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Tom Ham's remodel to keep namesake's historical vision, but with better views

Remodeling the property at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse on the edge of San Diego Bay has been on Susie Baumann’s mind for years.

Serious considerations of a major remodel there first surfaced when Michael Bixler, a former commissioner at the Port of San Diego, suggested the iconic lighthouse wasn’t oriented enough toward the bay. He questioned the existence of a restaurant on San Diego Bay tidelands with no outside dining.

In a few months, that issue at Tom Ham’s will be no more, as Susie and Larry Baumann, the restaurant’s owners, will shut down the business for a few months while it undergoes a $3.5 million makeover that will not only add bay-view dining, but improve other things Susie has thought of over the years. (view the plans)

“That really was the spark that got us to look at the whole remodel,” she said.

Plans call for a large split-level dining deck to be added on the building’s second floor, opening views of San Diego Bay and downtown. The work is scheduled to begin Jan. 2. When completed, each side of the building will have a new look.

A rendering of the renovated Tom Ham's Lighthouse. Courtesy photo

From the entrance, patrons will notice a new wall opening to the courtyard in front of the lighthouse, new windows and new paving. From the east, a new shade trellis will be erected on the ground deck, underneath the new second-level deck. New glass railing will be installed to maintain views from both levels, and the existing stair and landing just above the rocky shoreline will be demolished.

Tile roofs will be added up the west façade to break up the large panes of plaster, and again, new glass railing will be installed to maintain bay views from the ground-level deck. Many other intricacies are planned for the inside.

The improvements are expected to bring a 60 percent jump in revenue to the restaurant, Susie Baumann said.

The new look was designed by Graham Downes Architecture, the same architect to design the recent addition of the outside pavilion at the nearly 59-year-old Bali Hai — also located on the bay and owned by the Baumanns — and the major remodel undertaken there more recently in 2010. Construction will be headed up by Hawkins Construction, well known in San Diego for its restaurant remodels.

Working with designs provided by Graham Downes, Hawkins Construction owner Jamie Hawkins is applying and continuing research needed to do the job, even with just a couple weeks to go before it begins.

The job will touch almost all the property, Hawkins said. It will add a new space in the front of the building for weddings, a new promenade and walkway around the restaurant and a revamped parking lot.

Getting into the research means understanding what Graham Downes’ desire was, as well as those of the Baumann family all the engineers involved, Hawkins said. The combination of architecture and the waterfront location adds to the challenge, in that Hawkins must determine what materials are best to use. Thought must go into protecting the living environment below the deck as well as the deck itself, he said.

Rather than supported by columns, the new dining deck will cantilever overhead, facing the downtown skyline. Along with providing views previously only imagined there, it also presents challenges in a saltwater-sprayed location.

“Figuring out the best application for that deck material is something that we’re still in the process of determining,” Hawkins said. “We have to take in the structural integrity of that deck — how it’s put together. We have to be concerned about the waterproofing.”

And with more than half the building above water, supported by concrete piers, considerations have to be made to prevent debris from making its way into the bay, both during construction and the changing of many of the building’s exterior finishes.

“It’s up to us to diagnose the project and the particulars, and make sure what’s been designed is … what the owner really wants — what the Baumanns really want,” Hawkins said.

Just Tuesday, Hawkins was onsite discussing those sorts of details with Susie Baumann’s sons — Andy, Grant and Tom, who are all involved in seeing the project through as well. Discussed, Hawkins said, was what materials currently on the building the family wanted to re-use or save.

With the remodel revolving around a restaurant that’s been family-run for more than four decades, Susie Baumann has taken time to think what anyone in her position might: what her father, Tom Ham, would think of the changes.

Ham arrived in San Diego in 1954 not as a restaurateur, but as an accountant. He wasn’t a bona fide historian, either. But as he grew into his new home, he took an interest in California history, raising his amateur historian status enough to chair the celebrations around San Diego’s bicentennial. He opened the restaurant in 1971, and the remnants of his historical interests are preserved in artifacts placed within it.

“When he built the lighthouse, his vision was that you could make history interesting through this building,” Baumann said. “That was very important to him.”

The Tween Decks Bar, upstairs in the building, was also a reflection of that vision, Baumann added.

“But there’s no view from it,” she said. “When you come to San Diego, and you’re on the waterfront, that’s not the bar where you want to sit. So I’m moving that bar — it’s taken me a while to get over it, but I think I’m almost over it."

Following the remodel, its new location will have a view of the outdoors. The area now housing the bar will retain its character, Baumann said, but will be changed to a private dining room.

The windows planned for the front, Baumann said, will lighten up the new location of the bar as well as replicate what was done at the Bali Hai by opening up the view of both downtown and activity inside the building. The new deck, built into two relatively equal sections of about 750 square feet each, will provide space for 22 tables. By comparison, the deck at the Bali Hai accommodates nine.

“We don’t pick up as many tables as you would think by this big deck, because we’re moving the bar where there are dining tables now,” Baumann said. “But they’re going to be fabulous views.”

As for the dining deck and her father’s thoughts, Baumann’s sure he would be “thrilled” with it, and the plans to relocate some of her father’s personal treasures.

“I think that we’re actually enhancing some of his artifacts,” Baumann said. “That makes me happy and I think that would make him happy.”

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