A one-sided fight that lasted about 15 minutes—that’s how a neighbor described the attack he witnessed on Juniper Street in Bankers Hill during the early morning hours of April 19, 2013.
By the time police arrived, the two men involved were laying on the street next to each other.
“That’s my boss,” said Higinio Salgado, sitting up, noticeably drunk and covered in blood. The police used two pairs of handcuffs to restrain the 320-pound man, who later claimed he had no idea how he and his boss ended up outside. Graham Downes, his face pale as he lay on the street in front of his home, didn’t move.
Two days later, Downes, 56, a well-known architect, developer and rugby player, succumbed to his brain injuries and died. A year later, a jury found Salgado, a property manager for Downes, guilty of second-degree murder. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday, July 8, and faces 15 years to life in prison.
As the hearing draws near, family and close friends have been tasked with writing about their loss. Their statements will be read aloud in court before the judge sentences Delgado.
“It’s the hardest letter I’ve had to write,” says developer Brett Miller, looking out at the ocean view from the bar inside Tower 23, the slick boutique hotel Downes helped him design. “I’ve started and stopped a few times, and I always write down the same words: ‘I’m lost.’ There are just no words that could describe what all of us have lost.”
In this computer-aided world, not all architects can draw. Downes, though, was known for his ability to sketch by hand, skillfully picturing not only the architecture of a place, but also the people who would eventually fill it.
“When he would draw and sketch, the little details he added would bring it to life,” says Maria Carrillo, who worked with Downes for 16 years.
A magnetic man who knew how to have a good time, Downes shone brightest when designing for the hospitality industry—the eye-catching designs of Tower 23, Hard Rock Hotel San Diego’s interior, Basic, Chive and Hotel Palomar are often mentioned when he and his work are discussed.
“He had a strong interest in making sure people had a lot of fun,” says Andrew Duncan, one of Downes’ closest friends. “He wanted to make sure people had a great environment in which to play.”
Duncan, who, like Downes, grew up in South Africa, has stacks of his friend’s sketches. He’s currently working with the NewSchool of Architecture + Design on an exhibition of the drawings set to open later this year. Meanwhile, Carrillo’s working on publishing a book of Downes’ drawings.
“It’s just such a lost art,” Carrillo says. “Graham could draw and design anything on the back of a napkin.”
Graham Downes Architecture, Inc. was a firm that attracted designers and architects from around the world. Every few months, Carrillo says she had fun counting the number of languages the staff could speak. The international workforce, she says, was drawn to the firm’s commitment to the clean, minimalist-design philosophies advocated by the German Bauhaus art school. Downes attached the suffix “haus” to everything he could—Blokhaus was the name of both his office and the development and leasing arm of his firm. Throughout his career, he never veered from the design philosophy.
The “Once a Blokhead, Always a Blokhead” Facebook group has 36 members, mostly young, up-and-coming architects and designers; the group is just a small selection of people who’ve worked alongside and been influenced by Downes. Michael Soriano, Don Hollis and Armando Hurtado are among the more recognizable names who’ve gone on to shape the look of San Diego and beyond.
Gregory Strangman, a developer who worked with Downes on projects like the Downtown nightclub Thin, laughs as he describes Downes as having “a little Steve Jobs in him.” The hard-nosed man, Strangman explains, pushed and argued with his employees and even his clients over issues as seemingly unimportant as painting a room stark white or cream—details Downes believed would genuinely impact a project. His tough approach wasn’t always appreciated—he lost clients and employees—but friends say he had the ability to pull the best out of people.
“People who went in the door came out better designers and better architects because of Graham,” Carrillo says. “He asked a lot of me and everyone else, but he was always able to fire up the troops, get us amped up.”
While the firm’s designs of new buildings are notable, Downes also had a knack for breathing new life into old buildings. He was selected as the architect to help with the revitalization of the outdated Uptown District Shopping Center in Hillcrest anchored by Ralphs and Trader Joe’s. The revamp will likely be his last-ever realized design. A spokesperson for the project says that great care is being taken to honor the design’s intent and integrity.
“When the first phase opens in the fall, you’ll definitely be able to recognize Graham’s fingerprint,” says Hollis, who teamed with Downes on the project.
After founding his firm in 1994, Downes moved his office from his Pacific Beach apartment to Second Avenue and Island Street, Downtown, and then to East Village and finally to Barrio Logan—each time making the jump years in advance of major redevelopment.
When Downes purchased an old brick building on National Avenue in Barrio Logan, Carrillo remembers walking into the space and thinking that, this time, her boss had lost it—the beaten-up building looked beyond repair. But by the time the firm unveiled its hip, new office with an exposed roof and airy central atrium, Carrillo and most everyone else was convinced that Downes’ risky move was a smart, even inspirational, one. It was the first development of its kind in Barrio Logan, and others have since followed. Strangman says he’ll soon move his company’s offices to the neighborhood.
“It’s just amazing how we were always on the cusp of the wave, and Graham had the foresight to know that,” Carrillo says, noting that Downes had set his sights on Bankers Hill soon before he died. “He was always searching for the next place; where’s the next place we can make our mark?”
At the recent Graham Downes Memorial Golf Tournament, Andrew Duncan straightened one of five bottles of wine emblazoned with a black-and-white portrait of a smiling Downes. He stood back, quickly wiped away a tear and snapped a photo of the bottles, which were up for auction. The annual fundraiser is put on by KwaZulu Old Crocs Rugby, a club co-founded by Downes, who most teammates called “Basher.”
“I’m judging by all the hooting and hollering out there that you had a good time, right?” said Bill Shrimpton, another Old Crocs founder, standing behind a lectern. “At one point, I heard a really boisterous roar, and I thought, That sounds like Basher. Alas, it wasn’t. “We will miss you,” Shrimpton said, raising a glass.
The Old Crocs have raised thousands of dollars through the tournament and auction. The money will help finance three new, annual scholarships in Downes’ memory: Two architectural scholarships for students at Woodbury University and NewSchool of Architecture + Design and one for a rugby player who’ll earn a trip to South Africa for intensive training with the Sharks, a world-class team for which Downes once played.
“Graham was passionate about his rugby, and he was passionate about his architecture,” Duncan said, wearing Downes’ No. 1 Old Crocs jersey as he took to the podium to introduce David Garcia, the first-ever recipient of one of the architectural scholarships. Later, Ben Pinkelman was announced as the first rugby scholarship recipient.
John Hex, an Old Crocs member who coached Downes when he was in high school, said the architect didn’t stand out on the rugby team at first, but he pushed himself and became one of the best.
“He worked hard for what he got,” Hex said. “That applied to his career in architecture as well.”
Downes had a reference library in his office filled with thousands of photos he’d taken while traveling. He loved to see the world, not only for entertainment, but also to stay fresh and inspired.
He regularly rallied the local architecture-and-development crew, traveling with different groups of friends and colleagues, including Miller, Duncan, Strangman, Hollis and Jonathan Segal. The itinerary always included architectural tours and meetings with architects along with the debauchery and fun.
“He brought an international flavor to San Diego and inspired others to do so, too,” says Leslee Schaffer, former executive director of the San Diego Architectural Foundation. “I think San Diego really benefitted from him. We really needed that.”
The night of April 19, 2013, started with Downes, Salgado and a handful of others holding a happy hour at the firm’s office. Downes was in a good mood, celebrating the general upswing in the economy and talking about an upcoming trip to Tijuana to look at development opportunities. The firm had a handful of projects in the pipeline and was ready for more.
Downes was hit hard by the economic downturn of 2008, but friends say that 2013 marked the most energy they’d seen in him in years. Ready for the next big thing, he called up one of his former employees, Simon Terry-Lloyd, to talk about future prospects.
Salgado didn’t like Terry-Lloyd. According to court records, Terry-Lloyd, Salgado’s former supervisor, told police that he caught Salgado allegedly stealing leather chairs from the company, drinking on the job and otherwise shirking duties. By the time the happy hour migrated from the office to a bar and eventually to Downes’ home, witnesses told police, people were drunk and Salgado started angrily telling Downes how much he hated Terry-Lloyd.
Fueled by booze—Salgado’s attorney argued a “blackout drunk” defense—that anger eventually boiled over into the brutal 15-minute attack that ended a life that’s touched and transformed dozens of people and places.
“Graham helped put San Diego on a path,” says Hollis who, like most of Downes’ friends, has struggled to write his sentencing-hearing impact statement, because the loss of Downes’ personality and charisma has left such a void.
“His death changed that trajectory, but San Diego is different and better because he was here.”