The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1974, Volume 20, Number 4

By Mary Maud Burnham

Images from the article

There have been sporadic attempts from time to time to beautify and enlarge Horton Plaza, however none have succeeded to any significant degree. Now, the future of the Plaza looks bright again. It is included in the Master Plan for the redevelopment of the fifteen blocks below Broadway. The Plaza will be enlarged and improved by including the short street on the south exposure, parallel to Broadway. It is hoped that in developing the full block to the South that landscaping on the North end of the block will tie in and enlarge the Plaza.Miss Mary Marston, who remembers attending band concerts at the Plaza when she was young, saved many newspaper clippings about important events taking place there. In 1966, when there was talk of renovating the Plaza, she gave the clippings with a book about the City Guard Band by Jack Dodge to Mrs. Burnham and asked her to write a history of the Plaza. This material, with more obtained from the collections of the San Diego History Center at Serra Museum, tells the story of the Plaza, one of the few old landmarks left of early “New San Diego.” Mrs. Burnham’s article first appeared in the San Diego Union, July 31, 1966, under the title “Soon The Plaza Was The Center.”

Over a century ago “New San Diego” was started four miles south of Old Town where the present downtown area of San Diego is located. Soon Horton Plaza in “new town” was the center of all the important celebrations, festivities and meetings. The developer, Alonzo Erastus Horton, had land cleared in 1870 to build his Horton House on D Street, now Broadway, and the space in front of the hotel also was cleared. Mr. Horton allowed the townspeople to use this place for public gatherings, though it remained dusty and barren for some time. For instance, in August, 1875, “a large group assembled there to discuss the railroad issue, and listen to the Harmonie Brass Band,” as one contemporary report put it.

The Centennial Fourth of July was magnificently celebrated in San Diego, according to the San Diego Union of July 6, 1876: “At 5 o’clock the Silver Cornet Band announced the dawn of the Centennial Fourth of July by a medley of national airs from the cupola of Horton House. For the next two hours there was a carnival of noise, cannon, small arms, and every description of firecracker and Chinese bomb. At 9:30 a.m. the Plaza presented a lively scene as the parade formed there. In the parade, led by a detachment of U. S. Cavalry in full dress uniform, were carriages of officials, marching soldiers, the Signal Corps, and an elaborate float on a patriotic theme. The procession wound its way through the streets, and the celebration ended with speeches, songs and band music.”

Sometime in the late 1870s the Plaza was made a more attractive center. The area was enclosed by a white rail fence with a gate facing the Horton House, one at the opposite side and one at each end. Inside the fence was a hedge, and in the center a small fountain on a five-tiered circular base. A picture taken a year or two later, shows the hedge grown taller and a small bandstand at one end.

In 1880, the City Guard Band gave concerts each Wednesday night. Jack Dodge, who helped organize the band, and was a member of it, wrote: “We had constructed an octagnal shell on the Plaza for the concerts. The citizens showed their appreciation for our work in weekly large attendance at our recitals, and this stimulated us into greater achievements, and it was not long before the City Guard Band had a statewide reputation. It was our custom to parade through the streets of San Diego to the Plaza, where we would give a musical program, followed by a good speaker, and then we would close the program with a short number.”

When President Benjamin Harrison, his wife and party came to San Diego on April 30, 1891, the culminating features of the entire reception were the exercises at the Plaza, witnessed by at least 5,000 people. The San Diego Weekly Union of that date reported: “The Presidential train arrived at the depot at 6:30 in the morning, and after a brief stop while the President bowed to the crowd, the train proceeded around the spit to the Coronado Hotel where the Presidential party were served breakfast.

“Leaving the hotel, the vehicle which carried President and Mrs. Harrison, Governor Murray and Mayor Gunn to the ferry, was drawn by a spanking team of gray horses with plumed heads. The carriage itself was decorated with calla lillies and roses around the upper box. The ferry had been decorated with marguerites and evergreen.

“The whistles of the steamers in the bay were joined by all of the manufacturing establishments in the city, giving a noisy welcome to the President. After making a few stops the party arrived at the plaza. The passageway from the curb to the grandstand was kept clear by two companies of the National Guard. The windows and the porch of the Horton House and all surrounding buildings, every point of vantage high and low about the Plaza, were occupied by intensely interested humanity. Just before the arrival of the carriages, Colonel Gasson mounted the platform and asked the ladies to please shut up their parasols.”


Discovery of San Diego Bay 350 years ago.
Basis of San Diego’s great Celebration.

These were the headlines in the San Diego Union, September 28, 1892, and it reports: “San Diego presented a gala appearance yesterday afternoon. Nearly all of the business houses and many residences were tastefully decorated in honor of the Cabrillo celebration.

“The features of the decorations are the Pavilion at the Plaza, and the triple arch over D, now Broadway, at Third Street. The task of placing the Plaza in proper condition has been a difficult one, and the results are gratifying. A considerable portion of the covering is composed of pepper branches securely fastened to ropes. The rest is covered with white cloth and the sides are open. The bandstand is situated on the D Street side of the pavilion, and will furnish abundance of room for the musicians. It is decorated with flags, bunting, and palm leaves, On the opposite side of the pavilion is a long stand for the distinguished guests and speakers. It is decorated in a manner similar to the bandstand. It is estimated that the pavilion can accommodate 5,000 people.

“Cabrillo, represented by Emanuel Cabrill, of La Playa, chosen for his resemblance to Cabrillo, was dressed in black velvet knee breeches, broad brimmed hat with long plumes. He stood on the Spanish caravel flying the orange and red of Aragon and Castile, as it came proudly up the channel to a point between E and D streets. As he stepped ashore he was greeted by the chief of two tribes, the Luisenos, whose bodies were painted black and white, and the Dieguenos in war paint of red and white. Each head was covered with a dress of eagle feathers and their faces were horribly painted. These Indians had set up their ‘wickiups’ of tules in the Fourth Street Stockade and later marched in the parade.”

Another feature of the parade were the 50 vaqueros, all attired in true vaquero style and headed by Captain Don Poncho Arguello of what was then spelled TiaJuana.

Evidently this celebration was a success for another Cabrillo celebration was held in September, 1894. After a military parade in the morning, led by the Golden Gate Park Band, rowing races were held on the bay, including the young ladies of the Zlac rowing club. Horseracing was held in Sweetwater Park, but by far the largest crowd filled the pavilion and the rest of the Plaza to hear the concert given by the Golden Gate Park Band.

In the evening there were fireworks, described as “fantastic, gorgeous, unreal as a dream.” Later, Colonel E. B. Spileman and military officials serenaded Governor Sangines of Lower California at the Horton House, with the Ninth Regiment Band of Pomona. The governor responded by treating the officers and band to “refreshments of a sparkling nature.”

The center of music and light for carnival night was the great pavilion on the Plaza. The San Diego Union reports: “The unsubstantial palace in the city’s Plaza, more brilliant than the pleasure-dome of Kubla Khan, glowed a lustrous diamond star in the darkness, and lights shining through many a quaint device of draped flags and bunting. Inside at one end of the great room, the Golden Gate Band played a piece, and then the Los Angeles Military Band at the other end played, so that the maskers could dance continuously.”

In 1895 the Plaza was deeded to the city by Mr. Horton on the condition the city pay him $100 a month up to $10,000. Two years later, W. H. Alden, an alderman, sponsored a resolution before the City Council directing that palms should be planted around the edge of the Plaza Park. Miss Kate Sessions, head of the leading nursery in San Diego, recommended Cocos Plumosas, and agreed to furnish the required palms for $75.

The Plaza Improvement Committee, comprising Major Sweeney, Captain Maiza, and Jack Dodge, stepped into the breach with a reserve fund of $135. This money had been raised from a three-day Society Circus, held in a tent on the southeast corner of Eighth and G streets, to raise money for paving Fifth Street, but the proceeds were less than expected, so they donated it for palm trees. Mr. Dodge wrote: “Always the center of activity, it was from the Plaza that Dick Earlson went up in a balloon and nearly scraped the paint off the old Sun building.”

A picture taken in 1899 shows a bandstand, larger than the first one, at the end of the Plaza, and the palms just recently planted.

In 1905, the Horton House was torn down to make room for the U. S. Grant Hotel. In 1907, it was suggested that a Civic center be developed around the Plaza, but civic leaders did not think it was large enough. In 1909, architect Irving Gill submitted a plan to the Park Board for four tiled walks in the Plaza. The Board accepted the plan, but with just two walks which were not tiled. A kiosk was to be placed in the center of the east side to dispense information. The same year, Mayor Louis Wilde donated the present fountain, designed by Mr. Gill. The design was an adaptation of the Charagic monument of Lysicrata, in Athens, Greece. A picture taken in 1910 shows the fountain, and a later picture gives a bird’s eye view of the Plaza as it was in 1914.

Later, a few of the palms became infested with termites, and had to be taken down. The Plaza gradually deteriorated, though sporadic attempts have been made to make it more attractive.

In 1930 and 1931 the city sandblasted and cleaned the fountain, some palm trees were replaced and a permanent information booth built.

Many interesting homes and landmarks are being restored in Old Town, but nearly all of the old homes and landmarks known to the settlers of New San Diego, have been torn down. One of the few landmarks left is the Plaza. Perhaps it can be preserved, beautified, and if possible, enlarged.

Mary Maud Burnham came to San Diego with her parents in 1911. They moved to Providence, R.I., in 1916. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1920 and returned to San Diego to visit in 1921 and met her future husband Marston Burnham who was born in San Diego. They were married in Providence in 1922 and came back to San Diego to live. She has written other articles about early San Diego.