Army and Navy Academy, a private military school for seventh to twelfth grade boys in Carlsbad, traces its history back over 100 years. According to a historical timeline provided on the academy’s website, that history began when Captain Thomas A. Davis founded the San Diego Army and Navy Academy with thirteen students in 1910. The timeline also notes that Capt. Davis founded his school not in Carlsbad but in Pacific Beach, at the old Balboa Hotel. So, what historical threads tie a modern school in Carlsbad to an old hotel in Pacific Beach?
In 1910 the Hotel Balboa (not Balboa Hotel) was the latest occupant of the former campus of the San Diego College of Letters, built to be the primary attraction of the new Pacific Beach subdivision established in 1887. The cornerstone of the college had been laid with great ceremony in January 1888, just weeks after lots in Pacific Beach were first put on sale, and the college opened with 37 students in September 1888. The college building was a large wooden structure designed and built by James W. Reid, architect of the recently completed Hotel del Coronado. However, the college was unable to repay construction costs and when Reid sued, and won, it was closed and the property, including the college building, was sold at auction at the courthouse door in 1891.
Over the next decade the college campus in Pacific Beach changed hands several more times and was used for such purposes as a Y. M. C. A. camp and summer school and, in 1901, as a hotel, the College Inn. In 1904, Folsom Bros. Co. first leased then bought the college campus intending to convert it into a first-class resort. Folsom Bros. renovated the buildings, improved the landscaping and sponsored a contest to name their new property. The winner received a $100 lot in PB or $100 in gold for suggesting Hotel Balboa. However, the Hotel Balboa also did not live up to expectations and Folsom Bros. sought other uses for the property. In 1909 a portion was subleased to the Pacific Beach Country Club.
Captain Thomas Alderson Davis had served in Puerto Rico as an officer in the 6th Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War of 1898. In 1907 he had established a military school in El Paso but in 1910 he visited San Diego, liked what he saw, and decided to stay. He leased the Hotel Balboa and on November 23, 1910, the San Diego Army and Navy Academy began classes there with a group of 13 cadets and with Capt. Davis as the only instructor. The academy grew rapidly; by the end of its second year it had added courses and faculty and claimed to have 73 students. Growth in attendance was accompanied by increased status; in 1914 the academy was recognized by the war department as a Class A school, which entitled it to the detail of a retired army officer to serve on the faculty at the army’s expense.
In 1921, after ten years in its rented quarters in Pacific Beach, the San Diego Army and Navy Academy announced that it was purchasing the Point Loma Golf and Country Club next to the new Navy and Marine Corps training centers on San Diego Bay. Capt. Davis explained that he expected proximity to these military training facilities would be of benefit to his cadets, particularly those interested in naval training. However, the move to Point Loma never happened; Capt. Davis was unable to obtain the terms he wanted for the Point Loma property and instead purchased the property the academy had been leasing in Pacific Beach. In 1923 Capt. Davis also purchased two blocks on the north side of the campus and in 1925 two more blocks on the west side.
Most of the cadets attending the San Diego Army and Navy Academy were residential students who lived on campus during the academic year. They had been accommodated in the original college buildings and then, as enrollment increased, in wooden cottages built elsewhere on the grounds. When enrollment continued to increase during the 1920s, passing 200 in 1924, these accommodations also became insufficient and the academy initiated a more ambitious building program. A mess hall capable of seating 300 was built in 1924, an auditorium and infirmary in 1927, and a three-story reinforced concrete dormitory in 1928. A swimming pool and four-story concrete dormitory were added in early 1930 as attendance grew to more than 400. In anticipation of continued growth, another pair of four-story dormitories were completed by the end of 1930. These rows of large concrete dormitories and the other new structures on the college campus site dwarfed the original college buildings and dominated the skyline of Pacific Beach for decades.
However, the San Diego Army and Navy Academy suffered along with the rest of the country as the Great Depression took hold in the early 1930s. Enrollment of cadets declined to under 200 and the academy found itself unable to repay the costs of its building program. In 1930 the academy received the first of a series of loans from the Security Trust & Savings Bank of San Diego, secured by a deed of trust to the college campus property, and in 1932 all the ‘furniture, furnishings and equipment of every kind and character’ belonging to the academy were mortgaged to the bank (including the knives, forks and spoons in the dining room and the band drum major’s baton). When the academy fell behind in repayment of these obligations, and was even unable to pay taxes on the property, the bank declared it in default and in 1936 announced its intention to sell the property.
In August 1936, the San Diego Union carried a special announcement from Col. Davis (he had received an honorary ‘Kentucky Colonel’ commission from the governor of Kentucky in the 1920s), founder and for 25 years president of the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, that he and his brother, Maj. John L. Davis, Jr., vice president and commandant, had resigned their positions and would no longer be associated with the academy in any way. He could be contacted care of Davis Military Academy in Carlsbad. An article in the same paper added that the Davis Military Academy had leased the Red Apple Inn in Carlsbad and that school would open in September, 1936.
The Davises were joined in Carlsbad by several other members of the administration and faculty from the Pacific Beach academy, including Charles Bain, Raymond Ede, Samuel Peterson and Maj. William Atkinson and his wife Virginia. Many of these original staff members later rose to high positions at the new school, including two future presidents, and several buildings on the campus are named in their honor.
At the San Diego Army and Navy Academy in Pacific Beach, an active-duty army officer who had been professor of military science and tactics took over as commandant. The academy retained its high rating and recognition by the war and navy departments, meaning that graduates were entitled to admission to the military academies at West Point and Annapolis. 150 students had enrolled for the academic year beginning in September 1936 and 20 of the original 30 faculty members would return.
The academy did begin classes in September 1936 but in March 1937 the property in Pacific Beach was sold to the John E. Brown College Company, which announced that it would be renamed Brown Military Academy. The change in name and ownership was apparently popular on the Pacific Beach campus; the 1937 graduating class voted unanimously to be graduated from Brown Military Academy and to have its insignia on their rings. Col. and Maj. Davis consented to the sale with the stipulation that they would be allowed to transfer the name, San Diego Army and Navy Academy, to their new school in Carlsbad.
In December 1938, a little over two years after founding the Davis Military Academy in Carlsbad and a year after it had reacquired the San Diego Army and Navy Academy brand, Col. Davis resigned and returned to his former school in Pacific Beach as assistant to the president of John Brown Schools. He was named president of Brown Military Academy in February 1940, resuming his role, after a brief interruption, as head of the first military academy he had established in San Diego. Maj. Davis took his place as president of the San Diego Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad.
Col. Davis retired from Brown Military Academy in 1954 and in February 1958 John Brown Schools announced that the academy would relocate to Glendora to make way for commercial development of its Pacific Beach campus. Most of the 475 cadets and 90 faculty were expected to make the move, although some faculty joined former headmaster Louis Bitterlin in opening San Diego Military Academy in Solana Beach (San Diego Military Academy closed in 1977 and the site, on Academy Drive, is now Santa Fe Christian Schools).
In June 1958 Col. Davis, then 84 years old, was honorary reviewing officer at the final commencement exercise at Brown Military Academy in Pacific Beach, where he had founded San Diego Army and Navy Academy 48 years earlier. Shortly thereafter, many of the academy buildings, including the former Hotel Balboa, were demolished and replaced with a shopping center, Pacific Plaza, which opened in 1960. A plaque outside the Great Buffet restaurant in Pacific Plaza commemorates the ‘West Point of the West’ which formerly occupied the site.
The large concrete dormitories remained standing until 1965 when they too were demolished and replaced with an apartment complex, now the Plaza condominiums, in 1970. The Brown Military Academy campus in Glendora was itself was closed in 1968.
Today the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad is still located on the site where Col. Thomas A. Davis established Davis Military Academy in 1936 in the former Red Apple Inn. In 1937 it assumed the name of the academy Col. Davis had first founded in 1910 in Pacific Beach but dropped the ‘San Diego’ from its name in 1943, the same year that Maj. Atkinson, the former bandleader at the Pacific Beach academy, began a 30-year tenure as president. In 1948 Army and Navy Academy also began a building program which has never really stopped. The latest addition to the campus is a new sports center, opened in 2013, where a sign reminds passers-by that it all began over a century ago.