By Donna K. Sefton
The county of San Diego was created by an act of the first California legislature in February, 1850. The same year the legislature established for each county a court of sessions with administrative and judicial powers. The only offices called for by the Constitution of 1849 were County Clerk, District Attorney, Sheriff, and Coroner, but under its powers the Legislature added the offices of Assessor, County Attorney, County Judge, Recorder, and Treasurer.1 Meeting as the San Diego Court of Sessions in October, 1850, some of the first elected officers were: the Hon. John Hayes, Judge, presiding; Charles Haraszthy and William H. Moon, Associate Justices; Richard Rust, Clerk; and Agoston Haraszthy, Sheriff. The meeting was held “at the Court House in the City of San Diego.”2
Under the Constitution of 1849, the early courts and law enforcement agencies were district, county, probate, and justice courts. The court of the First Judicial District, which included the counties of San Diego, San Bernardino, and Los Angles, opened its first San Diego term May 6, 1950, “at the Court House in the City of San Diego, present the Hon. O. S. Witherby, Judge thereof, presiding, and Richard Rust, Clerk.” Since the laws of the state had not yet been received, nothing was accomplished and the court was adjourned until the next regular term, September 2, 1850.3
In 1852 the legislative and executive functions of the Court of Sessions were transferred to a Board of Supervisors, which thereupon assumed the administration of the County government.4 With five members elected for a one-year term, the first Board of Supervisors met on January 3, 1853, W. C. Ferrell presiding as chairman.4 Among its administrative powers the Board was given the right to erect public buildings needed by the county, including a hospital, almshouse, courthouse, library building, and an art gallery. The Board was to play a key role in the later arguments over the location of some of these buildings.
Throughout the first few years of county government, most of the county offices and records were maintained by the officials in their own homes at Old Town. George A. Pendleton, County Clerk and Recorder from 1857 to 1871, had his office in a room of his home, about 200 yards southwest of the Plaza. Still standing at the end of Harney Street, close to the Santa Fe tracks, this old house was built in 1852 by Don Juan Bandini for his daughter. Captain Pendleton acquired it in the 60’s. “John Phoenix” (Lt. George H. Derby of the U. S. Topographical Engineers) stayed here while he was writing many of the sketches which were later gathered into the volume, Phoenixiana. The County Treasurer, José Maria Estudillo, had his office in his own adobe home south of the Plaza, now erroneously known as Ramona’s Marriage Place.6
Several public buildings were used by early government officials for county purposes. “The offices of the sheriff and tax collector, both held by the same person (Agoston Haraszthy), and of the county assessor,” according to Daniel Cleveland, “occupied rooms in the old adobe building near and north of the northeast corner of the plaza, a building that was erected when California was a province of the Mexican Republic.”7 Another building, apparently used by the county for district and county court sessions and meetings of the boards of trustees and supervisors, is mentioned in a number of sources. It was next to the Colorado House in Old Town. This little building, sometimes called the “city hall” or “old court house” was located approximately at San Diego and Mason Streets in Old Town. It was destroyed by the fire of 1872, which broke out in this structure.
An early description of it noted that:
. . . for 7 years the district court, with its juries and all, had been held in a brick room 27 by 16 ft. and 9 ft. high, ill ventilated, close, dark. It was built in 1847 before June by private subscription, for a school house, but not roofed till 1850. The builder’s name was Colton of the Mormon Battalion. The city hall on the Plaza served for a court house and is the only other public building, except the U.S. military depot at New San Diego … and the customs house at La Playa . . . “8
It does appear that places for holding court sessions were quite often determined by convenience and accessibility. Certain notes suggest that justice court was sometimes held in a building that stood at the corner of Mason and Calhoun Streets, about a block from the adobe described above.9 Daniel Cleveland wrote that between 1846 and 1869 the San Diego district and county courts were held at various places in the old adobe buildings around the Old Town Plaza.10
Even in earliest county history, there is evidence of concern over the need for more adequate public buildings. Since the Court of Sessions had no meeting place of its own, notes like the following appeared not infrequently in its Journal: “The Court room being the property of the City and the City Council being in session: It is ordered that the Court stand adjourned until tomorrow . . . “11
The Union, in an editorial in its April 21, 1869, issue, stated that the public buildings here were the worst in California. Criticism was especially sharp concerning the courthouse belonging to the Board of Trustees.
“The place where the courts are now held is not a first class corn-crib, and the country is fortunate in not owning any such house … Life Insurance Companies … should have a clause … in all their policies that the holders should not practice law or take part in litigation in the Court House in San Diego — [putting this down as] . . . extra hazardous.“
The Board of Supervisors, already under the pressure of public opinion, was forced to take emergency action upon receipt of a letter from the Secretary of the Board of Trustees. This letter informed them that in accordance with a recent resolution12 they must vacate the building occupied as a court house because it was city property and was required as an office for the Board of Trustees.13 In the fall of 1868, while they were still casting about for likely ideas, an advertisement in the Union may have come to their attention. It offered:
“FOR SALE OR TO LET –
My TWO STORY BRICK HOUSE, at Old Town, San Diego, commanding a fine view of the Harbor, within 700 feet of the Plaza, on the principal street leading to New Town . . . Suitable for a Hotel, Residence, or Business purposes.”14
This was the Whaley House. Famous as the first brick house in southern California, it had been constructed of bricks made in Mission Valley by Thomas Whaley himself. It was an eleven room building, and had cost $17,000 to build. The lot it stands on, which has a frontage of 150 feet on both San Diego and Harney Streets, had cost Mr. Whaley $1.50 at a city sale. It has increased in value roughly twenty thousand times in the course of a century.
The rooms were leased in mid August, 1869, to serve as county offices until the erection of “proper buildings.”” The one story wing attached to the north side of the house contained one room 31 x 27 feet. This was used as a court room. Whaley put up a dais and railing at the north end of the room, and here the judge would sit while holding court.
The Whaley House was the last county government there before New Town became the county seat.
1. Inventory of the County Archives of California. No. 38, San Diego County, San Diego, California, Work Projects Administration of California, May, 1943. 1, 25-26. (Hereinafter cited as Inventory.)
2. Journal of Court of Sessions, No. 1 (1850), ms. in Pioneer Collection, Serra Museum, p.l.
3. Journal of the First Judicial District Court, 1850-51, ms. in Pioneer Collection, Serra Museum, p.l.
4. California Statutes, 1852, ch. 38, sec. 1, p.87.
5. Records of the Board of Supervisors, 1853- , ms. in Civic Center, 1 (1953-67).
6. Inventory, 6.
7. Loc. cit.
8. This quotation is from notes copied from the Hayes Emigrant Scrap-book in the Bancroft Library, 397, ms. in the San Diego History Center Court House file, Serra Museum. Hereinafter reference to the Historical Society files will be under the abbreviation H.S.
9. Winifred Davidson’s 1935 Notes, in H.S. Court House file.
10. Article in Union, Sept. 9, 1928.
11. Court of Sessions journal No. 1, op. cit., 3, 8.
12. Resolution passed by the Board of Trustees of the City of San Diego, California, April 1st. A.D. 1869, ms. in H.S. Court House file.
13. Letter from Mat Sherman to the Board of Supervisors, April 3, 1869, ms. in H.S. Biographical File.
14. October 24, 1868, advertisement by Thomas Whaley.
15. The Board had previously decided to lease rooms from A. L. Seely for one year. This decision was changed by a two-year lease of rooms in Whaley’s building at $65.00 a month, Board Records, II, 54-56, cf. Union, Aug. 18, 1869.