The energy from the San Diego State University Downtown Gallery derives from individuals whose artistic expression fuels the citizens as a wellspring of power available to all.
Foot of Market, 1910. ©San Diego Historical Society.
San Diego Gas and Electric, Station B, at Kettner and
Broadway, c. 1929. ©San Diego Historical Society.
Car 125, Line 1, c. 1915. ©San Diego Historical Society.
The SDSU Downtown Gallery is a program of the School of Art, Design and Art History, which in turn is a unit of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts of San Diego State University. The Downtown Gallery is one of two galleries affiliated with the School of Art, Design and Art History. For more than thirty years, the University Art Gallery, which is located on the SDSU campus, has received critical acclaim for its outstanding exhibition programming and curatorial vision. The SDSU Downtown Gallery continues this focus on programmatic excellence while also providing a vital link between the School of Art and the San Diego community.
Plans for the San Diego State University Downtown Gallery began in the summer of 2003 when the School of Art, Design, and Art History opened a temporary exhibition space in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter at 232 Fifth Avenue. The success of this endeavor prompted a collaboration between the Center City Development Corporation and the School of Art, Design, and Art History (in consultation with The San Diego Historical Society and the City of San Diego Planning Commission), with the common goal of locating a permanent site for an off-campus gallery. Through this collaboration and the generosity of Bosa Development Corporation, a venue for the SDSU Downtown Gallery was established on the ground floor of a newly renovated and historic San Diego Gas and Electric power plant known as the Electra Building.
The narrative of the SDSU Downtown Gallery begins in 1911, during a time of transition when transportation within downtown San Diego was a mix of horse-drawn, gasoline-driven, and electric vehicles. During this year, John D. Spreckels completed construction on a power-generating plant for his San Diego Electric Railway Company, located at the northwest corner of Kettner Boulevard and E Street, one block south of Broadway. When the power plant began operation, the population in San Diego County was approximately 61,665, and Spreckels’s San Diego Electric Railway served 9,885 customers. By 1920, when the company was bought by San Diego Consolidated Gas and Electric Company, the population in San Diego had increased to 112,248, and San Diego Consolidated served 30,983 customers. It was during this time that the power station at Kettner and E Street became known as Station B. Over the next twenty years, Station B would undergo four architectural additions as well as numerous upgrades to its power generating capabilities. In 1940, San Diego Consolidated was purchased by Standard Gas and Electric, and its name was changed to San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E). Throughout its seventy-two-year history, Station B remained the primary energy-generating source for the city of San Diego. After closing its doors in 1983, Station B lay abandoned for the next twenty years before being resuscitated through redevelopment and preservation.
While the operations within the Station B power plant served the energy needs of the citizens of San Diego, the building itself has contributed to the region’s historical architectural significance through the work of Eugene Maximillian Hoffman (1870-1948) and William Templeton Johnson (1877-1957). The work of Hoffman and Johnson situate the Electra Building and the SDSU Downtown Gallery in the middle of San Diego’s architectural history, linking the Downtown Gallery to significant architectural designs and developments within the city.
The original Station B facility was designed by Eugene Hoffman and located on the southern half of the city block defined by Broadway to the north, E Street to the south, Kettner Boulevard to the east, and the train tracks to the west. While many of Hoffman’s subsequent architectural commissions were created in the Spanish Revival style (a style that is typical of architectural structures in San Diego during the early-twentieth century, due in large part to the architectural influence of Balboa Park and the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition) Station B reveals Hoffman’s emphasis on the use of classical motifs such as the rounded arches and recessed coffered details on the exterior walls, as well as the original 1911 pediment that can still be seen on Kettner Boulevard. Through these details the architect visually conveyed a sense of the strength and power associated with the station.
In 1928, seventeen years after Hoffman’s design for the Station B plant was achieved, William Templeton Johnson designed a new wing for Station B. Once completed, Johnson’s addition would occupy the entire block north of the Hoffman building, from Kettner Boulevard on the east to the train tracks on the west. The first half of Johnson’s design was completed in 1928 (from Kettner on the east to the middle of the block) while the second half was not constructed until 1939, due to the onset of the Great Depression. It is in Johnson’s north wing that the Downtown Gallery is located. Johnson is known primarily for his Spanish Revival architectural designs. Elements of Spanish Revival architecture can be seen in Johnson’s design for the Station B power plant, particularly in the ornamental frieze running across the top-most portion of the building, and in the distinctive sets of wooden doors on the north façade. However, Johnson’s design is transitional, as the ornamentation of Spanish Revival gives way to an emphasis on verticality which is indicative of the Art Deco style and which complements the strong classical lines of the Hoffman design.
Nearly one century after ground was broken on the Station B power plant, a new source of energy and vitality fills the walls of this historic structure. Rather than being generated in turbines and passing through power lines, the energy from the San Diego State University Downtown Gallery derives from individuals whose artistic expression fuels the citizens as a wellspring of power available to all.
Associate Director, San Diego State University Downtown Gallery
SDSU Downtown Gallery
725 West Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101
School of Art, Design and Art History
San Diego State University
San Diego, California 92182-4805
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Text by Catherine Gleason, Designed by Patricia Cué