Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego: an inventive re-use of the Santa Fe Station Baggage Building


by Kristina Nugent

Santa Fe Station in San Diego reveals a more general truth about the attempt to celebrate historic buildings while providing for contemporary uses. The Santa Fe Station was successfully preserved in two distinct stages. The first stage began with local preservation efforts that succeeded in placing the building on the Local and National Register in the 1970s. That effort was enhanced by the supporting decision of the Santa Fe Real Estate Corporation to abandon its plans for demolition in favor of leasing the Santa Fe Depot to Amtrak and transferring the Baggage Building to the City of San Diego for use as a cultural institution. The second stage of preservation concerned the new use of the historic Baggage Building from being a relatively underutilized storage space and railroad archives to undertaking a high-profile renovation of the historic building for use by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), and an adjoining contemporary addition for administrative and educational space designed by Richard Gluckman.


When the Santa Fe Railroad Company built the San Diego railroad station and baggage building in 1915 it was part of a large and profitable network for the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1965 the Santa Fe Station was documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) under the direction of Robert Bruegmann who noted: “The Santa Fe Depot is a well planned and attractive early twentieth century railroad station. Although traditional in design, symmetrical and monumental, it incorporated modern features for its date: a steel skeleton, easily maintained and permanent decorative materials, and an advanced layout allowing good circulation and separation of the various station functions.”[i] Coinciding with the HABS survey, the local nomination was approved in 1971. Early preservationists continued to submit the necessary paperwork in order for the Santa Fe Depot and baggage building to officially make the National Register on June 26, 1972.[ii] The reasons cited for the building’s significance included its architectural merit as a modern train station for its time, as well as its importance in the development of the San Diego region in linking the city to the larger Western transportation networks in the earliest years of the twentieth century. The Santa Fe Station survived the tumultuous nineteen thirties through sixties as other nearby depots were demolished.


The Station, located in downtown San Diego’s “Columbia” District was the seed of the city’s spectacular twentieth-century growth and development.[iii] The “Spanish Mission/Colonial Revival-style” Depot and baggage building was completed on March 17, 1915 by the renowned San Francisco architecture firm Bakewell and Brown.[iv] The station and baggage building was used extensively in the first few decades of the twentieth century. But as new technologies, especially the automobile, replaced passenger trains by mid-century, as early as the nineteen thirties and forties, the Santa Fe Company began pulled up tracks, abandon depots, and allow railroads to function primarily as a freight business.[v] Even though the Baggage Building was no longer useful for modern travel, since passenger use had decreased and the days of heavy steamer trunks had passed, the Santa Fe Station’s prominent downtown location coupled with its historical importance and recognized architecture contributed to its survival. [vi]


But by the 1970s, the Santa Fe Company was forced to convert itself into a realty company. Santa Fe Realty owned seventeen acres of land near the downtown San Diego waterfront and proposed to demolish the Depot building in order to make a greater profit by selling virgin land.[vii] Realizing the iconic Santa Fe Station was in peril of demolition, a group of four architectural professionals and a local professor began drafting a nomination in 1971 to place the Santa Fe Station on the local register of historic landmarks.[viii] While the Santa Fe Realty Company eventually sold a large majority of its San Diego waterfront acreage to developers, they no longer toyed with the idea of demolishing the historic Santa Fe Building and the depot continued to operate as such after Santa Fe Realty reached an agreement with Amtrak in 1971. When the original City of San Diego and Santa Fe Realty agreement was made in 1983, the City was desperate to attract developers to its second-rate real estate market downtown. According to a 1994 article in Urban Land, the City of San Diego at that time “envisioned a high-rise commercial office center of more than 6 million square feet, including the development of air space over two rail lines.” [ix]

After local forces mobilized to defend the Santa Fe Station, in 1974 the City of San Diego and the Santa Fe Realty Company were able to save the station by incorporating a new use. The City Manager submitted a Project Application to the Environmental Quality Department which stated, “It is the intent of the City to purchase the Santa Fe Depot and storage buildings … the acquisition is based upon the demonstrated need and desirability of a centralized transportation terminal/visitor-oriented facility … The existing Santa Fe Station is ideally sited and functionally designed for such activities.”[x] The application went on to mention the extent of development along the San Diego waterfront during that time and noted that the City “has worked with representatives of private development firms in regard to joint public/private development of the depot site. Joint use proposals suggest concentrated transit user/visitor oriented commercial development along the lines of Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, integrated with transit and transportation linkages.”[xi] The City of San Diego, as part of the application process, was later required to submit supplemental information providing “background concerning the significance of the historical structure on the property” and also public input (in the form of letters).[xii] One of the letters read: “The Santa Fe Depot gives a unique quiet quality that is quickly disappearing in the rapidly expanding downtown area.[xiii]


Negotiations and Concessions

While the permit to retain the Baggage Building was approved in 1974, it was not until 1983 that the City of San Diego and Santa Fe Realty entered into a “development and owner participation agreement, which provided development entitlements for the approximately 17 acres in the environs of the Santa Fe Depot.”[xiv] According to Price, the City of San Diego refurbished the building’s interior and in November of 1985, in order to mark the “100th year of the arrival of the first transcontinental train to San Diego.”[xv]By the nineties the City government and Catellus development (formerly Santa Fe Realty Co.) revised their master plan for the 17 acres to include lower densities that would provide a  “more appropriate sense of scale and place.”[xvi] Coinciding with the City’s preference for a “more welcoming scale for the neighborhood,” Catellus “agreed to dedicate the baggage building to the city for use as a railroad museum” in order to “enhance the site’s appeal.”[xvii] However, The adjoining baggage building remained vacant for over a decade.[xviii]

According to former board member of the San Diego Railroad Museum, the City of San Diego allowed the railroad museum to use the Santa Fe baggage building in the early nineties to house the archival collections for the San Diego and Arizona railroad and the Southern Pacific railroad.[xix] Yet, as one critic noted “When it granted a space to the San Diego Railroad Museum nearly a decade ago, the CCDC felt that such a showcase would be a perfect fit. In truth, that institution has used the space only for storing its archives, and has never shown the financial ability to make wider use of the space for exhibitions or other public programming.”[xx] The City of San Diego and Catellus Development Corporation reached an agreement on June 27, 1997 that Catellus would seismically retrofit the building and add electricity, water, sewer and telephone. Additionally, this agreement provided for the transfer of the baggage building “to the City or any governmental agency or non-profit entity designated by the City, at no cost to the City, for use as a museum or for such other cultural/institutional use.’”[xxi] The contract went on to stipulate that the City or a “bona fide tenant selected by the city” would be expected to carry out typical tenant improvements and “specialized expenses (such as utilities, maintenance, capital reserves), and staffing and programming expenses…”[xxii] In June of 2000 the City of San Diego, under the guidance of the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), a division of the city planning department, determined that the Railroad Museum was unable to maintain the building and advertised for a new tenant. They mailed a letter of solicitation to more than ninety non-profit cultural groups suggested by the City’s Commission for Arts and Culture.”[xxiii]


New Venue for Contemporary Art

On March 28, 2000 the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) submitted a letter of interest to become the tenant of the Baggage Building.[xxiv] The MCASD had used a portion of the Baggage Building (that was not occupied by the railroad archives), in 1994 and again in 1997 as a gallery space for “inSITE,” a citywide art exhibition. According to a San Diego art reporter, this event “proved the value of this Mission-style building as art space. Such large-scale works as Robert Therrien’s giant table with matching chairs and Mildred Howard’s architectural sculptures in wood and bottles were a fine fit for the aged rooms.”[xxv] Director of the MCASD, Hugh Davies, also noted how the use of the space during “inSITE94 and inSITE97 attest[ed] to the ideal conditions of these interior spaces for showcasing large-scale contemporary artworks, an area for which MCA is internationally known.”[xxvi] He went on to mention how the museum “has the ability and resources to commence with [the renovation and rehabilitation] project as soon as possible; our Endowment Fund is now nearly $40 million.”[xxvii] Additionally, Davis mentioned in a KPBS interview that he came to the museum in 1983 and even then it was clear that if the MCA, “wanted to serve San Diego and the greater area” their ability to expand the original La Jolla location was limited because of the neighbors and while they had already opened a downtown storefront location at Kettner and Broadway in the early nineties, they were outgrowing that space as well.[xxviii] The Railroad Archives was asked to leave the baggage building and the City Redevelopment Agency entered into an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement (ENA) with the MCASD On Feb. 26, 2001 for the occupancy of the Baggage Building.[xxix] As CCDC noted:


The 13,680 GSF Baggage Building is architecturally well suited for the Museum’s exhibition program … The 38-foot peaked ceilings, generous open spaces and high clerestory windows stretching the length of the building are ideal for the display of large-scale sculpture, site-specific installation art. The three large rooms beneath the main roof will remain, delineated by the existing masonry and hollow clay tile walls that originally defined an open passageway through the building: These spaces acknowledge the existing buildings structural grid in their layout and proportions.[xxx]



Catellus was required to complete the seismic retrofit and base building improvements by December 7, 2003 and hired Heritage Architecture in San Diego (the successor firm to ‘Milford Wayne Donaldson,’ who sold his firm when he took the position of California State Historic Preservation Officer). The principal and part-owner of Heritage, David Marshall, explained that it took roughly 1.5 years to complete this part of the process which included “strengthening the historic structure” (since the building’s shell was composed of unreinforced masonry), “cleaning and restoring the doors and windows”, and “removing lead paint and toxic asbestos.”[xxxi] Since many of the historic light fixtures, bronze wall sconces, and windows were missing or damaged beyond repair, Marshall estimated that the firm had to “replicate around twenty percent,” of these architectural elements and were fortunate to find “someone locally” who was able to effectively recreate them.[xxxii] While the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for rehabilitation indicate that “Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced …where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials … [as] substantiated by documentary, physical, or pictorial evidence,”[xxxiii]


Incidentally, one of the most controversial aspects of the rehabilitation process was that Marshall’s firm had “removed the red roof tiles during the retrofit and cleaned them before they were reinstalled.”[xxxiv] After the tiles went back on many people were outraged when they “thought that the roof had been replaced since the tiles were so much brighter than the tiles on the adjacent depot building.”[xxxv] Actually, the Santa Fe Station’s Register nomination of 1971 mentioned that the roof was, “originally red but now very dark from years of staining by smoke.”[xxxvi] Marshall explained that after the public recognized that the tiles were cleaned rather than replaced, the reaction was so positive that Catellus, who owns the adjacent Depot building, requested that Heritage Architecture remove and clean the tiles for that building. [xxxvii]


Design of the Exhibition and Administrative Gallery Spaces

Confident that the Baggage Building was an ideal space to display contemporary art, MCASD director Hugh Davies hired a well-known museum architect with experience designing in a historic context, Richard Gluckman to prepare and execute designs for the renovation of the Baggage Building to would meet the programmatic needs of the museum. [xxxviii] Additionally, Davis hired Wayne Donaldson, “a historic preservation expert who helped write California’s building code for historic structures, to create a strong and feasible plan for the MCASD,” that would comply with preservation guidelines set by the State and the Secretary of the Interior.” [xxxix]San Diego Union Tribune architecture critic, Ann Jarmusch noted that the strength of the architectural team derived from their shared opinion that, “less is more when renovating a historic building that’s in relatively unaltered condition, such as this one.”[xl] The program entailed that the historic, “13,000-square-foot” building will contain large-scale installations, a black-box area, and a small-scale exhibition space,” said principal Richard Gluckman in an interview in Architectural Record.[xli] “Its rooms,” Gluckman added, “will be highly flexible and will sit under lofty, 38-foot-high ceilings lit dramatically with clerestory windows.”[xlii] Also, in an effort to appease Amtrak who had been initially worried that the new museum use would impinge on its use of the Santa Fe Depot, both Amtrak and the MCA had, “… jointly hired architect Wayne Donaldson to devise ways to bridge their different needs for the depot.”[xliii] Amtrak was mainly concerned that it would retain necessary storage space and loading areas while Hugh Davis and Richard Gluckman were initially concerned that the noise from the trains would interfere with the contemplation of the artwork.[xliv]


While the Baggage Building was still considered to be a model space for the display of contemporary artwork, both the director of the museum and the head architect realized that they would need to house the administrative functions of the art museum in an adjacent building in an effort to limit the impact on the original architectural design of the historic structure. Richard Gluckman and Robert White of  “Gluckman Meyner Architects” in New York city, began to develop specific architectural designs for the MCASD that called for, “as little intrusion as possible into the building’s fabric and spaces,” which was consistent with the Secretary’s standards for rehabilitation, rather than altering the floor plan to include, “space-consuming offices, a conference room or art storage areas.”[xlv] In an effort to completely dedicate the historic building to the display of artwork, Gluckman “designed a spare three-story building that would adjoin the baggage building’s north end.”[xlvi]


Design Guidelines

The modern building was constructed to “echo, but never mimic, design elements, and proportions” of the historic Depot and Baggage Building.[xlvii] This was done intentionally since, as Davis observed, “The latest historic preservation guidelines from the Department of the Interior call for additions to historic buildings to be distinctly contrasting in style [and] discourage any attempt to do a sort of extrusion of the baggage building, or something in stucco and tile, Mission style.”[xlviii] The new building would use contemporary compatible materials such as corrugated metal siding “painted the dull red of freight cars and pierced by ribbed-glass or translucent windows [to] make a clear separation between the old event of the baggage building and this new event at this 21st century addition.” [xlix]“Gluckman,” said a San Diego reporter, was “careful as ever to respect worthy old buildings he’s engaged to adapt.”[l] Since the Baggage Building “masquerades as a thick-walled adobe structure,” Gluckman, “noted how the baggage building’s true steel structure is hidden from the street behind walls meant to evoke adobe [while] the steel is doing most of the work.”[li] In the new administrative addition he “inverted the old [building’s] structural system [and], inspired by steel-walled boxcars, reveals to all that structure and facade are one.” [lii] Gluckman envisioned a design that could be interpreted as bold and unabashedly modernist by the untrained eye, but Jarmusch indicated that, “Gluckman creatively used a modern architectural language and materials to create an addition that piques public interest while at the same time respecting the integrity of the historic baggage building and not overwhelming it.” [liii] Amtrak also had a stake in the design of the new addition and part of the arrangement was that Gluckman would “build a 20- foot high, 2,700-square-foot storage and maintenance facility for Amtrak.” [liv] The new addition would encompass the Amtrak storage unit and a “shared loading dock” that would also be used by the MCASD to “bring art into the building, and gallery space.”[lv]


Reception of the New

The addition of a new structure to occupy the north end of the baggage, required the removal of a contextually-historic building that was not a part of the original Santa Fe Station but was added in the 1930’s: the Railroad Express Agency (REA) building.  While supporters of the MCASD expansion accepted that the REA building was, “not listed on any historic register” and since it was “too small to meet the museum’s downtown expansion needs,” they argued it should simply be removed and replaced with a with a new, three-story building devoted to offices and support services.[lvi] The demolition of the REA was not the controversial preservation issue in the saga of the survival of the Santa Fe Station; rather, it was the modern, “cubist” design of the new addition that was championed by preservationists as an affront to the historic elegance of the historic baggage building.[lvii] While this sort of a historicist reaction to modern additions is a common in adaptive use, the majority of the criticism was directed at Gluckman’s design itself. Critics compared the adjoining museum administration building designed by Gluckman to “an oversized version of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.”[lviii] However, the City and the CCDC Board eventually “fell into line for a six-to-nothing vote in favor of [approving the design for the addition on Oct. 16, 2002],” however; they still had a few members who “winced with displeasure over its design.”[lix]


While the second stage of the Santa Fe Station’s preservation process mainly focused on the contemporary addition for the Baggage Building that was proposed by the MCASD, it seemed to unnecessarily downplay the successful renovation of the historic building. The museum is perhaps an ideal use of the Baggage Building since it kept the exterior and interior’s integrity intact. The addition functions as a necessary “backstage area” to this remarkable historic setting that has come to take on a meaning that is satisfying from both the architectural historical standpoint, and the contemporary art aficionado. The clerestory windows of the Baggage Building filter the powerful San Diego daylight through the exhibit spaces and onto the surfaces of the art installations, producing an ethereal quality.

In rapidly developing areas such as San Diego, preservationists are eager to retain significant historic structures, but at the same time, as this case study has demonstrated, it can be difficult for preservation advocates to conceive of new uses for historic buildings and changes to adjacent and nearby structures. Contemporary additions allow historical buildings to accommodate new uses, but part of addressing the union of old and new, involves making value judgments and deciding how to heighten the qualities of a place in a way that is authentic, sensitive, and relevant to contemporary society.

© Kristina Nugent and Ephemeral Urbanity, [2013 – present]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kristina Nugent and EphemeralUrbanity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[i] Bruegmann, Robert. Historic American Buildings Survey: Santa Fe Railroad Station. Vol. HABS CAL, 37-SANDI, 22-., Summer 1975.

[ii] Luce, Barbara, et al. Entries in the National Register. California:, Jun 26 1972.

[iii] Conrad, Rebecca. “Once I Built a Railroad: Viewing History from the Depot Platfrom.” The Public Historian 14.2 (1992): 31-48.

[iv] Bevil, Alexander D. The Journal of San Diego History 45.4 (Fall 1999): 41-57.

[v] Price, James N. The Railroad Stations of San Diego County: Then and Now. San Diego: Price & Sieber, 1989. 7.

[vi] Baldridge, Charlene. ” Reviving an Old Station: New Museum Buildings near Santa Fe Depot in San Diego.” San Diego Union Tribune Jan 18 2007, sec. B: 1.

[vii] Price, James N. “The Railroad Stations of San Diego County: Then and Now.” The Journal of San Diego History 34.2 (1988): 43.

[viii] Brandes, Raymond. Application for Registration of Historical Landmark. Vol. 56. San Diego, California:, 1971.

[ix] Stephen Hess and Paul I. Meyer. “Santa Fe Depot: Repositioning an Urban Development Plan.” Urban Land 53.4 (1994): 62.

[x] Gleason, James F. City of San Diego Environmental Quality Department Project Application. File No.. 73-12-005C. San Diego, California:, Jan. 16 1974.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Gleason, James F. “Request to Provide Public Input and Background concerning the  Significance of the Historical Structure.” File No. 73-12-005C. Jan. 23 1974.

[xiii] Letter submitted as part of the “Request to Provide Public Input and Background concerning the  Significance of the Historical Structure.” File No. 73-12-005C. Jan. 1974 (Project approved by the Environmental Quality Department on Feb. 2, 1974).

[xiv] Schroeder, Beverly. “Solicitation of Letters of Interest for use of the Baggage Building at the Santa Fe Depot.” Centre City Development Corporation. June 2000.

[xv] Price, James N. “The Railroad Stations of San Diego County,” 38.

[xvi] Stephen Hess and Paul I. Meyer. “Santa Fe Depot,” 63.

[xvii] Ibid, 64.

[xviii] Bevil, Alexander D. The Journal of San Diego History 45.4 (Fall 1999): 41-57.

[xix] Gerdes, Marianne. Phone Interview. “San Diego Railroad Museum Archives.” Mar 4 2008.

[xx] Pincus, Robert L. “Baggage Building has Great Art Space,” E.3.

[xxi] “Excerpt from the Second Amendment to the Development Agreement between the City of San Diego and Catellus Development Corporation.” June 27, 1997 (‘Attachment B’ in Schroeder, Beverly. “Solicitation of Letters of Interest for use of the Baggage Building at the Santa Fe Depot.” Centre City Development Corporation. June 2000).

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Hamilton, Pamela M. “Public Hearing of the City Council on the Proposed Fourth Amendment to the Development Agreement with Catellus Operating Limited Partnership …” Report No. CCDC 04-23; 0413. June 23, 2004.

[xxiv] Davies, Hugh M. “The MCA Baggage Building: A New Contemporary Art Space in Downtown San Diego.” March 28, 2000 (‘Attachment C’ in Schroeder, Beverly. “Solicitation of Letters of Interest for use of the Baggage Building at the Santa Fe Depot.” Centre City Development Corporation. June 2000).

[xxv] Pincus, Robert L. “Baggage Building has Great Art Space.” San Diego Union Tribune Jan 15 2001, sec. E: 3.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Richard Gluckman, Hugh Davies. Museum of Contemporary Art Expands Downtown Location., 2007. Feb 12 2007  <>.

[xxix] Herring, Bruce. “Transfer of the Baggage Building and REA Site at the Santa Fe Depot by Catellus Development Corporation to the City of San Diego and the City’s Lease of the Premises to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.” City of San Diego Manager Report No. 02-294. Dec 5 2002.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Marshall, David. Interview. “Santa Fe Baggage Building.” Feb 20, 2008.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii]“The removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided.”

“The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation” <;

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Luce, Barbara, et al. Entries in the National Register. California:, Jun 26 1972.

[xxxvii] Marshall, David. Interview. “Santa Fe Baggage Building.”

[xxxviii] Jarmusch, Ann. “Baggage Claim: Museum’s Proposal would Rejuvenate Santa Fe Depot Annex.” San Diego Union Tribune Dec 16 2001, sec. I: 1.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Lubell, Sam. “San Diego Railway Baggage Building to Become new Galleries.” Architectural Record 192:10 (2004): 46.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Millican, Anthony. “Art Museum Wins Out Over Rail Buffs: Both Sought Space at Santa Fe Depot.” San Diego Union Tribune Jan 24 2001, sec. B: 2.

[xliv] Richard Gluckman, Hugh Davies. Museum of Contemporary Art Expands Downtown Location., 2007. Feb 12 2007


[xlv] Jarmusch, Ann. “Baggage Claim: Museum’s Proposal…”

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Davies, Hugh M., Director. Museum of Contemporary Art. “Preservation Or Desecration?” San Diego Union Tribune Oct 20 2002, sec. G: 6.

[xlix] Millican, Anthony. “Art Museum Wins Out Over Rail Buffs.”

[l] Jarmusch, Ann. “Art Museum’s Expansion Plan…”

[li] Ibid.

[lii] Ibid.

[liii] Jarmusch, Ann. Email Conversation. “Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.” March 16, 2008.

[liv] Davies, Hugh M., Director. Museum of Contemporary Art. “Preservation Or Desecration?”

[lv] Ibid.

[lvi] Jarmusch, Ann. “Art Museum’s Expansion Plan is a Gem.” San Diego Union Tribune  Dec 1 2002, sec. I: 1.

[lvii] Marshall, David. Interview.

[lviii] Potter, Matt. ” A Slap in the Face of the Past.” San Diego Reader November 21, 2002.

[lix] Potter, Matt. ” A Slap in the Face of the Past.”


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