Marking its 40th year: Pacific Beach Historical Society preserves town’s colorful past
It all started with a bunch of historic photos of Pacific Beach seeking a “permanent home” ...
Longtime resident Howard Rozelle, who served as board member on the PB Town Council, retired and was hoping the Town Council would purchase the collection of images he’d taken over the years of PB landmarks. The Council declined, but the request got the attention of another board member, John Fry , who was also interested in preserving PB history.
But first, the back story.
For most of his adult life, Rozelle worked as a mechanic at Courtesy Chevrolet. He devoted himself to taking photos every weekend, often from the air, except during World War II, when shooting aerials was banned. Fry met Rozelle in 1978, shortly after Rozelle retired. The following year, Fry retired from his teaching job at Morse High School and the duo co-founded the Pacific Beach Historical Society.
As Fry recalled for PB Monthly: “We had a great time converting his photos into slide shows, which we featured at meetings of the society.”
Rozelle passed away July 4, 1991 at age 90. Fry has since ended the practice of hosting meetings, he said, because most members are much older now and not interested in getting together. The PB History Collection’s “permanent home” has become Fry’s house in Crown Point, where the photos reside — along with all the other PB memorabilia — “in file cabinets, closets and under my bed,” he said.
Fry’s fascination with recording history started at an early age, he explained. He grew up in Normal Heights and remembers the real estate office on Adams Avenue that posted old San Diego photos from the Title Insurance Company. Fry spent the summer of 1965 as a volunteer working on the photo collection. That’s where he first came into contact with old images of Pacific Beach, and he was hooked.
“In the beginning, the photos came from the San Diego History Center, then known as the San Diego Historical Society, which acquired the Title Insurance photo collection,” Fry explained. “Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of photos from members of the PB Historical Society and, more recently, off the Internet.” Fry has also collected stories from some of the early settlers, and from old newspapers and magazines.
He’s published three books about PB history. His “Image of America, Pacific Beach,” showcases 238 historic photos with captions. He also wrote “Pacific Beach Through Time, 1979-2018" with Nancy Wingo. The book compares Fry’s old photos to Wingo’s recent photos of the same spots in the beach community.
Fry also wrote “A Short History of Crystal Pier,” in honor of its 60th anniversary in 1986. Crystal Pier is one of the last surviving entertainment piers to spring up along the Southern California coast in the early part of this century. Originally known as “Pickering’s Pleasure Pier,” the structure was opened to the public in 1927 in hopes of encouraging investors to purchase residential and business properties near the ocean, which at the time, was considered a suburb of San Diego. The original pier had a Crystal Ballroom, which fell victim to a legal dispute. Still, the pier itself stands and serves — despite being seriously damaged by storm surf in 1983.
Fry is full of little-known facts about the history of PB.
“Most people probably don’t know,” he said, “that the Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (where Vons is now, 1702 Garnet Ave.) was the site of the short-lived San Diego College of Arts and Letters, founded in 1888. From 1910 to 1958, it was a military academy — first, the San Diego Army & Navy Academy, and then, Brown Military Academy.”
Fry continues to share fascinating facts and historic photos in the PB Historical Society’s monthly newsletter, which is mailed to 220 people. Anyone can become a member of the society. Annual dues are $30.
For more information, photos and videos, visit johnfry.com
Pacific Beach Roots
• PB’s development traces back to the completion of a cross-country railroad in the late 1880s. It was developed during 1886 to 1888 by D.C. Reed, A.G. Gassen, Charles Pauley, R.A. Thomas and O.S. Hubbell. Hubbell cleared away the grainfields, pitched a tent, mapped out the lots, hired an auctioneer and started to work.
To attract people, these bankers/developers built a race track and the San Diego College of Letters, neither survive today. A railway also connected PB with downtown San Diego, and was later extended to La Jolla .
• In 1902, oceanfront lots sold for $350 to $700.
• By 1950, the PB population hit 30,000 and the average home sold for $12,000.
• During World War II, the U.S. Navy operated an anti-aircraft training center in PB.
• During the 1960s, development continued to increase with the city’s investment in Mission Bay Park.
• Today, Pacific Beach is home to college students, single professionals and families. The restaurant and nightlife culture has grown extensively, with Garnet Avenue the hub for places to eat, drink and shop, with a range of bars, restaurants, pubs and coffee houses.