“At this moment, there is no compromise,” said Ron Slayen, a Liberty Station Arts District artist who, for three years, has been lobbying to preserve the chapel’s status quo. “This is an end-around like nothing I’ve ever seen. We simply want them to abide by the historical guidelines on the federal registry, which say, ‘You may not touch the interior (of the building).’”
Responding to initial rumors that the chapel might be repurposed for a restaurant (since denied), historical preservationists have campaigned against removing pews or altering significantly the chapel’s interior.
North Chapel at 2881 Roosevelt Road in the Quarter District of Liberty Station was constructed in 1942 as a place of worship for sailors stationed at the Naval Training Center San Diego. Sailors prayed there before going overseas during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
The chapel closed in 1997 with the operational closure of the Navy base. The chapel has since been listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places, which affords it architectural protection.
In 2018, McMillin sold part of its Liberty Station leasehold, including the North Chapel, to Seligman and Pendulum Property Partners. Pendulum then selected 828 Venue Management as a tenant, which subsequently selected Bennett + Associates as the architect to rehabilitate the chapel.
Recently, following a review by state and federal agencies that found proposed chapel renovations to be “consistent with the (historical) standards,” 828 Venue wrote: “We plan to continue the operation of the North Chapel as a community event venue. We want to create a more inclusive space that’ll give more people the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of this historic building… the facility will continue to be available for a wide range of community events throughout the week including weddings, religious gatherings, performances, receptions, a variety of other events and faith-based celebrations, as permitted by Liberty Station’s guiding NTC Precise Plan.”
Slayen has attended several Peninsula Community Planning Board meetings, putting questions to the chapel’s new operating group in attendance.
“I asked them specifically, yes or no, are you going to remove the pews?,” said Slayen. “The answer was, ‘When we have plans put in place, we will return to the community.’ They didn’t play fair. They promised they were coming back to the community planning board — and they never did.”’
Noted Slayen: “We care a lot about this historic spot. We particularly care about the sailors who prayed there, went to war, and never returned.”
Chapel rebranding opponents want assurances its interior will be left intact.
“They (828 Venue) have claimed pews are furniture, not part of the structure,” said Slayen. “Our position is you can’t alter the physical nature of the interior.”
Added Slayen, “This is a religious edifice that would also be a wonderful place for local choirs to sing.”
Slayen points to a letter of support from architect Milford Wayne Donaldson to Mayor Kevin Faulconer in 2018 supporting the preservationist’s position on the chapel.
“For 15 years, the North Chapel has been used for religious services of many denominations, weddings, memorial services, conference plenary sessions, and concerts,” read Donaldson’s letter. “These uses were consistent with the historic uses of the chapel by the U.S. Navy. The master developer of NTC has explored leasing the historic North Chapel for a restaurant or event space requiring extensive food and alcoholic beverage services inconsistent with the original intent during the base reuse… It is critical to retain the chapel for its intended uses as well as public uses without major alterations to the chapel’s spectacular interior.”
Donaldson has served on the City’s Historical Resources Board and, from 2004-2012, was State Historic Preservation Officer in Sacramento. For more than 40 years, his architectural firm has specialized in historic preservation.