Egyptian Revival Architecture on Euclid Avenue
By Anna Daniels
It is difficult to imagine the excitement and personal interest in Egyptian antiquities that Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s 3,000 year old tomb engendered in 1922. A series of sealed chambers were filled with so many funerary objects that it took days to remove them on stretchers. The final chamber which included the nested sarcophagi of the “Boy King” was filled with dazzling gold and blue adornments and objects provided for Tut’s journey into the after life. Carter had hit the archeological mother lode.
The discovery of the tomb was significant for Egyptologists and it also caught the imagination of the European and American public. Travels to Egypt to view the antiquities became even more popular. Jewelers recreated designs found in the tomb. Scarab rings and brooches became fashionable.
That interest also materialized in an architectural expression known as Egyptian Revival. San Diego still has a few buildings constructed in this style. City Heights has one–The Egyptian Garage, on the southeast corner of University Avenue at Euclid. The pharaoh heads on the corners of the building and set atop a row of pilasters are hard to miss architectural oddities in the neighborhood.
Residential development in the mid-city communities–North Park, Kensington and East San Diego– got a real boost with the installation of street car lines along University Avenue. Those lines required additional electrical substations which were built in 1923. The first of three substations, all built in the Egyptian Revival style,was located off of 30th and University Ave in North Park. The second was built in City Heights, at Euclid and University Avenue. A third substation was built in Ocean Beach, on a different trolley line.
The City Heights substation was the terminus of the East San Diego trolley line. But by the early 20’s, both cars and buses began to compete with the trolley lines and the substation was sold only two years after it had been built to Paul and Francis A. Harvey. They operated the Egyptian Garage there from the mid-1920’s through the early 1930’s. The southern portion of the building on Euclid Avenue was added in 1927. David H. Ryan, a paving contractor and painter remodeled the Egyptian Garage and ran his business in part of the building for a short period of time.
What we see today is Big City Liquor and the Egyptian Garage, the only remaining example of those three original Egyptian Revival Style substations. Helen McCormick Hobbs-Halmay wrote an extensive article about Egyptian Revival Architecture in San Diego and includes a section about the Egyptian Garage.
The Egyptian Garage has large, flat, attached pilasters topped with Pharaoh heads. Leaded-glass designs of lotus blossoms grace the second story windows on the north side of the building… Along this building is a row of pilasters topped with Pharaoh heads, matching the ones on the corner building. There is also a semi-obelisk rising up above the top of the roof line, with a bas relief of the Egyptian god Thoth, the ibis-headed moon god.
This photograph also shows the flat incised stucco walls that provide an appearance of sandstone blocks. The walls angle out at the bottom and narrow at the roof line. One of the walls curves out at the top over outstretched vulture wings with a sun disc in the center guarded by a cobra on each side. A series of stained glass lotus windows are visible beneath the wings
The addition to the original substation, on the Euclid Avenue side of the building, includes bulbous columns attached to the wall. When Big Boy’s Barber Shop was relocated to a space inside the building, one of these columns was painted to resemble the iconic barber pole.
Dave Hargreaves, Erik Borowitz and the Egyptian Garage’s Promising Afterlife City Heights has become home to thousands of residents who were displaced from the the country of their birth by war and strife. Dave Hargreaves and Erik Borowitz are the owners of Cerberus Motorcycles, which now occupies the Egyptian Garage. They too were displaced from their home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
Dave was adamant about relocating the business to a free standing warehouse and found that they were in short supply in San Diego. While fulfilling that need motivated him and his partner to sign a lease on the Egyptian Garage, the building’s history and the potential for restoring it to its former appearance have become Dave’s passion.
Dave invited SDFP Field of View photographer Annie Lane and me into the building. This is not your ordinary motorcycle shop. The cavernous space was a respite from the outside heat. The high curved wooden ceiling with the original stained glass skylight emitted a soft glow. Dave pointed out the faint markings of wooden boards on the surface of the poured concrete walls. The wooden boards that served as the forms for the wall were removed and used on the ceiling. Annie Lane’s A Walkabout in City Heights Part II includes photographs of the ceiling and interior.
Dave has plans to restore the broken lotus windows and install a huge wooden sliding door along the existing track. The original door had been removed and replaced by a corrugated pull down shutter. He is starting to replace the lights on the outside with authentic period lights. San Diego Electric, a few blocks away, has provided some of these lights.
The eastern corners of Euclid and University Avenues are the site of three of City Height’s most distinctive and unique buildings–Big City Liquor/Egyptian Garage, the zigzag moderne Euclid Tower and the art deco Silverado Ballroom. All of these buildings are considered “architecturally noteworthy.” None has been designated as a historical landmark.
There has been a long standing planning assessment that Euclid Avenue should be widened to relieve traffic congestion. How and where that widening would occur is still unclear. The City Heights community via the City Heights Planning Area Committee recognizes the cultural and economic significance of those three buildings. Preservation has been more of a challenge.
The Silverado Ballroom was designated to receive redevelopment funds for restoration. The recent dissolution of redevelopment has thrown that restoration into limbo. The Euclid Tower received a new skin and structural support to keep it from toppling over and Dave Hargreaves is committed to restoring the Egyptian Garage. Two out of the three buildings do not appear to be in imminent danger. That is clearly not the case for the Silverado Ballroom.
These buildings are a significant part of the mix which makes City Heights such a unique place. They are landmarks worth restoring and maintaining. This requires a substantial amount of money. It remains to be seen whether public funds will be made available to supplement the significant private investment that has been made in each of these building.
The availability of public funds is as much a political issue as it is an economic one. Neither the political nor the economic issues will be resolved any time soon. But the lack of a resolution does not mean that the value of these buildings should be forgotten or ignored.