Saturday, February 4, 2023

CHA Highlights GEM Nominees: 535 and 545 Ocean Blvd

By Mary Farley, CHA Volunteer & GEM Committee Chair
This article is the first in a series about CHA’s Going the Extra Mile Award.

The Annual GEM Award is truly a community award. It has been awarded to locals since 2013. Last year, the 2020 GEM Award was presented to Chip & Candice Kislack’s home at 1006 G Avenue. The GEM—Going the Extra Mile—is an award that recognizes a homeowner’s commitment to preserve and restore, rather than replace, a historic home, contributing to Coronado’s unique and architecturally rich built environment. 

Undoubtedly, what makes the annual award so special is its ability to spur interest in Coronado’s fascinating past. As 2019 winner Debi Boney said, “I am honored to be recognized for the improvements to my home. I feel the GEM Award represents a great initiative to homeowners representing their efforts to retain and restore our community values in architecture.”

Each year, the GEM Committee considers historic homes and properties that have been nominated by CHA membership. GEM Award finalists must have completed a recent restoration or renovation project true to the historic character of the home by December 31 of the prior year. The GEM committee researches the history of each home before making its selections. The Coronado Historical Association’s GEM Committee is pleased to announce this year’s finalists in a series of articles over the next few weeks. The winner will be honored at the Annual National Preservation Month Symposium on Thursday, May 21, 2021. These are Coronado’s GEMs. These owners truly Go the Extra Mile.

545 Ocean Blvd.

Photo Taken by Mary Farley

The original English-styled gabled home at 545 Ocean Boulevard was built in 1910 for W.H. Gafford for $5,500 and was the first home on Block 20-B of Coronado Beach South Island. The history of the home, and the first family who lived there intersect with the current homeowner’s history, as both are a native of the San Francisco area. Capt. William Geary was one of several generations of the Millar/Geary family to own and live at 545 Ocean Boulevard. He was the grandson of San Francisco’s first postmaster, John White Geary. The well-known Geary Street in downtown San Francisco was named after John White Geary who also served as the first mayor of San Francisco (serving first as Alcalde (Magistrate) before California became a state). 

Interior of 545 Ocean Blvd.

In 1981 Gerry MacCartee, then President of the Coronado Historical Association, presented a plaque to Col. Edward Millar Geary, celebrating the history of the “Gafford-Millar-Geary House.” Since that time, however, the home underwent massive renovations beginning in the ’80s that took the property down to the studs and lifted it several feet to add the front porch and stairway. The second level facade was replaced with stucco and all of the remaining brick was replaced with brick imported from Georgia. These alterations and subsequent ones contributed to the property being designated as non-historic in 2017. Since the home is not designated as a Historic Resource, the current homeowners could have torn down the home and started over. 

Historic photo of 545 Ocean BlvcHowever, they saw the historic potential within. San Francisco natives, 545 Ocean Boulevard’s current owners have enjoyed Southern California, in particular the San Diego area, as a family vacation destination for many years. Roots had already been planted as one of the homeowners is an Aztec having received a degree in urban planning from SDSU. When they embarked on their search for a home, La Jolla was considered, but the homeowners quickly fell in love with Coronado’s walkability and friendly community. After looking at a multitude of properties in Coronado they fell for 545 Ocean Boulevard. “Everyone said it was a teardown, but we immediately saw the potential,” the homeowner shared regarding the house. Recognizing that being situated on Ocean Boulevard across from the public beach can be very busy, they appreciated that the quarter-acre property had “the distance from the Hotel Del, and large lawn and porch [which] gave us space.” 

The search for the right architect, contractor, and designer culminated in engaging Christian Rice, Cavanaugh Construction, and Studio H Design Group. “We couldn’t have chosen a better team”, the homeowner gratefully noted. The first level of the house was cut up into a dining room, laundry room, kitchen, two bathrooms, and a skinny common room. Dated weight-bearing posts held up the second floor further dividing the space. The kitchen was tucked away on the north side near a secondary staircase leading to the second floor while centered on the first floor was the large main plexiglass staircase also leading to the second floor. “Our vision was to create an open floor plan with a single staircase going upstairs and downstairs and add an open kitchen on the south side,” the homeowner shared. 

The upper floor featured three awkward bedrooms with low ceilings, dated bathrooms, and a seating room in between from which they created two bedrooms and extended the floor footprint to match the first-floor footprint. Removing dormers, opening up the peaks in each bedroom, adding Juliette balconies and a series of French doors further opened the space to the ocean views and breezes. The basement in the home is physically more like a first floor due to the elevated main floor. Little was done to this level other than to transform a large storage area into a big bar and entertainment space. 

“We wanted to add light to both the exterior and interior of the home and therefore extended the porch on each side.” Thus large front and back French doors were selected as well as the unifying natural color to paint the entire house. After a long renovation, and what seemed like an even longer seven months of the pandemic the homeowners were thrilled to be able to first settle into their home in October 2020. It did not escape them that it may have been easier, and perhaps faster, to tear down and rebuild. But they never considered it, and have no regrets about “Going the Extra Mile” to bring new life to this historic property.

535 Ocean

535 Ocean TodayThe current owners’ exhaustive search for their forever home – a historic home with an ocean view – led them to 535 Ocean Boulevard.  “This beauty with the driveway bonus space,” the owner recalls, was the home that fit their dream. The 10,700 square foot double lot offered just the right balance of ample private outdoor living space with an original Italianate house built in 1911. 

The house was designed by well-known San Diego architect William Sterling Hebbard. A pioneer in design and architecture standards in California, Hebbard is known for his partnership with Irving Gill. 535 Ocean was one of three Ocean Boulevard mansions Hebbard designed in Coronado, the others being 519 Ocean and 1015 Ocean, which was done with Gill. And of all the homes that he designed in Coronado, only two are in the Italianate style. 

The home’s most famous occupant was undoubtedly the home’s first owner, Admiral Uriel Sebree. Sebree entered the Naval Academy during the Civil War. He later became commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet and served until 1910. He is also remembered for his two expeditions into the Arctic and for serving as acting governor of American Samoa. He later moved to Coronado upon his retirement and became one of the town’s most prominent citizens until he passed in 1922. 

535 Ocean HistoricThe home stayed sturdy during many of the bad storms that hit Coronado during the early 20th century. Historic photographs of the storm show the water’s edge creeping up to the property. The current owners found matching paintings that were left in the house, that depict the flooding. Luckily, the rock seawall along Ocean Boulevard later protected this beachfront property. Ninety-five years after being built, the home was designated historic by the City of Coronado’s Historic Resource Commission in 2006.

To improve upon the amazing view the current owners teamed up with architect Kevin Rugee and builder Mike Tontz of Tontz Construction to go up on the roof. A hidden pocket door from the main floor opens up to the two-story stairway eventually winding all the up to the rooftop deck. Compliant with Coronado’s historical designation and thus not visible from the street, the rooftop deck features all-glass railings to capture the 360-degree view from the property including views of the San Diego skyline. The renovations were originally going to end there, but the owners and the Rugee and Tontz team were inspired to continue. The west-facing sitting room with views of the Pacific Ocean remains original, up to the plaster coved ceiling, though significant time and effort were put into striping the crown molding, restoring the original beveled edge windows, and of course, repainting. 

Opening the first-floor walls down to the studs revealed hidden treasures including original arches, old paintings of the home itself, and even a photo of the original builder.  The unusually large south-facing front door was pushed out in an earlier renovation in the ’60s to capture what was originally an enclosed front porch space. Mike Tontz and his team recreated the original large wood door to replace the modern double glass front doors. The kitchen and dining rooms were opened up and the original wood flooring, an unusual wider oak plank, was refinished adding warmth and overall continuity to the house. Two exquisite antique light fixtures that brightened the owners’ previous historic Queen Anne Seattle, Washington home joined them to settle into their new southern seaside residence.  

Off the ocean-facing master bedroom, an incongruent wrought iron scalloped balcony railing from a previous renovation was replaced with the same frameless glass railing featured on the roof deck. The master bedroom sliding glass doors leading onto the balcony, also from a previous renovation, were replaced with historically appropriate windows and doors to match those on the main floor, just below the balcony. To complete the project, painstaking efforts were taken to literally chip away at the layers of history and paint on the house in order to determine the perfect paint for the only Italianate oceanfront home in Coronado. 

This article is the first in a series about CHA’s Going the Extra Mile Award. Stay tuned for the next nominees!