Groundbreaking began on August 3, 1938. More than 100 officers attended to watch pile drivers smash wooden pylons into the ground. The pylons were necessary as the building was being constructed only seven feet above the water table.
As construction of the building neared completion, Chief George Sears boldly predicted it would serve the needs of San Diego for the next fifty years. What he could not predict though was the explosive growth the city experienced during and after World War II when the population more than doubled.
By the mid 1950’s the department had already outgrown 801 West Market Street. Several modifications were done to provide more space, but a new headquarters was still needed. By the 1970’s the department began planning for a new, modern headquarters.
In January 1987 San Diego Police Department finally achieved its goal of a replacement for the fortress on Market St. Built at a cost of $43,000,000, the new station and its parking lot occupied the entire city block of 14th and Broadway Street. Upon first glance, many officers commented the building lacked the character of the old headquarters and looked more like a sterile office tower than what they had come to know as a police building.
With a new police headquarters in place, 801 West Market Street was closed and the flag in front of the building was lowered for the last time. Other than the large garage used for a horse drawn carriage company, the building sat abandoned and was the subject of numerous plans for re-use.
In the meantime the buildings ownership was quietly transferred from the city to the San Diego Unified Port District as part of a 1963 covenant that created the Port. It was almost a deathblow to the building given that the Port had been arguing as far back as 1975 for the “need” to tear it down once the police abandoned the site.
In the late 1990’s the Port District almost succeed when they voted for the building to be demolished to make way for additional parking and an expansion of Seaport Village, a neighboring shopping mall.
Even though the San Diego Police Department was formed in 1889, they didn’t get their first police exclusive, dedicated headquarters until a half century later.
The first officers shared a building with the Fire Department but as the city grew they found themselves getting moved first to City Hall and then to a short series of ramshackle buildings that would today be condemned.
So it was with great fanfare in the mid 1930's when a project was announced to build a new, almost 100,000 square foot, state of the art police complex in a (then) remote southwest corner of Downtown San Diego. Later given the street address of 801 West Market Street, the facility looked and functioned like no other police facility ever built.
The building opened on SDPD's 50th anniversary - May 9, 1939.
Incorporating the (then) unheard of idea to bring all police operations to one centralized location, the HQ was designed with a 274 bed jail, five courtrooms, an emergency hospital, a pistol range, a law library and a 17,000 sq ft vehicle maintenance garage. With architecture reflective of Balboa Park, the building was capped off with a 68 foot watch tower and palm trees surrounding a fountain in the center courtyard.
Designed by local architects Edward and Charles Quayle and Alberto Treganza, the building resembled an old Spanish fortress. There were several reasons for the architectural style. First, it fit into the Spanish heritage of San Diego and residents of Coronado, who had a view across the bay, made it clear they did not want to look at an ugly police station.
When the $390,000 cost of the project was made public, there was a backlash from some citizens groups and even from the citys highest office.
Despite having served as SDPD Chief in 1931, Mayor Percy Benbough questioned why the police would ever need such an elaborate facility. Despite the uproar, supporters of the project, as well as a majority of the city council, far outweighed the critics. These supporters recognized the project would provide not only a civic icon, but also much needed jobs to the San Diego region.
The decision lead to lawsuits and a multi year fight to stop the wrecking ball.
In 1998 the National Register of Historic Places recognized the station for its civic contributions. While most applications to the register are rejected, the building qualified in three categories. The prestigious listing made the Old Police Headquarters only the twenty fifth police facility in the United States, and only the second in the State of California, to ever be recognized as a national landmark.
Despite the official designation, that alone did not stop the proposed demolition. It was not until the Port was put on notice that they would need to obtain demolition permits to proceed with their plans, and those permits would not be approved if there would be an adverse impact on the building, that the OPH was officially saved.
OLD POLICE HEADQUARTERS TIMELINE
Central Division, located on the 2nd floor of the old Assembly Building, was supposed to be relocated move in to the new Police Headquarters at 1400 “E” Street in October 1986. The date was pushed back to November 14, then to November 21, 1986.
The Central Supply Room, located on the ground floor of the Assembly building, was relocated to 1401 Broadway on November 14, 1986.
Field Operations and the Central Property Room, also located on the ground floor of the Assembly Building, was relocated to 1401 Broadway on November 21.
The flag lowering ceremony for the Old Police HQ at 801 W. Market Street was held on January 16, 1987.
The grand opening ceremony for the new HQ at 1401 Broadway was held on January 30, 1987.
The Old Police Headquarters is the SDPD's largest historical artifact