NTC Foundation gets historic preservation award while bringing Arts District at Liberty Station into future
Transforming the former Naval Training Center into the bustling Liberty Station commercial and cultural center hasn’t been easy. But Lisa Johnson, president and chief executive of the NTC Foundation, doesn’t mind.
“To make something wonderful and give it new life, to make all the parts come together, this is why I love coming to work every day,” Johnson said.
Of the original 26 buildings on the former Navy site in Point Loma, 17 have been renovated in the Arts District at Liberty Station, a unique location filled with nearly 145 galleries, museums, artists, music groups, dance companies, makers, creators and distinctive dining experiences.
The nine other buildings also are slated for redevelopment.
For its achievements in historic preservation while transforming the site, the NTC Foundation — the nonprofit organization responsible for overseeing the development of the Arts District — recently received the 2021 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award.
Arts District Liberty Station was one of California’s seven recipients of the award.
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Johnson said the foundation’s team didn’t know it had been nominated for the award until it was notified by ObrArchitecture, an architecture and design firm that has been working alongside the NTC Foundation on Arts District Liberty Station.
“We are absolutely honored to receive this recognition,” Johnson said. “Because Obr works on so many projects, especially so many historic projects in California, we’re very flattered and honored they chose to nominate us.”
“Obr has been involved with us for 20 years and did the design work for the buildings,” Johnson added. “They touch every project.”
For Obr founding principal Christopher Bittner, part of his passion for the former Naval Training Center comes from the fact that his grandfather went there as a recruit in World War II. He also appreciates the dedication of the foundation members.
“For a nonprofit organization like the NTC Foundation to be able to develop such a complicated and highly sensitive project like Arts District Liberty Station has been incredible,” Bittner said. “All of them are so dedicated, patient and passionate and have been amazing to work with. Their attitudes have always been more about how to make this place special than what the roadblocks might be.”
‘Ambitious and exciting plan’
One of the biggest plans yet is transforming Building 178 — the former base exchange and recreation building — into a 41,000-square-foot multilevel performance venue with two state-of-the-art live theaters.
“It’s our crown jewel and our best-kept secret,” Johnson said.
The structure, at the corner of Roosevelt and Truxton roads across from The Lot cinema, was a sort of “mini-mall” for the young recruits. The interior floors housed everything from a tailor shop to a department store.
“Building 178 was a hub for recreational activity, including a bowling alley for the sailors in the basement and even a disco on the top floor,” said Alan Ziter, executive director of the NTC Foundation. “Our ambitious and exciting plan is to make Building 178 a hub of activity once again by creating a first-class performing arts center for the region.”
The new space, which will be operated by a theater company, will have a large standard theater as well as a studio that can be arranged in different configurations for theater or dance.
“We’re working with an amazing theater team from New York and an acoustics team from Chicago to ensure that the flight-path noise is desensitized,” Johnson said.
However, as with all the other renovations, elements from the building’s past will be featured in the design.
“When completed, the building will have quite a few nods to what it used to be. If you know the history, you will catch the references,” Johnson said.
Ziter said the Building 178 Performing Arts Center “will be a transformative asset for San Diego’s cultural scene. We look forward to sharing with the community our plans in the near future.”
The building project was jump-started in 2019 with a $9 million grant from the California Arts Council to the NTC Foundation. The money was used to cover the design and engineering drawings from ObrArchitecture and Fisher Dachs Associates, as well as some initial construction work.
Now about halfway through the fundraising needs for the $35 million project and with the design complete, the foundation is searching for donations of $1 million or more.
Community campaigns are in the works so even more people will have a chance to participate.
“It is our goal to complete all these buildings, because we consider it a gift to the community and the fulfillment of our mission of the Arts District Liberty Station. We love the challenge of repurposing these buildings for the future.”
— Lisa Johnson, president and chief executive of NTC Foundation
Hotel, hospitality and more
Even for someone not familiar with Liberty Station, it’s easy to tell the unrenovated buildings from those that have been transformed. The former are painted yellow; the latter sport the historic Miramar Tan.
The remaining four barracks buildings will soon display the historic color when they transform into a boutique hotel with about 75 rooms.
“They will be beautiful and will focus on and embrace our history. A lovely concept of regional art, from northern Baja to San Diego County, will be a feature,” Johnson said.
While the bunk beds and latrines will be gone, there will be a lot of naval history designed into the rooms, she said.
The property is expected to draw guests looking for an authentic stay where more than 2 million people went through training at the NTC. There there will be plenty of food, art, shopping and entertainment for those who decide to visit the former training grounds.
The four homes making up the Quarters were temporary housing for the highest-ranking Navy personnel and their families. Each home has a 1-acre garden and overlooks the base. One of the four is now home to Banyan Tree Learning Center. The others are slated to become arts-focused hospitality buildings. Johnson said the buildings, on Rosecrans Street, will be accessible to the public.
At the other end of Rosecrans, Point Loma residents probably drive by the nondescript gatehouse and its adjoining land without giving it a second thought.
“The gatehouse was a sort of locker room where sentries hung their clothes. Nobody walks to that corner,” Johnson said. But the spot is destined to become an “arts-forward, changeable, active space for community gatherings.”
“The developer is local and has plans for some very creative spaces, with additional spaces for arts and crafts people,” Johnson said. “It will be very nice for the neighborhood. And the location has beautiful views.”
Another building, not included in the remaining nine, is the former pump house. Now the site of an oversize vintage postcard painting and a popular photo spot, there was no floor in the building, as it housed the old controls for the steam pipes.
But Johnson said “there are plans for it to have a cool use and be way more useful than it ever was.”
Of the buildings that have already undergone renovation, most visitors are probably most familiar with the barracks. The NTC Foundation transformed the old living quarters, originally home to about 100 sailors each, into working artist studios, galleries, cafes and ground-floor retail shops.
The Dick Laub NTC Command Center, once a working space where the highest-ranking officers met with visiting dignitaries, now is the focal point of the 26-building campus. With large meeting rooms and exhibit space, the interior remains largely unchanged and features Philippine mahogany.
Building 35, also known as Luce Auditorium, was used for training films and live entertainment for sailors, including Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Nat King Cole. Built in 1942 during World War II, the entry to the lobby still boasts the original wood floor. The building is now home to The Lot movie theater.
Buildings 175 and 176 were classrooms used for teaching everything from dentistry and cooking to building torpedoes. Now know as the Dorothea Laub Dance Place (175) and the Dorothea Laub Music & Arts Center (176), the classrooms are used to teach dance, music and more.
Building 177 is a premier event venue featuring a large open center space, high ceilings and concrete pillars.
Buildings 201 and 202 were administrative buildings, with 202 used specifically for payroll. The teller windows on the exterior of the building, as well as walk-in concrete safes on the first and second floors, still exist. The buildings now house several nonprofit organizations, galleries and museums, including Visions Art Museum, the San Diego Watercolor Society and Hire Heroes USA. The New Americans Museum has repurposed one of the safes as a recording studio.
Everyone involved is looking forward to the transformation of the remaining structures.
“To be part of the transition of buildings and spaces that were once used to train young people for war to training people for art is humbling and exhilarating at the same time,” Bittner said. “The entire feel of the area has changed, and there is more to come.”
Johnson said “it is our goal to complete all these buildings, because we consider it a gift to the community and the fulfillment of our mission of the Arts District Liberty Station. We love the challenge of repurposing these buildings for the future.”
Meanwhile, Johnson is making plans to attend the Governor’s Historic Preservation Award ceremony in Sacramento at the end of April.
“It has been very rewarding to work on a project that has such a historical significance to our community and that will continue to impact generations to come,” she said.
Arts District Liberty Station is at 2640 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma. To learn more, visit artsdistrictlibertystation.com.
To help support the NTC Foundation’s redevelopment of the Arts District, go to ntcfoundation.org.