By Claire Harlin
Del Mar once looked much different than it does today. It had a dozen gas stations in town along Highway 101, a train that made rounds all day long from L.A. to the booming racetrack, and an airport on the San Dieguito Lagoon where Interstate 5 stands today. The seaside town’s rich history only dates back less than 100 years, but local historians say now is an imperative time to kick preservation efforts into gear, because as fast as Del Mar is changing, its history threatens to be lost.
“Space and land is so valuable here, but the history around us is often not valued, not perceived,” said Jeffrey Barnouw of the Del Mar Historical Society. “It’s important to awaken people’s consciousness so things don’t get destroyed.”
While local efforts have successfully saved some historical features from demolition over the years, such as the Alvarado House, which currently resides at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, and the Grand Avenue Bridge, which was preserved by the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley. But there is still much to be done and obstacles to overcome, said Barnouw and Del Mar Historical Society President Larry Brooks in a recent interview.
For example, Del Mar is the only city in the county that doesn’t have an official Historical Society headquarters, even though the society has had independent federal nonprofit status since 1985. There has been a years-long effort to headquarter the society at the Alvarado House, but that can’t happen until the city solves the decades-long dilemma of finding a permanent home for the late 1800s house — one of the first ever built in the city. Sitting locked up and unused at the fairgrounds, save for the three weeks out of the year that the fair is in session, the Alvarado House tentatively awaits relocation to the Del Mar Shores property, however, nothing is set in stone.
“Now that the city has bought the Shores property, they say that someday, in their five-year plan to develop the park, it could go there,” said Barnouw, adding that there have been failed efforts over the years to put the house on locations including Seagrove Park, the city’s public works property across the lagoon from the fairgrounds, and the tennis courts on Jimmy Durante Boulevard. “At least, we’ve been told it will be part of the Shores development.”
Barnouw said the Historical Society is amping up efforts and regrouping after its recent split from the Del Mar Village Association (DMVA). Currently working at the Del Mar Community Center on the Shores property, Barnouw and Brooks, with the help of society volunteers, have been organizing Del Mar’s historic database of documents, photos and other relics and safekeeping them in a storage building at the Community Center until they can one day be displayed for educational benefit.
Brooks and Barnouw have also been collecting oral histories from early Del Mar residents who are still living, which includes gathering clippings and photos and conducting recorded interviews to transcribe. The Society has collected 17 oral histories so far and has a list of residents it is working to interview as soon as possible.
While the Del Mar Historical Society is grassroots to say the least, flying largely under the radar without a headquarters, its educational efforts persist and grow as more and more history is preserved — and the society works with local residents who have historical features on their properties, such as the Rock Haus or the infamous “snake wall” along Zapo Street. Early Del Mar residents or their family members have even contacted the society in order to return for a visit or to track down relics or photos.
Society volunteers have also spent hours digitizing cassette tapes, transcribing CDs and converting VHS to keep archived records up to date.
"We're also working with Del Mar TV to archive programs dating back years," Brooks said. “It’s all in VHS and that stuff is disintegrating fast.”
To observe the oral histories collected by the society, visit the Del Mar Library at 1309 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, 92014. For more information on the society, visit www.delmarhistoricalsociety.org.