Forgotten Sentinel on Marston Point
October 1, 1988
By Alex Bevil
Local History Award
San Diego History Center 1988 Institute of History
On an isolated bluff overlooking downtown San Diego is a building all but forgotten by the very city it was built to protect; because of its planned isolation to effectively perform its designed function, it has never impressed itself upon the city’s collective memory. Also, because of its functioning as a municipal facility, its day to day activities were carried out unnoticed by the majority of its neighbors. Due to this efficient blending of form and function it has remained a silent sentinel which time and progress has bypassed; yet its history parallels the history of the development of an efficient, modern fire alarm communications system for the city of San Diego. It is hoped that this report can honor the memory of the fire department personnel who served in the old Fire Alarm Communications Building on Marston Point.
The calling in of a fire alarm is one of the most important messages in which a quick and intelligent response is vital in order to quickly save lives and valuable property. The extent and severity of the fire’s development is determined by the response of the fire companies in time to control and extinguish it. Therefore it is necessary for a municipality to possess a quick, reliable, and effective fire alarm communications system. In organizing said system, it becomes necessary for all sections of the city to be able to notify the existence and location of a fire in their locations. It then becomes necessary for the fire department to coordinate the most effective response to the emergency in order to facilitate the least amount of personal and structural loss due to the fire.1
Prior to 1894 the primary method of detecting and reporting fires in the city of San Diego was by the use of watch towers or platforms placed either on top of fire stations or at strategic locations throughout the city with unobstructed fields of view. A fireman with a spyglass could scan the city and then clang a large metal bell if he detected a fire. A horse-drawn fire engine would respond to his alarm. Unfortunately, as the city grew, this method would become obsolete due to taller and taller buildings getting in the way of the observer.2 With the invention of the fire alarm telegraph by William F. Channing in 1852, the watch towers and platforms were augmented by the newfangled fire alarm boxes. These new fire alarm boxes were placed in highly visible locations on selected street corners within the individual fire districts.3
These alarm boxes were specifically created for them to be operated by the average citizen during times of extreme stress and high emotion. Inside of the alarm box a simple crank is found. When turned by the average citizen it sent a telegraphically preset code to the fire alarm communications center which was normally housed at the fire station headquarter’s building. It told the center the number of the fire district and the box number. Repeated signals were sent by turning the crank again and again.4
When the signal reached the communication center an alarm bell went off activating a telegraph register and recorder which notified the alarm board operator as to the alarm box and district in which the fire alarm is being sent. The operator then notified the fire stations throughout the city as to the location of the fire by the means of a telegraph key connected to them all from the fire station headquarters.5
In addition to the hand-turned crank is a “finger key” by which telegraphic communications can be conducted between a fire captain at the fire alarm box and the central alarm communications center’s dispatcher in order to call in more alarms as needed. An answer could even be returned to the fire captain by means of a little bell inside of the fire alarm box.6
San Diego’s fire alarm system was inaugurated in 1894. In 1904 a fire alarm center/dispatch office was located in the second floor of fire station #2 at 1171 10th Avenue; along with the rest of the fire department’s headquarter’s staff and personnel, it shared the building with a fire engine company which operated out of the bottom, ground floor.7 By the end of the 1920’s the city was rapidly outgrowing the effectiveness of this arrangement.
From 1894 up to 1904, the population of San Diego hovered around 17,000 souls.8 After WWI and the post-war boom of the 1920’s, the population soared upwards to approximately 100,000 individuals.9 The resulting expansion of the city was starting to put a severe strain on the effectiveness of the fire department’s ability to provide an adequate degree of protection through the old alarm system. Henceforth the department felt that it was necessary to upgrade its fire alarm system to provide for the city’s protection and to provide for any further growth and expansion of the city. It proposed to add more alarm boxes with additional alarm telegraph lines strung throughout the city. Likewise it proposed to consolidate all of these newly strung lines into a larger, more efficient fire alarm communications system central telegraph station. It would then be housed within its own structure with its own administrative personnel who would be solely responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the fire alarm equipment and circuits.10
The fire department worked closely with the city engineer to determine the size of, design for, and equipment needed for the new facility.11 Fire Chief Louis Almgren and Assistant Chief John E. Parrish worked closely with Alarm Superintendent J. W. Collins in 1926 to design and set up an up-to-date, modern fire alarm telegraph communications center. It was to be what would be then considered the “state of the art” for its time.12
These men had noticed that all major municipalities were now locating their new fire alarm telegraph communications centers in buildings which were situated in open city park space away from both public and private structures. They subsequently recommended that the structure be built on the south east side of the point of land in Balboa Park known as Marston’s Point which had a commanding view of the city as it still does today. The site was particularly significant for its logistics.
Secondly, because of its location on city park property, it would not be threatened by the incursion of public or private buildings within its immediate and surrounding grounds for a while.
Thirdly, and not the least important, the site could easily be reached from the fire department headquarters building by a short drive up from its location on 10th Avenue. In those days until the construction of Freeway 163 through Balboa Park, 10th Avenue, was a through street all the way up to Marston Point.13
Due to the precedent set by the designers of the aforementioned 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the city planners chose to specify that the fire alarm telegraph communications center building be designed to conform with the current trend of building public buildings in California in the Spanish Colonial Revival motif.14
Specifically, the Spanish Colonial Revival Period was an offshoot of the earlier Mission Revival Period of the late 1800’s. Here was, at last, an architectural style which represented all of the romanticism and dreams of a unique and traditional lifestyle based on California’s Hispanic past.15
As in the aforementioned Mission Revival Period Style of architecture, the Spanish Colonial motif lent itself to architects, builders, business and community leaders, and investors who felt a strong urge to transform the whole of California’s urban landscape into a version of the Mediterranean world.16 The Spanish Colonial style could adapt itself to suit most any building needs, whether a museum, such as the San Diego Fine Arts Museum designed by William Templeton Johnson in 1926, to the handsome fire alarm station on Marston Point in Balboa Park designed by his associate, Robert Snyder, in 1927.17
San Diego’s city fathers chose Mr. Snyder’s design for the new fire alarm communications building in 1927.18 His partner, William Templeton Johnson, was commissioned to design the three American Buildings of the Iberian-American Exposition in Seville, Spain, in 1926;19 therefore, John Snyder’s collaboration with William Templeton Johnson’s design of the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery qualified him in their eyes as the person to design the new structure.20 The building construction contract went to J. A. Hunt and Company.21 Materials were chosen by Snyder to give the structure a pictorial quality of strength and durability. He chose to use the same material chosen by his partner, William Templeton Johnson, in their collaborated design of the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery in 1926 – reinforced concrete – a material which best lends itself to the Spanish Colonial Revival style of buildings.21 In a 1912 report in a building manual the author comments on the use of this material,
The effect of broad, simple wall surfaces, neutral coloration accented by touches of brightness, and massive form (are) best suited for concrete architecture…. There is one style of architecture with which monolithic concrete construction fits better than another, it is (in) the California or Mexican “Mission” (later the Spanish Colonial style) as expressed in the low. . .buildings with the deep recessed porches and Spanish tiled roofs so favorably used in California.22
After reviewing the San Diego Fire Alarm Communications Building again, we can see that the simple exterior detailing could be easily impressed into the form of the surrounding mold in which the concrete was poured. The classical-influenced detailing of the embossed pilasters, symbolically holding up the Greek-inspired entablature with their stylized acanthus leaf moldings, invoke images of sunlit Mediterranean shores. The ubiquitous red tile roof completes the effect. The tiles also serve a functional duty as well.
They are poor conductors of heat radiated by the hot San Diego sun and prevent the building from becoming an oven during the summer months. A Moorish touch is further suggested by the use of Azujelo tiled steps leading up to the main entrance of the building. The twin ancones on either side of the doorway which itself supports the stylish nameplate. The oversized windows are representative of the Palladian style of architecture introduced by its namesake, Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, and was used throughout the Mediterranean coast from the 16th Century onwards.23 The central panels of the windows open outward on upper hinges to let air into the main floor area.
One curious design feature is the inverted ceiling of the main floor. It looks like an inverted interior of a ship. In fact, it was suggested that the designer chose this “inverted boat rib construction to harken back to his Eastern Seaboard home.24
One year after the building’s construction, in 1928, the city purchased over $20,000 worth of fire alarm communications equipment from the Gamewell Company of Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts.25
Command of the new facility was handed over to Fire Alarm and Police Telegraph System Superintendent, J.W. Collins, who, along with Fire Chief Louis Almgren and Assistant Fire Chief, John E. Parrish, helped design the new alarm system’s network throughout the ever expanding city. They also were the ones who decided upon which equipment should be selected from the Gamewell Company.26
The fire alarm and police telegraph systems act like an electro-mechanical nervous system connected to the central fire alarm station in Balboa Park.
There were three rows of tape-punching telegraph registers arranged on marble-topped tables. They were linked to the city’s fire alarm and police alarm boxes.27 Along the eastern wall were placed the protector panels, test boards, power control boards, and the control board which monitored the battery recharging system.
All of this was powered by the city’s power supply, but, in the case of a power outage, a switch could be flipped and the fire alarm station’s own gasoline powered generator would come into use.28 The subsequent lag time between the disruption of the city’s power supply and the firing up of the station’s generator was compensated by a dual battery system located in the station’s basement. It consisted of 1,000 glass battery jars which were constantly on-line in the event of such an emergency. The dual system kept one bank of batteries constantly charging while the other was constantly tied into the electrical supply of the station.29
The nucleus of the station was the operator’s control board/desk. Here he was linked to the fire department’s 19 station houses. He had both telegraphic and phone communications available to him in contacting the various fire stations. Later, in 1934, a two-way radio station was installed at the station which, at first, was used to communicate with the fire captains. Later, radios were eventually installed in all of the fire departments rolling equipment.30
After someone pulled the lever of a fire alarm box, the fire alarm communications center became a flurry of organized activity. The alarm box contained a heavy clockwork type spring; when tripped the spring activated a cam-and-switch arrangement that opens and closes an alarm circuit in a predetermined sequence corresponding to the number on the face of the box.31 This message was repeated three times in insure accuracy. The signal was sent to and registered on the fire alarm communications station’s tape-punching telegraph register assigned to that alarm box. A coded signal locating the particular alarm box was punched onto the register’s tape readout.32
The operator then read the coded message and set up the location of the alarm box on a master transmitter and sent a signal to all of the fire department’s fire engine stations throughout the city, ringing bells and turning on station lights. When selective transmissions were later installed, only those stations within the area of the fire would receive the alarm.33 This was affectionately known as the “silent night” program by grateful firefighters.34
If the message is a telephone call, the process is basically the same. The operator received the message on his control board/desk’s switchboard and, if sufficient information was received, the location of the fire was determined and the alarm was sent to the fire stations.35
As previously mentioned, the alarms and house lights in all of the fire stations were turned on by a signal from the fire alarm station’s operator. As the fire crews were gearing up to respond to the fire, the watch captain would then open up a drawer in his watch desk; in it would be a series of “running cards,” cards which would be organized in numerical order in reference to an encoded readout on the watch captain’s own telegraph responder. These cards were co-designed by Chief Parrish and then Assistant Chief G. E. Courser in 1937.36
If the watch captain saw that his station was first call in responding to the fire, he immediately hit the watch desk’s alarm button which sent his men down the fire poles and on their way.37
When selective transmission was installed, only the stations within the area of the fire were notified between the hours of 10pm and 6:45am.38 The operator back at the fire alarm station had to know all of the city streets, locate the fire on a city map, and dispatch the appropriate fire engine companies using his own supply of running cards.39
A fire at any location called for a special cooperation from all of the other fire captains not involved in fighting the fire. They had to refer to their own running cards to see if their engine company had to send some of its men and equipment to fill in the gap left by the emptying out of the fire stations’ men and equipment responding to the fire.
This shifting of men and equipment was referred to as the “move-up system.” If the fire became worse and demanded the need for more engine companies, the fire captain or battalion chief could use a special key to open up the fire alarm box and use a telegraph key located inside of the alarm box to tap a signal back to the fire alarm station requesting further alarms to be sent out.40 The process of relocating engine companies’ men and equipment was again repeated.
When the fire was eventually brought under control, each successive alarm was repeated backwards until all of the displaced equipment and men were back in their own fire stations again. This scenario was referred to as the “tap-out time.”41
The activities of the San Diego Fire Alarm Telegraph Station ran smoothly for over forty years without any serious disruption of service.
During the Second World War it was suggested by the San Diego City Council that the reinforced concrete building be used as a temporary city hall, but nothing ever became of that.42
After the war the facility found that the city was again outgrowing the capabilities of the existing fire alarm system. The station had its own maintenance shop on the premises as well as a fleet of utility vans used by its own line crews who were responsible for the more than 2,000 miles of aerial and underground telegraph cable.43
During the early 1970’s, it seemed that progress had once again caught up with the city’s fire alarm system; many different factors were combining to further antiquate the system once again.
First of all, the system was becoming more difficult to maintain and repair. New, more advanced equipment operated by computers was becoming available to the city. Secondly, and more importantly, the building was situated under the flight path of planes landing at Lindbergh Field and the increasing air traffic was causing serious problems for the men working at the fire alarm station. The noise was making voice communications nearly impossible, especially with the advent of jet aircraft and the resulting increase in commercial air traffic.44
Finally, the city moved its fire alarm communications network into the new city hall complex downtown and closed down the old fire alarm station forever in 1970.45
The following years were rather dull and uneventful compared to the previous years of service and duty. The building was used as a temporary storage facility by the San Diego History Center from 1971 until 1978. They were eventually told by the city to vacate the premises in 1978 because of the potential reuse of the building as a school for the blind or deaf children. As of yet, no effort has been made to re-occupy the building.46
How unfortunate that a building with such a rich heritage of public service as well as a fine example of noted architectural style should languish in such a state of disarray. The windows of the bottom floor are boarded up and an eight foot fence with a locked gate is needed to keep out the vandals.
Since the construction of both Freeways 163 and 5, the old access roads of 10th and 8th Avenues were cut off from downtown to the building.
Now the Marston Point area of Balboa Park has become a rather unsavory area. It is not the sort of place one wants to be after dark. Even during the day it is not the type of place one wants to bring the family out to for a picnic or walk. Perhaps if a new, more dynamic use for the old building can be figured out it could be the focal point for the cultural and aesthetic rebirth of the Marston Point area. As it stands now it is just a lonely building which is barely remembered by a past generation of fire-fighters. It is sad, indeed, that in the eight years since its decommissioning as a fire alarm communications center a whole generation of San Diegans have little or no idea of the building’s very existence, let alone know of its past importance in the city’s history.
1. The American Fire Alarm Telegraph: a lecture delivered before the Smithsonian Institution, March, 1855, by William F. Channing, p. 9. . ., reprinted from the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1855, pgs. 147-155; San Diego State University Library, Sabin Collection Microcard. Hereafter cited as The American Fire Alarm Telegraph.
2. Telephone interview with Fire Captain Larry Cook, July 3, 1986.
3. The American Fire Alarm Telegraph, p. 9.
4. Ibid., p. 11.
5. Ibid., p. 12.
6. Ibid., p. 19.
7. Telephone interview with Captain Larry Cook, July 3, 1986.
8. Iris Engstrand, San Diego, California’s Cornerstone. (Tulsa, 1980), p. 170.
9. Ibid., p. 172.
10. Newel Jones, “Action Fast in Fighting Blazes,” San Diego Evening Tribune, November 9, 1934.
11. Telephone interview with Fire Communications Captain Marty Magrug, July 16, 1986.
12. Jones, “Action Fast, etc.”
13. Telephone interview with Fire Battalion Chief David H. Benson (ret.), July 5, 1986; Sandborn Insurance Map of San Diego, Sandborn Map Company, (New York, 1948), Volume II.
14. The following buildings were built in the Spanish Colonian Revival Style before the San Diego Fire Alarm Communications Building was built in 1927:
1. The United States Naval Hospital Complex (1922)
2. The United States Naval and Marine Corps Training Centers (1923)
3. Scripps Clinic in La Jolla (1924)
4. The San Diego Fine Arts Gallery (1926)
15. David Gebhart and Harriet Von Breton, Architecture in California, (Santa Barbara, 1968), p. 99.
16. Ibid., p. 99.
17. Richard F. Pourade, The Rising Tide, (San Diego, 1968), p. 84.
18. Telephone interview with a clerk at The City Clerk’s Office of the City of San Diego, July 11, 1986.
19. There is very little biographical information available on the life and works of Mr. Snyder, except for a short entry in the Directory of San Diego Architects (1868-1939) Master’s Thesis Project of the Public History and Historic Preservation Program of the University of San Diego, Class 5, Spring, 1984:
A student of both Cornell and Pennsylvania Universities, Robert Snyder came to San Diego in 1921, and found employment as a draftsman with William Templeton Johnson, architect, and remained active in the profession for more than 20 years. Snyder spent part of this time as a partner of Johnson, and for the remainder of his career, maintained his own practice. Snyder and Johnson designed the Fine Arts Building in Balboa Park, the Community Welfare Building, and several residences in San Diego. Snyder displayed his drafting aptitude in the exceptional drawings for the Fine Arts Building, designed in the Spanish Renaissance style. Johnson and Snyder also designed the city fire alarm station in Balboa Park as well as the Ocean Beach and Logan Heights branches of the San Diego Public Library. While in practice for himself, Snyder designed several private residences in Bonita, Chula Vista, and San Diego. Mr. Snyder and his wife, Emma, resided in La Jolla in 1922, then lived in several different neighborhoods in San Diego. Snyder was a member of the A.I.A. and lived to be an octogenarian.
21. Leases and Contracts of San Diego Records, 1909-1947 19 volumes arranged chronologically, Volume 5, pg. 397, San Diego History Center Research Library Archives.
22. Karen J. Weitze, California’s Mission Revival. Vol. Ill of California Architecture and Architects. Edited by David Gebhard. 3 Volumes to date, Los Angeles, 1984.
23. Interview with Ms. Lilla Sweatt, curator of the slide collection of the San Diego State University Art Department, June-July, 1986.
25. Leases and Contracts of San Diego Records, 1909-1947.
26. Newell Jones, “Action Fast in Fighting Blazes.”
29. Telephone interview with Battalion Chief David H. Benson (ret.), July 5, 1986.
30. Newell Jones, “Action Fast in Fighting Blazes.”
31. Interview with Mr. Daniels at the San Diego Fire House Museum, July 6, 1986.
32. Ibid.: San Diego Fire Fighters Annual, 1956, p. 84.
32. Ibid.; San Diego Fire Fighters Annual, 1956, p. 84.
33. San Diego Fire Fighters Annual, 1976, p. 21.
34. Interview with Fire Captain Terry Finch, July 10, 1986.
35. San Diego Fire Fighters Annual, 1956, p. 84.
36. Ibid., p. 84.
37. Interview with Mr. Daniels, July 8, 1986.
38. San Diego Fire Fighters Annual 1976, p. 22.
39. Newell Jones, “Action Fast in Fighting Blazes.”
40. Interview with Mr. Daniels, July 8, 1986.
42. Telephone interview with Battalion Chief David H. Benson (ret.), July 5, 1986.
43. San Diego Fire Fighters Annual, 1956, p. 84..
44. San Diego Fire Fighters Annual, 1976, p. 21..
45. Interview with Ms. Sylvia Arden, Head Librarian of the San Diego Historical Society Research Library, June 25, 1986.
46. Ibid., January 23, 1988..
47. Many of the fire department personnel who were interviewed had some interesting memories and personal experiences connected with the now closed fire alarm communications building. Retired Chief Benson had stated that those firemen who had sustained debilitating injuries which prevented them from performing strenuous duty were assigned to the fire alarm communications station. Then Captain Benson was in charge of the line crews responsible for maintaining the miles of telegraph and telephone wire servicing the station. Fire Captain Terry Finch was manning the station’s switchboard as an internist from his classes at the then San Diego State College’s Public Administration Department when the Laguna Mountain fire broke out in late 1969. Needless to say he was given a real “trial by fire” in the strictest sense of the phrase. Fire Communications Captain Marty Magrug remembers the time when he was just a novice fireman that part of his duties were to drive up to the old fire alarm station and mow the grass out in front.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.