San Diego State College Historic District: The Mediterranean Monastery as a College Campus
Lynne E. Christenson, Alexander D. Bevil, and Sue Wade
San Diego State University’s Historic District is an important and unique representation of evolving twentieth-century educational philosophies, architecture, and the significant accomplishments of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Southern California. The district’s plan, layout, and design are directly associated with the goals of the early leaders of this institution who sought to move its educational philosophy from that of a curriculum based on rote memorization and drill to a more holistic approach of educating and developing the complete person’s mind and body. Under the direction of these visionary presidents, San Diego Teachers College developed into a comprehensive modern university with the Historic District as its core, and this district remains the symbolic center of San Diego State University today.
Educational Foundations of a University
What is today San Diego State University began as the San Diego Normal
School, established in 1897 to provide local education for future female
elementary school teachers (Starr 1995:18). The term originated in eighteenth-century
France from the École Normale Supérieure (“Normal
Superior School”), established in Paris in 1794 as a model for teacher
training schools. Although the state legislatures both established schools
and controlled their number and placement, the organization, curriculum,
and management of the schools depended upon local needs. Thus, the presidents
of the normal schools were highly varied and had a marked personal influence
(Harper 1939:103). Some traditionalists argued that teachers only needed
to learn those topics that would “normally” be taught in an
elementary school. However, this attitude was not shared by Dr. Edward
L. Hardy, the second President of what was then San Diego Normal School.
During his 25 years in office, the institution evolved into the San Diego
State Teachers College in 1923, and then the San Diego State College in
1935 (Starr 1995:91). Hardy’s vision “lifted the normal school
from a narrow training in pedagogical methods and teaching skills to a
concept of broad professional preparation and academic enrichment for
the teacher" (Lesley 1947:22). A progressive educator and administrator,
Hardy influenced higher education throughout California and was instrumental
in raising the standard of the profession of teaching during the early
20th century (Love 1955:52).
The years 1921 to 1935 were marked by great change at San Diego State
Teachers College; it was during this time that President Hardy's vision
and philosophy came to fruition. The enrollment increased from 600 students
in 1921 to 1,300 in 1925, consistent with the overall growth in college
enrollment nationwide (Lesley 1947:40-41). Due to this increase, the state
granted San Diego State Teachers College status as a four-year institution
in 1923. Since the 25-year-old University Heights campus would not be
able to sustain a larger student population, Hardy began planning for
a new and larger school to accommodate the increase in students. He envisioned
the New San Diego State Teachers College campus as a “harmonious
expression of learning and architecture” with allegorical architectural
links to “historic institutions of civilization and enlightenment”
(Hardy 1929:1). On April 6, 1928, the Citizen’s Executive Committee
chose to locate the new campus in the center of a 125-acre site in the
heart of the newly subdivided Mission Palisades tract in San Diego (Bevil
Figure 3.1 Aerial view of San Diego State Teacher’s College taken in 1931. Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
The College Expands under New Leadership
Dr. Walter R. Hepner was the third president of San Diego State College.
Under Hepner’s administration (1935-1952), San Diego State became
a full-fledged academic institution. In 1935 the California State Legislature
authorized the expansion of the college through offering degree programs
other than teacher preparation (Lesley 1947:57). Hepner believed that
San Diego State College should do more than prepare its graduates for
employment; he stressed that a good liberal arts background was necessary
preparation for success in life (Starr 1995:92). Student enrollment increased
dramatically during Hepner's administration, and in order to meet the
demand of increasing campus population, it was necessary to plan for the
future expansion of the campus (Starr 1995). During his tenure, Hepner
was responsible for coordinating the building of eight new buildings,
building extensions, and adding acreage to the original campus with the
help of WPA workers (Figure 3.2).
Figure 3.2 A view of the expanded campus in 1948. Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Hepner also coordinated the preparation of the campus educational programs to meet the wartime demands during World War II. During this time, over 114 acres were added to the campus (Bevil 1995: 57).
Architectural Style of the Historic District
Constructed over a period of thirteen years from 1930 until 1943, the
historic campus core buildings and grounds represent the evolution of
the Spanish Colonial style in Southern California. Their historic design
and layout are linked directly to the visionary mindset and educational
philosophy of President Hardy, which he detailed in popular magazines
of the time (Hardy 1930). Hardy explained in that the style of a building
affects one’s feeling toward life, noting that “civilization
is a . . . social work of art, expressed in social action, like a ritual,
or a play (Hardy 1929:3). Overall, Hardy insisted that “the new
State College of San Diego [be designed] in architecture reminiscent of
Spain . . ., influenced by the Arabian and Moorish . . . in a landscaping
very like that of southern Spain” (Hardy 1929:3).
Two interrelated architectural styles—Mission Revival and Spanish
Colonial Revival—were extremely popular in California and throughout
the United States between the two world wars. Using these styles, California’s
predominant white middle-class society sought to establish a uniquely
Californian architectural identity during the early part of the 20th century.
However, instead of creating a truly original style, they focused on reinventing
a romanticized version of its Hispanic past (Bevil 1995:44). The first
attempts at rediscovering California’s architectural Hispanic past—the
Mission Revival Style (1890-1915) —was the first phase of the Spanish
Colonial Revival (Gebhard 1997). It drew upon original late 18th to early
19th-century Spanish Mission architecture, using design and construction
features dating back to the beginnings of Spanish vernacular architecture.
Some of its most distinctive architectural characteristics included massive,
unadorned, whitewashed walls constructed of sun-fired adobe bricks, roofs
of red, fired clay tiles with overhanging eaves, and floors of red square
tiles (Bevil 1992). Other unique architectural features commonly associated
with Southern California missions include a built-in or free-standing
campanario, or pierced wall bell tower, a curving ornamental false front,
and one or more arcaded walks. Patios with fountains were also common
(Gebhard 1967, Weitze 1984).
The San Diego State College Historic District is a singular and outstanding
example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in an institutional setting.
Relatively intact to this day, the core buildings are invaluable sources
for studying the most desirable elements of the Spanish Colonial Revival
architectural style adapted to a Southern California college campus. The
historic core campus buildings express one of the style’s best features:
restraint and sophistication. The buildings represent sculptural volumes
that are “closely attached to the land, whereby the basic form of
the building was broken down into separate smaller shapes which informally
spread themselves over the site” (Gebhard 1967:137). While many
of the buildings contain elaborate detail, for the most part their exteriors
of smooth reinforced concrete and stucco walls imitating whitewashed adobe
walls present a somewhat austere expansive face. Offsetting this is the
placement of elaborate interior patios and gardens for movement between
classrooms, studious contemplation, and social interaction (Requa 1926;
McAlester 1984:418) This attention to the arrangement of volumes and open
spaces across the built landscape of the campus, with combinations of
flat, hipped, and gabled roofs, gave the impression of the multiple and
varied roof-lines of Spanish villages, or, in the case of San Diego State
Teachers College, the “harmonious expression of learning and architecture”
(Gebhard 1967:139; Hardy 1929:1).
Figure 3.3 The portales of the administration building. Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Resembling a heavily defended bastide style entryway, two 2-story barrel-shaped
turrets flank a Catalonian-inspired cut stone archway. Rajas (wrought-iron
window grills) and ajimezes (concrete window grates) add to the entry’s
defensive character. One of the most photographed buildings on campus,
the portales’ most interesting feature is the Mission-style campanario
(pierced bell tower) bridging the gap between the twin turrets’
red tile roofs. A noted architectural characteristic of Mediterranean
and Spanish Colonial church architecture, SDSU’s campanario is very
similar to those at Mission San Diego and at the Franciscan assistencia
or sub-mission at Pala east of Mission San Luis Rey. It is speculated
that the former may have influenced Hazen’s design (Bevil 1995:47,
Figure 3.4 Hardy Tower as it appeared in 1959.Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Figure 3.5 Scripps Cottage in its original location. Courtesy of San Diego State
University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
The result of a $6,000 donation by local benefactress Ellen B. Scripps, it served as the headquarters of the campus Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. organizations as it does today in its new location near Scripps Terrace and HilltopWay (The Aztec, 23 September 1931). North of the cottage’s original location was the Aztec Café and Bookstore (Figure 3.6), also done in Spanish Eclectic vernacular style (Bevil 1995:51).
Figure 3.6 A view of the old bookstore with Hardy Tower in the background. Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Even the utilitarian Shop and Boiler Building located on the campus’
northeast ridge overlooking Alvarado Canyon were built in the Spanish/Mediterranean
tradition. Housed within its “Shop Building Renaissance” design
were the oil-fired boilers that provided heat throughout the buildings
during the winter months (Bevil 1995:50).
Figure 3.7 The garden patio court of the Women’s Gym. Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Provisions were made for a swimming pool on the east side of the gymnasium; however the budgetary concerns caused by the economic depression of the 1930s prevented its completion. Only concrete bleachers, now covered up, and a wing off the southeast portico, since demolished, were ever built (Bevil 1995:51).
The Role of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1935-1943
In the midst of all of this building, the effect of the Great Depression
was finally felt. Because of slow housing sales in the Bell-Lloyd/Mission
Palisades Tract, the Bell-Lloyd Company (the college benefactor) abandoned
the entire project in 1936, stifling San Diego State College's development.
Luckily, there was a mechanism in place that would help continue the campus
development into a stylized Spanish Colonial Revival-inspired educational
complex: the WPA (Bevil 1995:51-52). The WPA or Works Progress Administration
was a federally-funded program designed to provide work for a limited
number of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. Part of the
Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the WPA sought to provide
employment by initiating projects around the country (Howard 1973).
Figure 3.8 WPA workers digging the Aztec Bowl on February 1, 1936. Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Construction on the bowl provided work for between 300 and 700 men. Dug out of a natural geologic depression, most of the work was done by hand and with mule-powered grading equipment. At the time of its completion in 1936, the cobblestone and concrete Aztec Bowl was the only stadium built on any college campus in the state of California (Bevil 1995:57). Other WPA-funded campus construction projects included the building of a columned arcade between the Academic and Science Buildings, classroom annexes to existing buildings, the Greek Bowl (Open Air Theater), and nearly 100 wood and concrete benches lining the walkways within the quads (The San Diego State College Aztec [SDSCA], 26 October 1932:1).
Figure 3.9 WPA workers digging the Aztec Bowl on February 1, 1936. Courtesy of San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Many lesser projects were also undertaken. Plans for a number of additional
buildings and improvements were complete by the end of 1940. However,
the need for national defense projects and the expansion of defense-related
industries in San Diego after 1940 shifted much of the manpower allocation
away from San Diego State (SDSCA, 3 March 1942:2). Only the Music Building
and extensions to the Library and Science Building were completed subsequent
to 1940 (Starr 1995:96). All three were dedicated on May 19, 1942 as part
of the college's forty-fifth anniversary celebration (Bevil 1995:57).
The movement of “The Aztec” to make way for the new trolley
line becomes a metaphor for the campus Historic District in general: adjustments
must be made to accommodate the new. By the end of World War II, the Spanish
Colonial Revival style had lost favor. While certain elements of the Spanish
theme were incorporated into some of the buildings built between 1950
and 1970, the campus master plan has been continuously adapted and modified
to accommodate new buildings on campus reflecting architectural styles
currently en vogue. All of this produced a mélange of new buildings
throughout the campus by mixing buildings of different mass, scale and
architectural style (Bevil 1995: 52). However, San Diego State University’s
historic core campus buildings have survived into the 21st century, representing
a time of change and improvement which allowed a simple normal school
to transform into a comprehensive, modern, distinguished university.
Branton, Pamela Hart
Hardy, Edward L.
Harper, Charles A.
Howard, Donald S.
Kirker, Harold C.
Lesley, Lewis, B.
Love, Malcolm A.
McAlester, Virginia and Lee
Requa, Richard S., A.I.A.
San Diego State College Daily Aztec
San Diego Union