County’s Waterfront Landmark To Celebrate 75th Anniversary

They’re little windows into the past.

The vintage postcards may be tiny, but each tells its own story of San Diego’s grand, waterfront landmark: the County Administration Center. The colorful cards record the evolution of a city and a historic building that since 1938 has survived so much change–and has been a source of such great pride.

The postcards (see several below) are part of a collection by County employee Todd Adams, and will be featured Tuesday as the County celebrates the historic building’s 75th Anniversary.

Exactly seven and a half decades earlier to the day, on July 16, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the stately new structure at a waterfront ceremony attended by more than 25,000 San Diegans. Originally built as a joint home for both the City and County of San Diego, by the 1960s the City of San Diego had relocated to City Hall and the building had officially become the San Diego County Administration Center (CAC).

To commemorate that important moment, County Board of Supervisors Chairman Greg Cox on Tuesday will make a special presentation during the Board of Supervisors meeting. He will also host a picnic at noon in the center’s East Plaza Courtyard.

“Time has passed and San Diego has changed, with more and larger skyscrapers dotting our skyline,” Cox said. “But 75 years have not dimmed the luster of this shining beacon on the waterfront.”

Among the special touches Tuesday: a custom-designed poster of selections from Adams’ collection.

Overcoming Challenges

As early as 1902, civic leaders began talk of creating a joint local government complex. By that time, the old City Hall on Fifth Avenue was quickly becoming too small and the County lacked a main building, according to “Bridging the Centuries: The Jewel on the Bay,” the County’s historical book on the CAC.

Civic leaders had to overcome more than a few challenges to bring the idea to life, including World War 1 and questions over the building’s location and how to pay for it. The chosen site became the target of a lawsuit that ended up at State Supreme Court, but was eventually dismissed. One benefit: the suit prolonged the process of securing funding for the project.

By 1930, the country was plunging into the Great Depression and voters were cautious about spending money to develop the site. But the federal government was interested in supporting local public works projects. With help from powerful advocates at the state level, President Roosevelt toured the site in late 1935, and a week later approved nearly $1 million in funds for the project. The County and City were to chip in $250,000 each.

A design was approved and construction began in early 1936. Great care and enthusiasm went into construction of the building. A January 1936 San Diego Union article described workers going to special, unpaid two hour weekly classes to receive additional instruction on the project. Engineers went to great lengths to ensure the safety of the building’s foundations by using steel rather than wood pilings to ensure it could withstand earthquakes.

“They are doing more than merely working on a job,” noted the Union. “They are constructing a building in which they are taking pride.”

RELATED: Images of the building’s decorative details 

The last phase of construction finished early, and the building was completed in 1938 at a total cost of $1.73 million. The work had employed more than 300 people.

In his remarks at the dedication ceremony, Roosevelt made a point of praising a line engraved on the building: “The noblest motive is the public good.”

“I think if we all carry that motto in our hearts, in every city and community in the land, there is no question but the proper thing, American democracy, will survive,” he said.

Collecting Pieces of History

Adams’ collection began 10 years ago with a single vintage postcard from an antique shop in Ocean Beach. He had stumbled upon the card about five years after he started working for the Civil Service Commission at the CAC. He was surprised and intrigued to find it.

“I just thought, oh my God, I had no idea there were any postcards of this building,” he said. “It really struck a chord with me.”

He bought the postcard for $3, and figured there must be more out there. So Adams started going hunting at least once or twice a month at antique shops around town and also online.

Turns out the East Coast native has always had an interest in history. He spent part of his childhood near Philadelphia, where his Mom would take him to key historic sites. In college, he minored in history.

He may have also had a genetic predisposition towards collecting. Growing up, Adams’ parents would take him to flea markets where he would search out coins and stamps for his collections of each. His mom collects vintage postcards of their other hometown: Ocean City, New Jersey.

Over the years, his collection grew to 14 postcards, each with a different image of the CAC. They’ve sparked in him a greater interest in the history of the CAC and the appreciation for the building.

Looking at the postcards, it’s clear how much pride the community has felt for the CAC since its start. The cards offer sweeping views of it from all different angles, some incorporating views of the water, its tidy landscaping or its iconic Guardian of Water statue on the west side.

Most of the cards date from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Looking at them, it’s remarkable how little has changed about the building. If it weren’t for the vintage cars parked in front of the building on what is now Pacific Highway, the vintage military aircraft flying above it or the lack of surrounding development, one may think they are modern day shots.

One of Adams favorite parts of collecting the postcards is finding personal messages scrawled on the backs. They offer interesting little insights into the era, and usually a brief report of a vacation in San Diego and clues about what they were doing here.

“They sometimes tell an interesting story,” he said.

Adams keeps some of his cards framed on a wall in his office. That’s how word got around about the collection and what ultimately led CAC 75th Anniversary organizers to call him and ask to borrow the cards. The County Communications Office custom designed a poster for the occasion using them. It will be on display at the picnic on Tuesday.

A sampling of Adams’ collection. Note some drawings include wings on the west side that were never actually built.






Michele Clock is a group communications officer with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact