtown to a new twelve-acre site in the Hillcrest area.

In Los Angeles, financial and business interests turned their eyes toward San Diego, with its rising military and industrial payrolls, due to the action in Korea and the widening of the Cold War. In a year 6,000 new homes had been constructed, 12,000 in the County as a whole. And the advances of science and engi­neering arising from World War II were beginning to spawn new phases of industry.

The Security Trust & Savings Bank of San Diego was merged into the Security First National Bank of Los Angeles. Allen J. Sutherland, president of the local bank, said that larger financial resources would now be made available to finance the progress of San Diego. With the exception of the Bank of America, the financial institutions in San Diego had been all locally con­trolled; now power was shifting toward a new financial center 125 miles to the north. The Security Trust was sixty-four years old and had been founded in 1893 as the Blochman Banking Co.

By 1952, Ewart W. Goodwin, the old-line Percy H. Goodwin Company, a real estate and insurance firm, was able to claim:

“The familiar discussion of geraniums or factories is a dead issue here. Industrialization is here and here to stay and grow. Despite the fears of old-­timers, who saw the ruination of San Diego as a pleasant place to live — and a great tourist attraction — with the coming of factories and workers, San Diego is a more attractive City than it was twenty years ago.”

The year 1951 also saw the end of another civic ambition that had kept alive the hopes of many early promoters and develop­ers. Passenger service was abandoned by the San Diego & Ari­zona Railway, which ran from San Diego to the Imperial Valley by a circuitous route through Baja California in order to avoid the numerous mountain crests. The line had been the project of John D. Spreckels, who at the start had the secret cooperation of the Southern Pacific, and he had hoped it would end the City’s geographical and economic isolation. The San Diego & Arizona connected with the Southern Pacific, whose main line still ran to Los Angeles by way of San Gorgonio Pass. No rush of pas­sengers to San Diego arrived by this southern route; and rail shipments had not yet indicated that San Diego would become the port of entry for the goods in and out of the Southwest. Major trials for San Diego still lay ahead when Harley Knox, tired and listening to warning signs in his own life, declined in 1951 to run for re-election. Thus the man who had guided the City through the war years and through the crisis of survival in the matter of a water supply, passed from the official scene. He was to die in 1956 of a heart attack at the age of fifty-seven. An attorney, John D. Butler, was elected Mayor over Councilman Gerald Crary. He was the first native son to assume the office in the City’s history.

But before Knox retired, he had witnessed an act of the peo­ple which wrote a formal end for the time to the grouping of public buildings. Advocates of a new Public Library, to replace the one built forty years before with funds from the Carnegie Foundation, were successful in winning voter approval to tear down the old structure and replace it with a new and larger building, on the same site on E Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, a long way from Cedar Street. The Library opened on June 27, 1954.

Watching the “downtown revolution” which was sweeping over larger American cities, George A. Scott had quietly retained research and design firms to study and recommend a future course for the Walker Scott department store. The Great Depres­sion had not run its course when the Walker Scott Corporation moved into a deserted department store building and opened San Diego’s second locally-held major downtown department store, at the very heart of the City, Fifth Avenue and Broadway.

In September of 1954 he announced that he personally had acquired sixty-two acres of land in the eastern section of the metropolitan area, at the junction of Broadway and College Grove Avenue, not far from Lemon Grove. Scott in making his announcement, said:

“… experience in other cities indicates clearly that San Diego is rapidly approaching the size and economic status that justify the development of an integrated shopping center . …”

The selected site, though at the time outside the City limits, was near the center of San Diego’s long-time growth pattern, on the mesa eastward to the foothills, and already construction was progressing rapidly on a new freeway that eventually would connect the downtown area, at Eighteenth and F Streets, with Grossmont summit and Highway 80, a distance of a little more than eleven miles, and designed to serve what then was the fastest-growing area in the County, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and Grossmont.

Within a year the land had been sold to a Los Angeles real estate developer and the Walker Scott Corporation signed the first lease for the building of a major department store in what would be known as the College Grove Center. There would be space for 5,000 autos at one time, 17,500 during a shopping day, and perhaps as many as forty stores. But the road ahead would be a long and troubled one, and six years would pass before the goal could be reached.

There was no thought of abandoning downtown. Scott simul­taneously announced that Walker Scott would expand its store as evidence “of our belief that the downtown shopping district will remain a major factor in serving the 750,000 persons who comprise the metropolitan area.”

A year after the City voted in favor of a new Public Library, the County voters failed to return the necessary two-thirds ma­jority on a proposal to build a new Hall of justice, but the prop­osition came back two years later and was approved. The new Courthouse and jail were to replace the old structure on Broad­way, between Front Street and First Avenue.

Thirty years had gone by since the Community Auditorium, a building left over from the Exposition of 1915-16, had burned down the evening of the firemen’s ball. In 1939, the San Diego Convention Bureau had unsuccessfully urged that the Federal Building in Balboa Park, built for the 1935-36 Exposition, be converted into a convention facility. In 1949, the grouping of public buildings, including a Civic Auditorium and Convention Hall along Cedar Street, had been defeated. Other proposals had been discussed and rejected, including the erection of a Convention Hall on Horton Plaza and the land immediately to the south, by private interests. Subsequently the City Council authorized a research institute to conduct a survey to study the economic and cultural value of a Civic Auditorium and Con­vention Hall to San Diego, and to recommend a site.

Since the end of World War II, the nature of the national econ­omy had been changing. Higher pay, longer vacations, new high­ways and more autos, faster and larger airplanes, and the great expansion of business, industrial, professional and civic conven­tions, were sending people in all directions as never before in history.

In its earlier days San Diego had been looked upon as a Winter resort country, for the well-to-do who could afford extended va­cations in the seasons of rough weather in the Midwest and East. Hotel del Coronado and the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla and La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club had represented the type of re­sort living that attracted the Winter people. Now Summer trav­el and conventions were the attractions for new millions of peo­ple. And San Diego was convinced it had a year-around climate superior to any other city in the nation, and the vacation poten­tials of Mission Bay were just beginning to be fully appreciated.

The research report took the City back to Cedar Street, rec­ommending as a site a four-block area bounded by Cedar and Ash Streets on the north and south and First and Third Avenues on the west and east.

Several buildings were proposed to form what was consid­ered an economically feasible public assembly facility for sports events, spectacles and conventions; a Concert Hall and Little Theater, and an Exhibit Hall for conventions and trade shows, and with adequate parking. Conventions, concerts and travel­ing dramatic productions were being accommodated in school auditoriums, principally the Russ Auditorium of San Diego High School at the southern edge of Balboa Park, or in scattered park buildings.

The arguments were persuasive. Only three cities with populations in excess of 250,000 were without public assembly fa­cilities. A bond issue of $8,500,000 was placed on the ballot for the June election in 1956. The San Diego Union took a look at Miami Beach and told the voters what they could achieve if they so desired, as residents of the nineteenth largest metro­politan area in the country:

“Competition for tourists and conventions … has grown more intense . … While other cities have stepped ahead in providing attractions for visi­tors, San Diego has worked largely with pre-war tools . … San Diego will move forward culturally and economically if the June 5 election … is favor­able. A yes vote will mean dollars and entertainment for the community.”

The four blocks were considered to be depressed in value and therefore acceptable for public use and were accessible to down­town hotels and restaurants. Sites in Balboa Park and Mission Valley were considered too remote. Opponents, however, mere­ly claimed it was “Cedar Street Mall Again.”

But a new Mayor, Charles C. Dail, an insurance man and a former Councilman, who had been elected to succeed John Butler, insisted that a Cedar Street Mall was impossible because some public buildings already had been scattered about the downtown area.

The Convention Hall and Civic Theater complex received the approval of a majority of the voters who went to the polls, but lacked the two-thirds margin required for a bond issue. But as the decision had been so close, petitions were circulated to put the issue back on the ballot in November, this time with a new name, the Hall of the Americas, with George Scott leading the campaign. It seemed certain that it would win the second time around. Such was not the case. There wasn’t even a majority vote in favor of it. A City centered on Cedar Street, which had been with the City’s leaders for so many years, was dead and buried for good.

Not all of the opposition was based on taxes or anti-Cedar Street sentiment. There were doubts as to how the City should proceed in regard to its future. Before the November voting, a committee representing the Downtown Association listened to what was being described as a “downtown revolution” sweeping other American cities and how 100 or 200 blocks in San Diego could be torn apart and re-assembled as a “city of the future.” Piecemeal solutions were held to not be valid any longer, and the random placing of public buildings would only add to the problems arising with growth and increasing traffic. The com­mittee was conscious of the planning then under way for a new crosstown freeway that would take traffic entering San Diego from the north, sweep it across the City on an elevated roadway, with off- and on-ramps serving the downtown area.

A Los Angeles architect, Victor Gruen, who had presented a similar concept for downtown Fort Worth, described a plan which would create a downtown pedestrian preserve sur­rounded by freeways, with ramps leading to parking garages, and electric glide-cars serving all facilities. Accomplishment would be by stages, with new buildings and open green spaces replacing older structures as they could be torn down.

On the committee were Morley H. Golden, chairman, and Walter Ames, Chester Dorman, James Forward, Jr., Philip L. Gildred, George Henderson, Carleton Lichty, Hamilton Mar­ston, Peter Peckham, Allen J. Sutherland and Charles K. Fletch­er. It was heady stuff, and they were not ready to commit them­selves, or all downtown interests. But the idea of a “City Beau­tiful” was taking a new form.

The citizens had no hesitancy in producing sufficient votes for schools, harbor improvements, water distribution, and Mis­sion Bay development. But time and again they turned back suggestions that the salary of the Mayor and Councilmen be substantially increased. Under the City Charter, administra­tive and executive responsibilities rested with the City Manag­er with power partly diffused through commissions, and with the Mayor and Councilmen in the roles of policy makers. Over the years voters had refused to disturb the system by providing any remunerative excuses for City fathers to assume roles beyond those granted in the City Charter. They feared a return to poli­tics by opening the door to full-time Mayors and Councilmen. Service to the City called for candidates who had substantial private incomes.

The voters did relent somewhat in June of 1956 by raising the pay of Councilmen from $2,000 to $5,000 a year but at the same time, and for the fifth time, rejecting an increase in the Mayor’s $5,000 salary. Now the Mayor presumably was only one among equals. Politics being what they are, and leadership resting with persuasion, strong-willed men made strong mayors any­way. Percy Benbough had been one; Harley Knox was another. They sought to bend events to their will, though not always successfully. But the voters relented again in November, at the time of rejecting the Convention Hall and Theater, and in view of the demands on the time of the Mayor as the City’s ceremoni­al chief, and assured that he would not hereafter enjoy an ex­pense account, raised his salary to $12,000.

But while enough voters were still reluctant to accept the idea of taxing themselves to make San Diego a convention and tour­ist center, a new San Diego was ready to emerge and events more than political decisions soon would determine the course of growth.

In 1953 a developer by the name of Charles H. Brown had a study conducted as to where in the Southwest he should build a resort-type hotel. All factors pointed to San Diego, and after further study, to Mission Valley. The valley then was a quiet retreat in the geographical heart of the City, with riding stables and bridal paths. The site was at the junction of two freeways. One ran north and south, the other east and west. They con­nected the site with Mission Bay, waterfront commercial activ­ities, downtown San Diego, the principal highway leading from San Diego eastward, and the mesa to the north which was begin­ning to fill with homes and businesses. There was room for a ranch-type hotel with swimming pools, tennis courts and other recreational facilities that could not be offered in the central City by the older hotels such as the U. S. Grant, San Diego and El Cortez Hotels. Brown declared Mission Valley to be the “per­fect location.” In a few years the decisions which had moved him to locate in Mission Valley would have explosive effects.

The fortunes of San Diego had so risen and fallen with war and aviation that any alteration in ownership and management of Convair was certain to have repercussions throughout the com­munity. On March 30, 1953, it was announced that control of Convair would pass to a new corporation, General Dynamics, which had purchased 400,000 shares from the Atlas Corporation. On May 15, John Jay Hopkins, chairman and president of Gen­eral Dynamics Corporation, succeeded Floyd Odlum as chair­man of Convair. It was the third change in management since Convair’s arrival in San Diego. It became formally the Convair division of General Dynamics.

The new division president was General Joseph T. McNar­ney, who had retired from the Army after thirty-two years of distinguished service which included the command of United States Forces in the European Theater and Occupied Germany. On Convair’s twentieth anniversary in San Diego, in 1955, he reported that slightly more than one in eight wage and salary earners in San Diego were employed at Convair and “During the next two decades they will face scientific and industrial challenges undreamed of in 1935 and only dimly discernible today . . . .”

But the benign climate was still considered San Diego’s great­est asset. Even Convair had come to San Diego because of it. In the past there had been two Expositions which had sought to spread far and wide the blessings of warm Winters and cool Summers. People could be induced to come to San Diego, to spend money; and perhaps to return, to buy land and build homes and even establish plants which might employ others who would surely come in time. Selling of land was still a prin­cipal business in Southern California. San Diegans wanted their share of the returns from the great Westward movement. The velocity of real estate sales per thousand of population in San Diego County was double that of Denver, Colorado, and more than four times those of Chicago and Washington, D. C.

As far back as 1950 the City’s business leaders had envisioned still another exposition of international character, and even had agreed to subscribe $2,000,000 for it. But the Korean war post­poned any such plan and by the time it was over, most of them were convinced an international exposition for a City the size of San Diego was now impossible. Wayne Dailard agreed.

On August 13, 1955, Ewart W. Goodwin, president of the Ex­position Corporation, announced there would be a great annual Festival of the Pacific designed to draw thousands of tourists for a spectacle rivaling New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.

Wayne Dailard, a polo playing showman of many years, had successfully rejuvenated the Santa Barbara Fiesta and then had turned his attention to San Diego. He also was convinced — and perhaps had convinced Goodwin — that the old world’s fair idea was obsolete, and in the words ofSan Diego Magazine, he proposed, instead:

“Threading a ribbon through La Jolla’s caves and looping it over the back country and on along toward the border … tying together the city’s perma­nent summertime attractions and interlace them with a series of special events. Parade and pageant, tournament and aquashow, costumed street dance and formal ball.”

He told his story to a hundred community leaders who formed the nucleus of an organization pledged to plan for San Diego’s first annual Festival of the Pacific. The San Diego Union com­mented:

“It has long been evident that Los Angeles, once the tourist mecca of the West, has industrialized itself from that role. Vacationers don’t like to grope around in smog, tears in their eyes … the capital will shift . … Santa Bar­bara’s `Old Spanish Days’ draws 100,000 visitors.”

An executive committee was named, to include Goodwin, George A. Scott, Allen J. Sutherland, Anderson Borthwick, Harry Callaway, G. H. Dillon, Robert M. Golden, E. Robert Anderson, Kenneth Nairne, Charles Brown, William Goetz, Carleton Lichty, John Quimby and Walter Ames, with G. Aub­rey Davidson, president of the 1915 Exposition, and Guilford Whitney, a leading merchant, honorary chairmen. They repre­sented a cross-section of banking, building, business, newspaper and television interests, the legal profession, and organized labor. Most of their names had appeared on the lists of all the things that a new leadership had tried to accomplish in what they were convinced was the spirit of civic ambitions as defined by the pioneers.

Expositions might have passed from the scene because of the attraction of television as a vehicle for introducing or exhibit­ing new products. But, if Alonzo Horton and a group of earlier residents in Old Town had been able to summon a City into be­ing, and if a City of less than 40,000 in population could have conceived the Panama-Pacific Exposition, certainly a City now eleven times that in size, could invoke a similar unity and en­thusiasm.

But enthusiasm at first came slowly and Goodwin told the San Diego Convention and Tourist Bureau members that they could have a “Frankenstein monster” on their hands if they did not contribute wholeheartedly toward the fiesta’s success. A budget of $300,000 was set and Sutherland was designated to head the subscription campaign. The City and County govern­ments gave $50,000 each.

The centerpiece of the celebration would be presentation of “The California Story.” This was a state-owned historical pag­eant first presented in the Hollywood Bowl in 1950 for Cali­fornia’s Centennial celebration, under the general direction of Dailard. Governor Goodwin J. Knight released “The Califor­nia Story” to San Diego. “San Diego stands at the portal of this rich, moving saga,” Dailard announced. “Here California His­tory began.”

The Festival of the Pacific was translated into Spanish, and the fiesta became Fiesta del Pacifico. By the Summer of the fol­lowing year, everything was in readiness. The money had been raised, the pageant rehearsed with 1,300 participants and thirty­-five scenes which would require a stage in the Balboa Stadium as long as a city block. The fiesta was to run for thirty-three days; the pageant for fourteen days.

Production of the pageant was to be under the direction of Vladimir Rosing of the New York City Center Opera, with the symphony orchestra and 150-voice choir to be led by Meredith Wilson, a musician and song writer of popular reputation.

Spanish-type costumes appeared in retail stores. The men’s designated costume would have flat, rounded hat, a tie with sequins, a shirt milled for Mexican weddings, and spangled stripes down pant edges. Women were to don flowing skirts and mantillas, and wear large, high combs in their hair. The of­ficial fiesta colors were to be red and black. In June, thirty-­two Navy jet fighters flew over the City streaming, red, green and yellow ribbons, the colors of Spain.

The fiesta opened with a grand parade of nearly 3,000 per­sons, with 200 richly-costumed men and women astride horses, 200 girls on floats tossing flowers at spectators, the massing of 500 American flags, twelve flags which had flown over Califor­nia, and seventeen bands.

Everybody had a good time. The pageant was well attended, with the staging of California history from the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to, eventually, the earthquake in San Fran­cisco. Harry L. Foster received a special honor for his success in developing the parade. All agreed the fiesta should be pre­sented annually. That is, perhaps all except members of the City Council. Councilmen refused to donate City funds for a 1957 fiesta, refused to rehabilitate the Ford Building of the 1935 Exposition for a fiesta headquarters and exhibit hall, and ap­peared reluctant to allow the Spanish Village to be diverted for such affairs. Cooperation would extend only in services.

There was some feeling in the community that the chief bene­factor of the fiesta had not been the City and the tourist busi­ness but Dailard and his co-workers who had produced “The California Story” around which San Diegans had costumed, danced and paraded. It was agreed that the fiesta had run too long and next time it would be reduced from thirty-three days to eighteen. It had been difficult to sustain the interest of the citizens for that length of time and often visitors, arriving be­tween events, had trouble finding what the fiesta was all about. There were more private parties than public events, and sales of Spanish-type costumes had not come up to expectations.

Fiesta del Pacifico ran for three more Summers, though its originator, Dailard, had been forced out, and then quietly passed from the scene. Vacationers who came to San Diego in the Sum­mer were more interested in doing something themselves than in watching somebody else’s performances. The tourist business, however, had seemed to be on the increase. In 1952 the money left behind by tourists was estimated at $75,000,000. In 1956, the figure was set at more than $130,000,000. Two years later, however, the rise had slowed somewhat and the revenue was estimated at $144,000,000. The fiesta, in a way, competed with the normal Summer attractions and hotels and motels wanted it presented in “off’ seasons when rooms were more available.

San Diego also did not have the civic cohesiveness that could be found in a smaller city such as Santa Barbara or exhibited in the long tradition of the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Of the 490,000 residents in the City in 1956, less than half of them might have been in San Diego in 1940. It was now a City of strangers.