Don and Leslie Budinger recently completed a many years-long gift to the Coronado Historical Association (CHA) of the Bank of Commerce Building located at 1100 Orange Avenue. Budinger bought the building in the late 90s with the intention to use such a beautiful space to benefit the city, and I had a chance to speak with him and current CHA Board of Directors president, Dave Landon, about that process and what it means to both of them to have completed that transfer.
“When I bought this building I looked at it and I thought, ‘This is a classic, so we need to do something special with it,’” Budinger began. “I went down to the city council and met with Mayor Smisek; I asked if I could speak with him and the City Council, and I basically said, ‘If a citizen bought the building and did what the city wanted, what does the City need?’ And he said, ‘We would love it to be a museum and we’d like to introduce you to the [Coronado] Historical Association.’”
“We looked at a couple of different ways to have CHA exclusively use the building,” Budinger continued, thinking back to the initial meetings he had with the CHA Board of Directors around 1998. They discussed possible renting situations before the Board relayed to Budinger how much they’d like to eventually be able to use it as the permanent residence for the museum and CHA offices. From there, Budinger and CHA worked out a discounted rent for the building for 20 years, at which point, provided certain conditions were met, CHA could have the option to take entitlement of the building early (or do so outright after 30 years).
“We negotiated that in 2000, maybe,” Budinger recalled. “My intention was to support CHA. I had sold my company and I was in the 501c3 not-for-profit space in Delaware, Arizona, and nationally, and I knew I could help CHA with all the 501c3 regulations and help them increase their ability of serving the people of Coronado.”
“CHA then brought the museum contents from the Loma facility [to the current location in the Bank of Commerce Building], expanded it, added a café, sub-leased that space to – originally the first café owner and now the current occupant,” Budinger explained. “My role through that time was to sort of be the behind the scenes support for CHA. Growing into this building was not an easy task as [CHA] went from a very small space to a very big space…and I was pleased and honored to be support for them through all of those years.”
Landon, the current president and chair of the CHA Board of Directors and retired Navy Pilot, initially became involved with the organization while he was serving in the Navy. “I was the commanding office of the Naval Base Coronado and we were doing renovations [on base]. …When we were renovating the library into a learning center, my Public Works Officer said to me, ‘What do you want to do with all of this historical crap?’ And I said, ‘Well, define crap,’” Landon recalled with a laugh. “So I went over into the storage closet and there were boxes upon boxes of historical documents and also some that were just full of historical photographs from North Island and Coronado.”
Landon knew they couldn’t throw those away and instead had some of the documents and other artifacts sent to the Navy’s historical repository, but largely kept the photos to catalogue and digitize them before bringing them to the CHA. “So that was kind of my inroad to CHA, and I became a member and then a board member, and then eventually the chair of the board,” Landon said. “That’s how I first met Don and Don has been our benefactor at CHA for a number of years. In fact, I’m not sure the CHA would still be here if it wasn’t for his generosity through the years; it got us to this point.
“Dave is an example of the leadership that exists in this community. …Under [Landon’s] leadership we accelerated the gift a little earlier than would have happened normally, through this exercise of the option [to do so],” Budinger commented. “So they have the title to the building and they have exclusive use as they always have had.”
Of taking that option to accelerate acceptance of entitlement of the building and the Budinger’s gift, Landon added, “There was a window of opportunity with where interest rates were and so we felt as though we would probably never have this opportunity in at least the foreseeable future. This was a building appraised for over $8 million and we were able to acquire it from Don and his wife for two million dollars. So it’s a significant gift that he gave us and this is now our home.”
When talking about the Bank of Commerce Building, which has a rich history of its own, it’s clear how appreciative Budinger and Landon are of the building and having the CHA make good use of it. “My whole idea was, let’s get this restored to its former grandeur,” Don explained of his initial thoughts upon purchasing it. “What was amazing was, we took the building down to the hollow clay tile and cement foundation and there wasn’t a single major crack from 100 years through earthquakes and storms,” he continued. “This part of Coronado is on a rock, and if you want to be protected from earthquakes, you want to be on a rock. So it’s really the best of all conditions. This building could last another hundred years and we’ll take care of it.”
“When you drive down Orange [Avenue] and you come this way, it’s very two dimensional until you get to that corner,” Landon mentioned, gesturing to the bend of the road outside of the building near Rotary Plaza. “And suddenly the city becomes three dimensional and that’s what makes this building so special and so iconic. Suddenly Coronado has this Wizard of Oz [transformation],” he described.
The Coronado Historical Association, like so many other organizations, has had to struggle through the pandemic, but they are grateful to be open again, have the community’s support, and are ready to continue their work with more passion than ever. Landon recalled a quote that one of the CHA staff has in their office from former KPBS report Ken Kramer. “There’s more history in a square inch of Coronado than there is in all of San Diego,” he recited. “And that’s really true. Think of all the important people who have lived here, visited here, and have had an impact on the community and it’s what makes this community so special.”
“Coronado’s got a great history,” Budinger agreed. “If nobody does what CHA does, you won’t have that benefit and it’ll just be a tourist attraction where people come and spend a few weeks or months. But when the history is told and people understand it, they have a deeper appreciation for being here. …Understanding that evolution and how it came to be, I think, is the incentive to giving back.”
Landon continued, “We, as a 501c3, our purpose, our charter, is to educate. We take that role very seriously because we don’t want to lose what we’ve got.” He told me a conversation he had with a resident of La Jolla recently who espoused how special Coronado is to still have so much of its history preserved. “But as she told me,” Landon said, “That’s always under threat so you have to be vigilant, you have to be sure that you don’t lose that because once you do, you can’t get it back. As you become more and more commercial and start tearing down the historical structures, then pretty soon there’s nothing unique about this community that is any different than any community up and down the coast.”
CHA’s exhibits over the past few years such as the League of Wives exhibit, Icons of Coronado, and their most recent exhibit on the influence of Japanese culture and influence on Coronado that included preserving and archiving stories of Japanese families and citizens with connections to the community who were affected during World War II are great examples of what these two men see as CHA’s mission and what the Association wants to be for Coronado.
“Those [stories] will be archived forever and I think that’s as important as the legacy of this building to ensure people understand and appreciate what’s so special about this place,” Landon commented. “To tip-toe back through history, that’s priceless.”
“Coming in, getting it started, and crafting this three-part gift, restoring the building…I just saw it as part of my gift back to make sure I support CHA, from the standpoint of the provider of the gift,” Budinger said. “CHA is the primary spokesperson for being the steward of the history of the island and in my view, they absolutely must maintain their role and this building gives them the chance to do that beautifully.”
The office we had our conversation in at, what is now, CHA’s building, is now dedicated to and for Budinger as well. “So I now have an office [at CHA] for the rest of my life, which was a nice way they said thank you,” he told me. “And I’m pleased to be here and support them as long as I live.”
The Coronado Historical Association, located at 1100 Orange Avenue, is currently open to the public every day of the week except Mondays from 11am-4pm. Visit CHA’s website at https://coronadohistory.org/ for more information about their current exhibit, to see online exhibits, or to learn more about the organization and how to get involved and enjoy upcoming events.