Saturday, May 25, 2024

2024 GEM Award Finalist: 275 J Avenue

The door knocker shaped in an American eagle at 275 J Ave. is a fitting adornment for the home where two vice admirals have lived. The house was built in 1936 for Matthias B. Gardner and his wife, Helen. The Gardners commissioned Cliff May to build their home in an early California ranch style for $9,500.

Gardner was a naval aviator stationed on the USS Saratoga, one of the Navy’s first aircraft carriers. The Healdsburg Tribune called him a daring Navy ace as he successfully carried out the first inverted flight tests in 1930. The U.S. Navy Cruise Books from 1952 stated that Gardner developed a series of formation maneuvers regarded as “the most excellent ‘back’ flying ever exhibited in the United States at that time.”

Records show that the Gardners, who were married in 1929, moved to Coronado in the early 1930s. They lived on Adella Avenue for a few years before commissioning the house on J Avenue. 

Shortly before the beginning of World War II, Gardner was promoted to commander as chief of staff for Adm. John Sydney McCain, the late Senator John McCain’s father. While serving for McCain, Gardner fought in the South Pacific during World War II. In 1943, he was promoted to captain of the USS Enterprise and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal from President Roosevelt for his service in the Solomons campaign during the war. Two years later, Gardner was again promoted, becoming rear admiral. He also received the Legion of Merit award.  

In 1946, Gardner became the commander of Naval Air Base Pearl Harbor, moving his family to Hawaii and renting out the J Avenue home until 1956, when the Gardners decided to sell. In 1955, Gardner was promoted to vice admiral, becoming the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations during the Korean War. Upon his retirement in August 1956, he was given the rank of four-star admiral.

In 1951, Capt. Paul Stroop rented the home for a year while commanding the USS Princeton. Stroop went on to become the first chief on the Bureau of Naval Weapons in Washington, D.C. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1959, commanding the Naval Air Force of the Pacific Fleet at North Island. 

The two-story house with shaker shingles is not typical of the homes Cliff May built at the time. The houses during this early period in May’s career were usually single story with a distinctive Spanish hacienda style that included an interior courtyard, window grilles and a red tile roof. May is known to have built only seven two-story homes out of 46 homes that are identified as his designs in the San Diego area.

Born in San Diego in 1908, May was a sixth generation San Diegan. The homes he designed, which embraced the Southern California climate, were influenced by his childhood days spent with relatives at early California adobes, including Casa Estudillo in Old Town and Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, now part of Camp Pendleton. May moved to Los Angeles in 1938 where he designed thousands of tract and custom homes that featured open living spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows and easy access to the outdoors. This easy-going design, often called the “dream home,” earned him the title of “father of the ranch house.”

When the current homeowners bought the J Avenue property in November 2018, the home retained many original features often seen in early Cliff May homes, including tiled floors, rough-hewn Douglas fir doors, wood-beamed ceilings and even some lantern-like light fixtures. The homeowners preserved and restored everything they could while modernizing the home for their family of six. Cliff May’s “Western Ranch Houses” was required reading for anyone who worked on the property, the homeowner said. 

The sloping grass lawn in the front of the home was leveled and converted to a drought-tolerant garden with the comfortable seating area and fire pit. The windows, shutters and front door are original to the house.

Inside, the rustic charm and character of May’s design are evident throughout the home. At the back of the house, the kitchen was remodeled by Christian Rice, creating a thoroughly modern space but keeping the tone in the rustic spirit of May’s design.

Other changes include converting a front sitting room into a children’s bedroom and replacing the horizontal, second-story exterior railings with vertical ones using the same baluster design as in the interior stairway. That change was made to keep the kids from using the railing as a stepladder, the homeowner said.

The property included an additional house, which was added in 1973 as a rental. The homeowners opened the front of that home to the backyard and pool, and use the addition as a pool and guest house. The guest house was redone with May’s mid-century modern ranch homes in mind, the homeowner said.

The backyard also includes a dining area with a long wood table for gathering family and friends. It is flanked by mature olive trees the owners bought in homage to May’s courtyard gardens, which always had an olive tree.

Cliff May would have approved.


In honor of the 10th Anniversary of the GEM Awards, the Coronado Historical Association is pleased to announce that there is a prodigious group of ten finalists for this year’s award, the largest group of finalists in the awards history. This year’s finalists include historic properties at: 1026 Flora Avenue, 1045 Loma Avenue, 1135 Loma Ave, 1315/1319 5th Street, 275 J Avenue, 350 D Avenue, 519 Ocean Boulevard, 520 J Avenue, 870 H Avenue, and 874 A Avenue. 

Established in 2013, the GEM Awards have become a tradition in recognizing homeowners who retain and maintain Coronado’s unique character. By choosing renovation over replacement, homeowners are celebrated for their unwavering commitment to preserving the island’s architectural history and fostering connections to the past. These awards serve as a public acknowledgment of their dedication to the past. This year’s Awards Ceremony, where the winners will be announced, will be held on Wednesday, April 3rd at 5:30 pm at the City’s Nautilus Room. Tickets can be purchased on CHA’s website or by calling 619-435-7242.

To delve into the remarkable preservation efforts undertaken by the nominees, CHA is spotlighting the history of each home.

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