Saving Our Heritage: Take a Walk Through San Diego’s Jewish Past

by Brie Stimson February 26, 2018


the-first-temple-beth-israel-in-heritage-parkIn an unassuming building behind the Whaley House Museum in Old Town, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) is doing the quiet work of preserving the past.

The group, founded in 1969, is the oldest conservation advocacy organization in the state. Their headquarters, the Derby-Pendleton house, is a prefab home built in Maine and shipped around Cape Horn. It’s one of San Diego’s oldest wooden buildings.

For the last 50 years, the organization has been saving buildings like Horton Plaza, the Santa Fe Depot, Hotel Del Coronado, the Sherman Gilbert House and the Simon Levi grocery buildings in East Village.

“Preserving buildings and the importance of preserving buildings is to also create a sense of place and a sense of continuity for generations to come. A lot of people define themselves by their surroundings, so to provide them continuity through generations is a way that you can kind of connect with your past and connect with future generations too,” Historic Resources Specialist Amie Hayes told me as we sat in a small room in the Derby-Pendleton House surrounded by Victorian upholstered furniture and a cozy fireplace one Friday afternoon.

The first Temple Beth Israel, which now sits in Heritage Park among a cluster of other saved buildings, was San Diego’s first synagogue. It was moved to Old Town from its original location at Second Avenue and Beech Street. Services were first held in the wooden Elizabethan-style building in September 1889. Congregation Beth Israel is the oldest Jewish organization in San Diego, and the only congregation to occupy three buildings that continue to be in use.

“I believe it’s one of the oldest on the West Coast and it was a very important building,” SOHO’s executive director Bruce Coons said in the meeting with Hayes. “It was built in 1889 and it’s pretty much original. There was some restoration that needed to be done.” The synagogue was recently repainted and much of it has been restored.

The congregation originally came together under the name Adath Yeshurun and met in private homes before building the temple.

“The unique part of this one, it had the tablets as part of the architecture, so up over the gable, those were restored. Those had been lost over the years and those were restored as part of the architecture,” Coons explained. “They’re symbolic, you know, they’re not written on, but the tablets are over the gable of the main entrance and that’s pretty neat.” SOHO, along with the Jewish Community, was instrumental in returning the temple to its original color both inside and out. Today, the building is used for community events, including weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“Now we try to preserve them onsite, like the second Temple Beth that’s more Byzantine in architecture,” Coons told me. The second temple, located at Third and Laurel in Bankers Hill, is now Temple Ohr Shalom. It was designed by famed architect, William H. Wheeler in 1923, who also designed the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Old Town and the Balboa Theatre near Horton Plaza. In the 1990s, when the congregation moved again, this time to La Jolla, the second Beth Israel was in danger of being bulldozed. SOHO was able to work with community leaders to get the building on the National Register of Historic Places. The Beth Israel congregation sold the building to a local developer who promised to restore it.

“Stan and Laurel Schwartz brought it to our attention that they were going to bulldoze it when the congregation was moving to La Jolla because they were afraid it had earthquake problems,” Coons explained. “We put it on our Most Endangered List and attracted a preservation-friendly developer who said ‘I can take care of that one for you,’ and Stan and Laurel Schwartz got Ohr Shalom congregation to work with him and eventually get ownership of the building and preserved it and restored it. And so it’s restored today, and that one was a big one … Stan and Laurel Schwartz particularly made it happen and still serve the Jewish community.”

While saving the Simon Levi buildings in East Village, the group was able to get the original sign restored.

“It was called the Kvass Co. building when we got there,” Coons said. “Originally underneath all the plaster was this beautifully chiseled Levi Grocery building sign. We got that put back on there. It faces the ballpark.”

In 1876, Levi went into business with his uncle Samuel Steiner and Abraham Klauber.

“The Levi family was one of the real early families in San Diego that came in the 1850s, [and] started some early groceries,” Coons said. “[Some] of the merchant class even in Old Town in the 18[50]s were of Jewish background … Simon Levi was a partner with Klauber, so he started a grocery store real early and by the time these buildings were built, which were just a little after the turn of the century it became quite an organization.”

Klauber, a grocery store owner, left Nevada in 1869, and partnered with Samuel Steiner and then Simon Levi when Steiner retired. They opened the Steiner and Klauber mercantile shop on Fifth and Market in 1869.

“We publish this morning the announcement of a change in the firm name of the old and popular mercantile house of Steiner and Klauber. Hereafter it will be Steiner, Klauber & Co., the ‘Co.’ being represented by Mr. Simon Levi who has just entered the firm,” the San Diego Union reported in 1876. Steiner retired in 1883 and the name changed to Klauber and Levi. In 1895, Levi sold his interest in the business and formed his own.

“The big Simon Levi building is just a beautiful building,” Coons added. The Padres had their headquarters there for a while and the Levi family grocery is a smaller building, but it’s really detailed, and we were very proud to be able to get the names back on that too, and that’s a beautiful little building, too. It faces the Park at the Park. It’s a little harder to see than the Simon Levi building, which is next door.”

“Another Jewish-related property I particularly like – there’s a house in La Jolla and it was a Spanish house from the 30s, and it was built in an area that excluded Jews by the anti-Semitic Deed restrictions,” Coons told me. There was an argument over whether the house should be designated as a historic home because of the restrictions. A Jewish family defiantly moved into the house in the 1930s, and put a mezuzah on the doorway. “It’s still there today, and a modern Jewish family owns it today and wanted to get it designated and spearheaded it,” he said. “We of course argued very strenuously that, ‘no, that’s the reason to designate it because it showed trying to break down those barriers,’ and it’s a tangible example. It’s another way a building can tell a story.” The building was eventually designated.

“Buildings tell us more about history than any book can,” he continued. “To be able to experience it on the street – it tells the story and it prompts questions. ‘What is that building?’ And so for future generations, you know, ‘why is that there? Why does it look the way that that does? It’s an opportunity to teach the heritage and the history.”

Coons said he believes preservation is important because, “once you’ve lost something there’s only a finite number of resources and once you’ve lost something it’s lost. It’s an ever-diminishing group of resources. But we’ve done pretty well for a large city that’s growing. We’re pretty proud of our record.”


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