It’s been two years since The Headquarters at Seaport opened, but the outdoor shopping and dining center next door to Seaport Village could still be considered a hidden gem – one with a lot of official San Diego history.
Located at 789 W. Harbor Dr. in downtown San Diego, the marketplace may look familiar to some: it’s the site of the former San Diego Police Department (SDPD) headquarters.
Originally built for the police department in 1939, the headquarters was decommissioned in 1987. Decades later, the site was restored and revamped into the marketplace it is today and reopened as The Headquarters at Seaport in fall 2013.
“This was a full-service headquarters – one of the very few in the United States. Everything from booking to jail cells, court rooms and administrative offices [was here]. It was one stop shopping here for quite some time,” said Terry Hall, general manager for Seaport Village and The Headquarters. “Even in WWII, it was an espionage center, which is pretty interesting.”
Though as modern as ever, relics of the past still linger in every nook of the site. Much of the original architecture, tiles and artifacts of the old SDPD headquarters remains – some visible to the eye, some not.
Hall says developers went to great lengths to maintain much of the original integrity of the site. This included stripping more than 27,000 tiles from the original roofs, cleaning them and putting them back up. The courtyard, Hall says, also features original pavers.
In some of the shops, including Venissimo Cheese, the flooring consists of original red-colored tiles from decades past. Underneath those tiles, Hall says there are tunnels once used by utility workers, and those tunnels actually circle the entire property.
“No prisoners were ever transported through the tunnels,” she joked. “It’s for [access to] utilities.”
The biggest historical feature of The Headquarters is nestled between the shops and eateries: a free, mini museum showcasing artifacts from the old police station, including eight original jail cells – complete with prisoners’ beds and cubbies, and a wall of mug shots.
The hallway leading to the jail cells is lined with vintage photographs, including a black and white photo of what the site looked like in its life as the police headquarters.
At the end of the hallway, visitors can stand in front of a police lineup wall and snap mug shots of themselves for fun.
Many of the businesses at The Headquarters are also steeped in history.
The elegant fine-dining restaurant, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood, sits on the very site where the courthouse once stood.
“It’s a lot of fun for people when they find out the bar used to be the courtroom and that the dining room used to be where they did the booking,” Guenevere Wolfe, managing partner of Eddie V’s, told NBC 7. “It’s fun to show that to the guests. It adds a new dimension to the dining experience.”
Wolfe said the historical element of The Headquarters was a big draw for Eddie V’s, as the site makes the restaurant particularly unique.
“It has such gorgeous features. The doorways are all original. So much of the interior [design] was inspired by the original building,” Wolfe explained. “Diners really appreciate the history of the building.”
Wolfe said she’ll never forget the time a group of retired SDPD officers visited her restaurant and gave her a tour of what each room used to be. Now, she passes on that knowledge to curious guests.
“It’s really fun to give them background and context,” she added.
Gina Freize, owner of Venissimo Cheese, a gourmet cheese shop located at The Headquarters, also said the site’s storied past drew her into wanting to open her business there.
“We knew we wanted to be part of this,” Freize said, adding that customers love learning all about the history of the space.
“Tying the past with the present is really a cool thing. Not to forget what was here but you know, taking it to the next generation,” she said. “It’s neat to share this story, to say, ‘Hey, the Warden’s Office is over there and if you don’t behave, we’ll send you over.’”
Over at Simply Local, a store that sells handmade goods created by San Diego-based artisans, visitors can also find signs of the past.
That store is located in the area once used by the police department to book inmates into jail. Inmates were brought into the space through a main archway before undergoing the booking process.
Today, Simply Local’s cash register and check-out area is lined with old doors that have been cut down to counter-height.
Way back when, those doors led to the SDPD’s booking area, employee Jessie Anderson told NBC 7.
When Simply Local moved in, the owners repurposed the doors to create the check-out counter.
Anderson said that isn’t the only relic worked into the shop’s décor.
In some corners of the store, shoppers will find candles and other items on display inside small, square, metal cubbies.
“These cubbies are original to the building as well. They were actually the prisoner’s cubbies back in the day, where they kept their personal belongings,” Anderson explained.
She said customers who know the history of the store sometimes come in and take photographs in front of the cubbies and doors, showing their appreciation for the artifacts.
Roxanne Joseph, an employee at the Madison apparel and accessories shop in The Headquarters, said the marketplace also appeals to visitors because of its prime location in the heart of San Diego.
“I was born here and it draws me. There’s so much to see and do,” Joseph told NBC 7. “You can spend a whole day down here – the restaurants and the water and the ships, the stores, the food – everything.”
“I don’t think people realize that we’re our own little mall inside here. The locals that live here love this – it’s become part of their daily routine,” added Madison employee Felicia Smith.
JeriLynne Jardin, who works at the Aaron Chang Ocean Art Gallery at The Headquarters, believes the location of the marketplace is a great alternative to busy downtown San Diego or tourist-driven Seaport Village.
“It’s kind of nice to step away from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy the bay and The Headquarters,” said Jardin. “It’s a nice sense of community. It is a little hidden gem.”
Aside from shopping and dining, The Headquarters features many free community events each month in its courtyard including outdoor movie screenings, salsa dancing under the stars and live music.
Many of the businesses there also host fun events.
The Aaron Chang Gallery, for instance, will sometimes host meet-and-greet events on Sunday where Chang will come to the gallery and talk about his art with customers. The gallery also hosts a wine night on Friday, Jardin said.
Meanwhile, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood features live music every night in its “V Lounge,” typically from different local jazz trios. Wolfe said the restaurant also hosts Happy Hour daily from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Wolfe joked that in this laid-back ambiance, patrons are definitely having more fun there today than people had back when it was the inmate booking station.
Over at Venissimo Cheese, special “Academy of Cheese (AOC)” classes are held four times a month that teach everything from cheesemaking to wine and cheese pairing. Typically, a $50 class includes generous samples of gourmet cheese, plus sips of wine and the cheese lesson.
On the last Sunday of every month, Simply Local hosts a free “Meet the Vendors” showcase featuring five to 10 local artisans who set up tables outside the shop and discuss their handmade products with customers. Sometimes, vendors reveal brand-new products at those events, too, Anderson said.
As The Headquarters finds its groove in modern times, Hall said the site will continue to bridge the past with the present. She hopes the marketplace draws San Diego history buffs, locals and tourists alike, all searching for a unique experience in a space designed to be enjoyed by many.