GOODBYE TO POINT LOMA’S ICONIC “SHELL HOUSE”

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Frank mendes and his wife alyssa frank collected the shells over decades of tuna fishing

The news spread quickly through text messages and social media posts filled with sadness and resignation. “They’re gone away in a dumpster.” “The shells have been crushed.”

For thousands of San Diegans, the sense of loss was profound, but especially so in Point Loma’s Portuguese tuna fishing community.

When Frank Mendes and his wife Alyssa bought their home 75 years ago, it was not much different from others up and down Rosecrans Street. But over the years, Frank slowly began converting his front yard into a wonderland of seashells collected from the Galapagos Islands and other spots around the world where he was fishing. With each passing year, he just kept adding more of them until every inch of his front yard became part of an intricately designed shellscape of abalone, mollusk, clam, and exotic finds from faraway shores.

Over the years Frank Mendes’ remarkable front yard became famous in Point Loma and far beyond, even appearing in some San Diego tourist brochures. But it remained a distinctly local treasure that was especially celebrated within the fishing community, until late April when crews showed up to start clearing the front yard and preparing the house for sale. Frank Mendes had died years ago. His wife Alyssa remained in the house until she passed away shortly before her 104th birthday. In a real estate market where curb appeal is everything, Frank’s front yard of seashells became a costly curiosity.

A few neighbors and friends in the Portuguese fishing community raced to the scene to salvage some of the shells. Among them was Tommy Gomes, whose family has been fishing in the waters off San Diego for 132 years. He owns a fish market on Driscoll’s Wharf off Harbor Drive that he has named Tunaville “in honor of the men and women that worked the tuna boats and in the canneries.” His market is often a gathering place for older Portuguese fishermen who were a part of the once-thriving tuna industry here. Along one wall of Tunaville is a collection of photos and a continuously running video harkening back to the days when tuna fishing was the city’s third largest industry. To Tommy, the shell house was like a historical monument to that time and those people. “We needed to grab and save the shells from the shell house.” At the last minute, he was able to rescue a couple of the most familiar shell towers from the Point Loma house. He will keep them for display at Tunaville, he says, “because it really is a part of San Diego history and we are losing a little bit more and more each day.”

At look back at The Shell House of Point Loma and the last-minute effort to save some of its history will be among the stories featured on Ken Kramer’s About San Diego, Thursday evening, July 11 at 8 PM on KPBS-TV with a repeat airing Sunday, July 14 at 4 PM.

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Esteban Villanueva
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