Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the timeline of the Naval Training Center’s founding and a detail about the harbor San Diego leaders were looking to establish at the time.
SAN DIEGO – Liberty Station is turning 100 this year and celebrations are underway to honor the history of one of San Diego’s oldest military developments still standing.
The now-marketplace was once a training center for the Navy for over 70 years – a development steeped in history at the heart of San Diego’s military community.
“The excitement about Liberty Station really lies in the historic nature of it,” director of Liberty Station, Laurie Albrecht, told FOX5SanDiego.com.
The Naval Training Center (NTC) was dedicated in October 1923, shortly after the Navy came to San Diego to use Balboa Park for offices in 1917. During this time, there were only three similar centers in the U.S., director of Liberty Station Laurie Albrecht told FOX5SanDiego.com.
“It was a big coup for San Diego to even receive the opportunity,” she said.
San Diego leaders at the time were trying to establish San Diego as a port city, according to Albrecht, similar to San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the land wasn’t quite right for a major harbor at the time, so the space was developed to house and train service members.
Thus, the Naval Training Center was born.
Dozens of buildings were erected for recruits and other members of the Navy to live and train, including the introduction of 20 different technical schools that taught those living there skills from barbering and radio operations to cooking and dentistry.
Over two million sailors and naval recruits graduated from the training center during the nearly 80 years that the base was operational. The station’s wartime peak was in 1942, as many as 33,000 personnel – including officers and recruits – were living on the grounds.
The training center was ultimately closed in 1997, returning ownership of the land to the city. About 650 acres, according to Albrecht, was converted to housing in Point Loma, with the remaining 360 being set aside for an adaptive reuse and renovation project handled by the Corky McMillin Companies.
In 2001, the development company broke ground on what became Liberty Station.
The multi-purpose development is now comprised of about 50 buildings, according to Albrecht, and all but seven have historical designations. For some of the buildings, they even still serve the same purpose.
Where the Liberty Public Market is right now used to be the NTC’s mess hall. Meanwhile, the LOT movie theater used to serve as an auditorium that recruits used to gather for seminars on naval training during the day and movies played every night.
That connection to history, Albercht said, will be on display during Liberty Station’s centennial celebrations.
“We’ve got banners up, we’ve got our bus stop signs that show an image of not only what NTC looked like historically, but (it’s) side by side with how it’s being used today,” Albercht said.
Commemorative plaques with little blurbs about the history behind different aspects of Liberty Station, including a QR code linking to audio of service members who lived at NTC chronicling their experience, are going to be installed throughout the development in the coming months.
Celebratory events will also be going on throughout the year, culminating in an October event that will highlight the stories of former recruits that trained at NTC during its time of operation and what Liberty Station has become by burying a time capsule.
This month’s centennial event is the Liberty Public Market’s seventh anniversary jubilee over the 18th and 19th, bringing live music, drink specials and artwork honoring NTC to the area housing the market’s some 38 restaurants and artisans.
Over the course of the year, Liberty Station also plans on highlighting the stories of people who had connections to the military base on social media through a campaign called “Tell Us Your NTC Story.”
“We’ve got commanders, we’ve got recruits, we’ve got individuals who were photographers, we’ve got individuals who were there at the service school, and then came back and worked on the development team with McMillin,” she said.
More events for the centennial will be announced in the coming weeks and months for locals to walk back in time and experience this important piece of San Diego’s history. More information on the centennial can be found here.
“There’s so many cool things about (Liberty Station),” Albrecht said. “We have to give a nod to the history of the men and women who served our country (here).”