U.S. Border Station-Main Building, San Diego, CA

The old U.S. Customs Building at the San Ysidro Border Station is located adjacent to the international border between the United States and Tijuana, Mexico. One and two stories in height, the building resembles a "U" in its plan, with the south wing set at an angle to the rest of the building. The primary elevation faces west. Appropriately, the building is Spanish Colonial revival in its styling, exhibiting the stuccoed exterior (now texture-coated) and red clay tile roof which are the hallmarks of that architectural idiom. Secondary materials used on the exterior include wood, terra cotta, and wrought iron. Of reinforced brick construction, the building consists of a two-story, side-gabled main wing which is set parallel to the border crossing lanes; a two-story southern wing with a front gable roof, set parallel to the international border at an obtuse angle to the main wing; and a one- story northern wing, at right angles to the main wing, with a flat composition roof. The dimensions of the wings are: 40' x 95' (main wing); 42' x 92' (southern wing); 43' x 84' (northern wing). Symmetrical in composition, the facade of the main wing consists of a raised, seven bay central block which is flaked by the recessed four bay facades of the north and south wings. The north wing, including its four bay facade, is hidden from view by a curved wall which connects the old Customs Building with the larger, 1974 border station complex A centered, octagonal cupola topped with a tiled ten roof, lantern, and finial culminates the design. The bays of the facade are defined by the fenestration in the central section and by shallow, blind arches on the wing. On the street level, the end bays of the central section project beneath tiled shed roofs. A three-bay portico, remnant of the original Porte cohere which once extended over three lanes of vehicular traffic, spans the central three bays of the western facade. Windows are primarily six-over-six double hung wood sash or paired, six light casements. Windows on the second story are flanked by wood shutters. The main entry is located in the center bay. Side and rear elevations are secondary in nature and depart from the formal symmetry of the facade in their arrangements of openings, as well as in the types of windows and doors. Later, inappropriate cement block additions project from the rear (east) facade of the main wing into the "courtyard" formed by the wings of the "U". Now mostly vacant, the interior of the building accommodated the customs, immigration, and public health departments in the main and south wings. The inspection shed, garages, mechanical systems, and storage areas were located in the north wing. Public spaces and functions were located on the first floor, with offices and detention rooms arranged off a double-loaded corridor on the second floor. A one- story room at the east end of the south wing has been removed, leaving its concrete slab floor in place; this was labeled "cyanide chamber" on the original plans. With the exception of small portions of the second floor of the south wing, the original spatial configuration of the interiors appears to have been completely altered. Despite these changes, the exterior of the building is an effective evocation of the period during which it was conceived and constructed. Landscaping in the front and rear (consisting of grassy areas, shubbery, and a few evergreen trees) compliments the Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture. Three flagpoles in front of the north portion of the west facade establish the nature of the structure.

The old Customs Building at the San Ysidro Border Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although listed in 1982 at the local level of significance, its role is a national one, and subsequent listing in the National Register of the Calexico station at the national level of significance supports a similar finding for San Ysirdro. The most heavily trafficked of the California border stations between the United States and Mexico, the old San Ysidro Customs Building is important for its role in politics and government as a custom house, where U.S. policies for international political and economic relations have been directly implemented since 1933, as well as for its impact as an immigration station which directly affected the Hispanic heritage of the region. The station is also recognized as a notable example of regional Spanish Colonial Revival architecture as interpreted by the Depression-era federal building program under which is was constructed.

The border station is the most important activity in San Ysidro, a community about fifteen miles south of the incorporated city of San Diego. Increasing border traffic in both goods and people led Collector of customs, William H. Ellison, to comment, in regards to the border facilities at San Ysirdro, Tecate, and Calexico: "We need the buildings very much, as out present quarters at those places are crowded, and I am urging both the treasury and the customs and immigration bureaus that actual construction be speeded as much as possible." At the time (the early 1930s), the border authorities in San Ysidro were operating from a single story frame building. San Diego boosters, foreseeing the possibilities for local prosperity, were enthusiastic backers of the proposal for a larger, more efficient operation at the border.

The federal agency responsible for the construction of the old Customs Building at San Ysidro in 1932 was the Public Buildings Branch of the Procumbent Division of the U.S. Treasury Department. Part of a massive federal construction program began in 1926 under the Hoover Administration and continued under Roosevelt's Public Works Administration, the San Ysidro station was realized under the aegis of Acting Supervising Architect James A. Wetmore. Design credit probably belongs to the Superintendent of the Architectural Division of the Treasury, Louis A. Simon. In keeping with the general practice of the federal building program, the San Ysidro customs house is characterized by a restrained use of local architectural tradition, executed - in so far as was feasible - using local materials and craftsmen.

Acquisition of the property for the building was completed in 1931. Work began in the spring of 1932, with a ground-breaking ceremony attended by federal and county officials, local businessmen, and a contingent of government and officials for Tiajuana. Construction was completed in May of the following year.

Like its counterparts at Tecate (1933) and Calexico (1933), the border station at San Ysidro played a critical role in the daily life of the communities and the two nations it served. The old Customs Building at San Ysidro continued in its original function until 1974, when it was supplanted by a new border station nearby. Despite alterations, the exterior retains a high degree of architectural character and integrity.

Description Architect
1932 1933 Original Construction Wetmore, James A.
Last Reviewed: 2017-09-28