|Architect||Smith & Others (Ted Smith & Lloyd Russell)|
|Address||640 W. Beech St.|
|Building Type||Perimeter block, corner|
|Number of Dwellings||5-9|
|Dwelling Types||studio to 2 BR.|
|Section Type||duplex type with mezzanines|
|brick, metal, glass, wood|
|Ancillary Services||studio office|
In 1995, the Centre City Development Corporation (CDDC), a non-profit agency created to implement redevelopment work in the central area of San Diego, requested proposals to develop an entire block in the Little Italy district of the city. CDDC wanted to avoid the big apartment projects typical to most inner city projects built by large developers and, instead, sought to promote a series of smaller, independent projects in keeping with the spirit and scale of the original land use. A group of local architects formed the Little Italy Neighborhood Developers (LIND) and made a proposal to develop the 200'x 300' block in a way that allowed each architect to design a smaller, individual part. The architect/developers in LIND group were already well-known in the neighborhood for earlier downtown redevelopment projects that included several single occupancy hotels, designed by Rob Quigley built in the early 1990's, and other alternative, affordable housing projects by Jonathan Segal, James Brown, Ted Smith and his partner Kathleen McCormick, and others. The block was to be divided into several different-sized sites with shared gardens and off-street parking on the interior of the block. One existing building at the corner of Beech and India streets was to be renovated as a store with apartments above. The Merrimac Building is one of these projects, and like several of the earlier projects, was to be developed by Smith and his partners (Smith & Others). It is one of a pair of 5 story, semi-detached blocks facing south along Beech Street.
Ted Smith's experiments with affordable housing models date from his GoHome project of the 1980´s in which a single family house was designed as four individual units that shared a common kitchen but had double-height rooms with sleeping lofts and ample natural lighting. The GoHome idea was further developed as a rowhouse project of mixed income dwellings on 9th Avenue, designed as three attached buildings; two containing townhouses and the other with 12 low-cost live/work units with shared kitchens. This building which is a tall narrow 4-story tall block with a penthouse element and roof deck, contains a mix of double-height volumes and is a model for the Merrimac Building
Merrimac is a tall narrow block that attaches to one side of the remodeled Harbor Marine building at the corner of the block. The horizontal quality of the Harbor Marine is continued in Merrimac by expressing the two-story high base to the building and by repeating the rhythm and proportions of the second floor windows of the existing building. A lower block that is actually the end studio slot of Merrimac makes a transition from the horizontal white walls of Harbor Marine to the tall, vertical, brick and corrugated steel walls of Merrimac so that the latter appears to be partially free-standing. A service drive to a parking court on the interior of the block separates Merrimac from its neighbor the Dutra-Brown Building to the west that is similarly detailed as a semi-detached vertical element: two little towers, articulated as urban palazzi with rusticated bases, piani nobili, and overhanging cornices standing side-by-side. The repeating organization of the plan is expressed as a vertical zone of glazing above the doors along the sidewalk. A zone of mezzanines and repeating alcoves and an upper balcony imply a denser, articulated wall on the garden side, a condition further developed as a narrow zone of spaces in the top two floors. The alcoves of the bottom two floors are used for baths, kitchens and closets but heighten the impression of a dense masonry base to the building.
The upper floors are expressed as a three-story high industrial warehouse structure framed in steel and sheathed in corrugated metal. The continuous band of clerestory windows at the top of the brick walls, the narrow slots of vertical glass that alternate with the corrugated metal sheeting of the upper surfaces, the cantilevered end of the gable roof on the west side above the glass curtain wall of the upper floors, and the exposed steel trusses inside all reinforce the concept of a light, steel structure. Two external stairs, one at each end of the building provide access to the 3rd floor. The stair at the west end, overlooking the passageway between Merrimac and Dutra-Brown, is the entrance to the offices of Smith and Others while the eastern stair leads from the garden side to an open gallery along the north side of the building giving access to one apartment (or three units) and an open deck above the space between Merrimac and Harbor Marine. The entrance to Smith and Others is also a conference space. An internal stair connects to the floor above which is a double-height office space extending the full length of the building. This space has a glass curtain wall along the south end and opens to a deck. These elements, stair, deck and glass wall, are partially protected by the cantilevered gable roof above. Stairs at each end provide exit from this level. This double-height studio space is expressed in both elevations by the two-story high alternating bands of vertical glass. Another small apartment is located in the top two floors along the north side of the studio, a zone corresponding to the width of the mezzanine levels below. Like the earlier 9th street rowhouses, a stair leads to a small room on the roof. The absence of underground parking, the combination of live/work atelier spaces with more-or-less typical apartments, and the spatial complexity of the interiors are all trademarks of the work of Smith and Others. The objectives of creating an "urban village" that had been in the intent of the CDDC and of maintaining the variety that was implied in the original block parceling has been achieved. Merrimac is perhaps most important as an example of an alternative housing model that can be built in an open market with limited capital. It is a model that challenges stereotyped concepts about multi-family housing and offers live-work opportunities for residents with limited resources. While the concept of the architect/developer/builder may not have widespread popularity in every situation, it certainly has succeeded as the catalyst for urban redevelopment in San Diego.
Architectural Record, March, 1999, pp. 80-82.
Architecture, Nov. 1999, pp. 106-111.
Architecture, Jan. 1997, pp. 86-87.