In the 1920s, as Art Deco buildings sprouted up across American skylines, from the Empire State Building to Oakland’s Paramount Theater, the U.S. Navy was expanding its presence in San Diego, attempting to establish the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.” Providing a social and recreational hub for the city’s thousands of enlisted men and women was its Army–Navy YMCA, a 1924 Italian Renaissance–inspired Art Deco gem visited by some 125 million service members before it closed, in 2014. Now, after an $80 million renovation, the property has opened its doors again—this time to civilians—as the 162-room Guild Hotel.
Designer Sormeh Rienne oversaw the transformation of the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. “I was inspired by the property as a place to gather,” says Rienne, who made a point to preserve original details like the elevated running track above the former basketball court and the blue-tiled stairs leading to the basement pool (both spaces are now ballrooms). In the lobby—accented with patriotic pops of red, white, and blue—she hung original blueprints found in the walls during construction. “I didn’t want to inundate people with history,” she says, “but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t forgotten.”
The Guild isn’t the only notable new business breathing life into San Diego County’s Deco architecture. At Blade 1936, restaurateur Mario Cassineri serves woodfired pizzas inside the former home of The Blade-Tribune and News building in Oceanside, the last project from acclaimed architect Irving Gill. Newer still is Herb & Sea, an Encinitas seafood restaurant from celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, located inside a 1928 grocery store designed by Miles Kellogg, the architect behind the city’s famous Boat House apartments. “I think people are interested in historic buildings right now because they reference some sense of individuality and identity,” Rienne says.“That increasingly feels like a rarity.”