Perched high above a canyon overlooking Mission Valley is “Casita de los Chatfield,” the 1930s-era Spanish-style home lovingly renovated by Jim Chatfield, executive vice president of JMI Realty, and Denisia, his wife of 25 years, a former real estate agent, stay-at-home mom, and community volunteer. This is the third home the couple has owned in San Diego’s historic Kensington neighborhood, with rows of tidy houses and a bustling business district. “Kensington is a sweet little jewel,” says Denisia. “Neighbors talk in the streets while walking their dogs and leave homegrown veggies on your doorstep. We always describe it as very 1950s. We’ve loved raising our kids here. It’s wholesome and sweet.”
The couple also wanted to support revitalization efforts in San Diego’s urban areas. Jim, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, spent five years with the Navy’s Civilian Engineering Corps, and later was project manager for more than $300 million in construction at NAS/MCAS Miramar. He eventually joined JMI Realty, just as the company was transforming the Ballpark District surrounding Petco Park. Jim played a key role in that effort, including construction of the Omni San Diego Hotel, The Metropolitan Condominiums, and East Village District Plant. JMI’s retrofit of the Candy Factory and Schiefer & Sons historic buildings won Orchid Awards from the San Diego Architectural Foundation. Jim proudly displays a bat signed by the late, legendary Padres slugger Tony Gwynn in appreciation of JMI’s work.
Jim has moved on to another JMI Realty project that he and Denisia, as proud San Diego State University alumni, are both passionate about. (Denisia earned a BA in theatre, and Jim, an MBA.) JMI is now assisting in the project management of SDSU’s Mission Valley Innovation District, which includes a 78-acre river park, 1.6 million square feet of office and campus buildings, 4,500 residential units, and 90,000 square feet of retail. “It’s a game changer for San Diego,” says Jim, who believes the project will result in more collaboration between education, research, and business, and bring new companies to San Diego. Other JMI projects include the new Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas overlooking Ponto Beach that opened in March, and renovations of The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe and the Hotel Fontenot in New Orleans.
The Chatfields faced their own design challenges during the year-long remodeling of their Kensington home. With the help of architect Roger Utt, they took the house down to the studs in 2005 and rebuilt and reoriented the entire property, keeping most of the original structure’s footprint. They retained the Ponderosa flat tile roof and the custom Santa Barbara decorative interior tile work, a reflection of early 1930s Californian aesthetic. “Building something entirely new that doesn’t look old in this neighborhood is generally not appreciated,” says Denisia. “When there is a remodel here, the entire neighborhood knows about it!”
So, the couple stayed true to the era but opened it up and made it airy. They added beamed ceilings, closed off the original staircase, and built a new walnut staircase designed by Denisia with colorful Spanish tile risers. They also added a deck off the family room to watch the birds and hawks fly by. The sunny kitchen, with alder wood cabinets, honed stone countertops, and a hammered copper sink, is cozy and warm. “Spoil your wife, not your child” reads a sign that once hung in Denisia’s mother’s kitchen in their Brawley hometown.
The kitchen adjoins an open family room with a brick fireplace, furnished with a leather sectional, tufted custom swivel chairs, and an antique sideboard now used as a bar. Denisia cherishes her eclectic collection of art: a photograph of Borrego Springs by photographer Bill Gates, known for his images of the Imperial Valley desert landscape, a painting of the San Juan Islands, and a painting of a Mexican dancer from a bar in Mexicali. Upstairs, a large photograph of Swami’s Reef by famed surf photographer Aaron Chang hangs in the master bedroom. (Coincidentally, Chang’s work is also featured at Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas.) The couple added a master bath and a deck to take advantage of canyon vistas and twinkling lights. “Even though I’m a builder, I love the challenge of renovating an old house and making it ours,” says Jim.
The couple met at a party in La Jolla, and although there was a mutual attraction, they did not reconnect until a year later when they crossed paths at a restaurant. They began dating, later moving to Monterey, where Jim was finishing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at The Naval Postgraduate School. It was in Monterey that he decided to pop the question, it turns out, at his peril.
Wearing his dress whites and carrying a bouquet of flowers, Jim climbed up a ladder to Denisia’s room, planning to propose and recite a poem he’d penned. “She jumped a mile high, frightened to death when I knocked on the open window, and reflexively almost pushed me out the window and off the ladder,” Jim recalls. “I’m lucky to be here today,” he says with a wide grin. Lucky, for two additional reasons: the Chatfields’ two grown children. Daughter Solana graduated magna cum laude from Boston University and is about to begin a career with a New York City public relations firm, while son Jimmy, a junior at Yale, is studying economics and playing on the baseball team.
Over the years, the Chatfields have been involved with their children in many worthy causes including the National Charity League and Teen Volunteers in Action as well as St. Germaine Children’s Charity, The Country Friends, and Miracle Babies. A supporter and former board member of the Armed Services YMCA, Jim started a holiday turkey giveaway that continues to this day. For the Chatfields, it’s always about creating a sense of community.