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Electric Building Up From the Ashes

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A sign on a grassy spot along Balboa Park's El Prado tells those walking by that the Electric Building reconstruction is slated for that site.

Most would surmise from the sign that a building by that name once stood on the site, was removed and now will be rebuilt.

In a way, that's what happened. But those who have lived in San Diego more than a year know something about the removal of the building that the sign doesn't tell.

They know the building was removed, not by a wrecking ball, the fate of many buildings, but by fire, set by arsonists.

Slightly more than a year ago, vandals set fire to paper in a breezeway next to the 63-year-old structure. The building, constructed of wood and stucco, quickly was engulfed in flames.

By the time firefighters gained control, the fire had destroyed not only the building but its contents, including the San Diego Aero-Space Museum and International Aerospace Hall of Fame.

Ironically, the building was slated for destruction and reconstruction. The City of San Diego already had begun some work toward that end -- and only 10 days before the fire, construction crews had removed the last of the representative ornamentation needed to reproduce new ornamentation for the new building.

The history of the building runs the gamut, from dedication in 1915 to destruction in 1978. The building, constructed of casting plaster and hemp fiber over wire, was designed by Frank P. Allen Jr. for the 1915 Panama California International Exposition and named the Commerce and Industries Building.

Bea Evenson of the Committee of 100, which was formed to preserve the Spanish colonial architecture along the Prado, said there are two schools of thought as to what pattern the building followed in its design.

One, advanced by Bertram Goodhue, advisor and consulting architect for the exposition, was that the building was designed after the Casa Consistorial in Palma Majorca, Spain.

The other idea, that of architect Samuel Hamill, was that all the individual elements of the building except the cornice were taken from the government palace in Queretaro, Mexico. The front window treatment, one of six different ones used in the building, is an exact replica of that palace.

The building, designed to last no more than two years, was used in 1916 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition for exhibits from Canada, brought from a San Francisco exposition, and the building's name was changed to the Canada Building.

After the exposition, it was vacant for six years, then was home for the Natural History Museum until it was moved in 1932. During the 1935 exposition, called the California Pacific International Exposition, the building was renamed the Palace of Better Living.

The local Red Cross headquarters called the building home from 1936 until World War II when it was a servicemen's hospital. In 1945, it was remodeled and named the Electric Building because it was used for exhibits by the San Diego Bureau of Home Appliances. In 1965, the Aero-Space Museum moved in, remaining there until the fire in 1978.

When the new structure, for which construction is scheduled to begin around June 1, is completed in about 14 months, it will appear outwardly to be the same building as that destroyed by fire.

"The outside appearance was the first priority," Delbert Cole of the architectural firm Richard George Wheeler Associates, said. Wheeler's firm is under contract with the city to prepare the drawings and specifications for the new building.

Because outside appearance is important, ornamentation and window locations will be the same as the original structure. Cole said Churrigueresque, the architectural style of the original building, will be used again.

Churrigueresque is a Spanish baroque style characterized by its elaborate surface decoration. Its Latin-American adaption is found on many Mexican churches, Cole said.

The Electric Building was one of several in the park with elaborate ornamentation. The north side, which faced the Prado, was particularly decorative, with two main entrances, each within a pavilion. One was located near the northeast corner and the other near the northwest corner.

The first story contained an arcade, the street side of which was open, and each arch of the arcade was supported by a rectangular pillar. Some of the arcade, which connected the building to the House of Hospitality, remains.

Above the pillars, the windows were French doors, with small wrought iron balconies.

The second story featured a row of windows which duplicated the arches of the first-story arcade. Each window was framed with carved molding and topped by a floating scrolled pediment, with additional scroll work above. Centered below each window was a vine leaf shield.

The roof support was simulated by 22 female statues, 10 of which were half figures. In between the figures was a highly elaborate cornice, consisting of suspended overhanging urns, groups of leaf clusters and garlands and tablets displaying gorgon heads surrounded by foliar and scroll molding.

On the northwest side of the building was a square tower. Like the north side of the building, the tower was highly decorative, with a window on each of four sides.

The tower was in alignment with and had the same appearance as that on the House of Hospitality, although ornamentation on the two towers differed. The towers were patterned after Moorish towers in Spain.

Even though appearance will remain the same as before, some of the construction materials for the new Electric Building will change. The original one was a wooden structure, with wood studs and stucco exterior walls, which contributed to the fact it burned so quickly.

The new structure, estimated to cost $5.3 million, will be of steel, rather than wood, studs, with the exterior surface of stucco. Ornamentation will be made of glass-reinforced polyester, which is much lighter in weight than stucco.

Representative pieces of ornamentation which were removed from the original building have been stored at Ninteman Construction Co., the firm awarded a contract with the city in December, 1977, to remove and restore representative pieces to their original condition.

Not only has the construction changed but the interior of the new building also will change with the addition of a ground level. It will be slightly below the present parking lot and 18 feet below the original main floor, Cole said.

Adding a ground floor will more than double the total square footage of the new building. Cole estimated the original structure contained between 42,000 and 43,000 square feet. The new building will contain approximately 115,000 square feet, with about 52,000 square feet per floor and the remainder used in the mezzanine areas.

The interior of the loft-type building will be finished in the restroom and lobby areas. Some of the tenant improvements will be included as additive alternates Earl Hayden of the special services department of the city, said.

Currently, three principal tenants, the Natural History Museum, the San Diego Historical Society and the Hall of Champions are scheduled to use the space or the main floor.

The museum also is schedules to have the usable space on the mezzanine and most of the ground floor. It will share approximately 2,000 square feet of the ground floor with the city park department

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