The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1979, Volume 25, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

By William Chandler

Curator of Decorative Arts and Textiles, San Diego Museum of Art

Matthew Sherman Jr

Matthew Sherman Jr. poses reflectively in his Sears Morris chair in the Golden Hill home built by his father, Captain Matthew Sherman. While seemingly cluttered, the room is less awash with bric-a-brac than it probably was twenty or so years earlier. The odd device on the table is a gas lamp attached to the ceiling gasolier.

We were an intimate city

While San Diego has had many wealthy residents, it has never been a city with great mansions. The very rich who summered or settled here generally chose to build homes that were for the times relatively informal and unimposing. The great houses of New York and Chicago sometimes covered entire city blocks. Their counterparts here did not, and have rather small reception rooms. But, then, before 1900, San Diego had fewer than 20,000 residents. We were an intimate city.

Moulton Villa

Moulton Villa, the first Scripps residence in La Jolla (c.1897). The home, built for Miss Ellen Browning Scripps, was later destroyed by a fire and replaced with a new structure designed by Irving Gill. It is now much remodeled as the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

Moulton Villa interior

Although Moulton Villa had its formal rooms suitable for entertaining genteel guests, the general tone was one of relaxation. The study in the first floor tower room reflects this well-traveled family’s academic interests in natural history. The photos pinned to the wall at right are of tree specimens. The unusual table cover is a valuable South Seas tapa cloth, while the fans on the wall are Filipino. Various magazines and scholarly journals lie scattered on the table.

The solarium at Moulton Villa

The solarium at Moulton Villa had a fine view of terraced gardens descending into the sea, and later of the Children’s Cove given to the City of San Diego by Miss Scripps. The complex objects in the room are a Rustic lounge set: settee, tea tables and chair. Such furniture was popular in the nineteenth century for its whimsical evocation of nature, and had its origins in the Grotesque (“Grottoesque”) styles of eighteenth century France and England. These pieces are made more comfortable with pillows and a crocheted afghan. The neoclassical Wedgwood flower pot makes a nice contrast.

Villa Montezuma

If any residence in San Diego during the 1880s achieved the high style of East Coast cities, it was surely Jesse Shepard’s eccentric Villa Montezuma. While there were other homes filled with the “artistic” clutter favored by the cultured, few survive in photographs. Furthermore, the Villa was intentionally designed in the most sumptuous style, as the setting for an internationally known musician (and local tourist attraction).

drawing room and adjacent bedroom

Interior photo of the Villa’s drawing room and adjacent bedroom (for all its opulence this was a one-bedroom “bachelor’s digs”), both beautifully panelled, with embossed ceilings and Art Glass transoms, good oriental carpets and upholsteries, Chinese vases, rich portieres, paintings, flowers and bric-a-brac. The decor is influenced by the then fashionably scandalous “Aesthetic” movement from England and France–perfect for a colorful artist who had held musical seances for the Prince of Wales.

main house at La Vida Ranch

Nineteenth Century San Diego was a small rural center on the coast, the focus of a large and mostly undeveloped county of farmers and ranchers. For all the quietude, life in the country was not necessarily less refined than life in town. Despite the unpromising exterior of the main house at La Vida Ranch, in faraway Spring Valley, seen here c.1890, the interiors were graceful, well decorated and comfortable.

Patterson family

The owners of La Vida Ranch were Francis and Kate Patterson, seated here in the parlor with their daughters Vida, Ruth and Aimee (kneeling) (c. 1897). The Patterson family appears to have lived a contented and educated life out in the country. The girls all played musical instruments and amused themselves by making many of the quite competent photos that survive of the family.

Patterson parlor and adjoining dining room

The Patterson parlor and adjoining dining room and library show the influences of the “Craftsman” movement—a well-published trend to rational design and love of natural materials. The unvarnished clear redwood paneling and floral scroll-sawn brackets show this influence, as do the unpretentious air of the rooms and the well-chosen placements of pictures and ornaments. The decorative motif over the brackets has been burnt into the unfinished wood, rather than painted on.

Britt-Scripps house

If one lives in the country and has business often in town, it can be convenient to have some little place near the center of things to spend the night or to entertain friends. This is the Britt-Scripps house at Fourth and Maple, on Bankers’ Hill, seen about 1919.

Britt-Scripps interior

The Scripps family purchased the home from its builder, James Britt, as a town house to supplement their ranch in faraway Miramar. The house has been reputed to have been designed by Stanford White, better remembered as the architect of New York’s second Madison Square Gardens.

Scripps Townhouse interior

Few interior pictures of the Scripps Townhouse survive, but those that do are tantalizing. Here is the vestibule and the main stair. The two story stained glass wall depicts “Morning,” “Noon,” and “Night,” with birds and flowers appropriate to the themes. Although this photo was probably made thirty years after the house was built, in 1888, the furnishings have not changed, The light wicker chair was popular in warm, unairconditioned interiors. The object behind the stairs, resembling Lewis Carroll’s caterpillar, is a tufted sateen lounge sofa.

Time moves slowly in some homes. While the following photographs of the Captain Matthew Sherman residence at Twenty-Second and Market Streets appear at first to have been made in the early 1890s, the year is actually 1911.

Note the Victrola cabinet at the left of the side parlor (above) and also the papered ceiling. The adjacent dining room can be seen through the doorway. The small girl is believed to be the granddaughter of Captain Sherman. Although cluttered, the room is not as choked with bric-a-brac as it probably was twenty years earlier.

Sherman house

There are other innovations to the original scheme of the Sherman house, otherwise altered from, perhaps, 1890. A magneto telephone hangs in the rear of the vestibule and the gasoliers on the ceilings have each had one lamp converted to electric light.

Sherman house music room

The music room is seen above. The ornate “marble” mantle is in fact enamelled cast iron.

George Chambers residence music room

Owners and friends pause somewhat fixedly for a slow shutter speed in the George Chambers residence music room (c. 1885). The usual artistic mementos of the period crowd the walls, but what memory accompanies the heavy padlock hung over the day bed at left?

La Jolla beach  cottage sitting room

The informality of a La Jolla beach cottage sitting room seen about 1895 is intended, as there are signs of affluence: the coolie hats at left, souvenirs of a Far Eastern tour, and the dried flowers and tennis racket over the windows, evidence of the outdoor leisure time long favored by San Diegans.

John Gay residence

The John Gay residence, Fifth and Juniper, Bankers’ Hill (c. 1888). On seeing this photograph a recent arrival to San Diego exclaimed “Oh! San Diego did have a past!” The site now holds some bland 1950s medical offices.

Bankers' Hill whist party

A Bankers’ Hill whist party. Mr. Gay’s butler, Jackson, offers around cigars. From left, seated, General Rogdes, George McKenzie, unidentified, and John Gay. The upholstery of Mr. Gay’s platform rocker has a surprisingly modern version of a Kurdish carpet motif.

Nelson Barker residence

San Diego’s visionary early architect was Irving Gill, like Frank Lloyd Wright, a product of Sullivan in Chicago, and one of America’s first Modernists. This is the Nelson Barker residence at Third and Walnut (like all of Gill’s most important houses, now demolished), The house is new, as yet unrelieved by the intended vines and plantings. Its starkness is all the more revolutionary in that the year is 1910, not the 1920s as we might assume.

Nelson Barker residence interior

Gill strove as an architect to design houses that were graceful and above all liveable and easily maintained. These rooms, like the exterior, seem later than 1910, in their openness and clarity of line, The dining room, adjacent to the vestibule, has small electric wall lights, considered more conducive to comfortable dining than harsh overhead light. A “California” touch is added by the sprays of eucalyptus boughs in the fine Japanese cloisonne vases.

The solarium

The solarium is a light informal room filled with “Craftsman” style wicker and what appears to be an English version of printed Indian cotton chintz.

master bedroom

Like the rest of the house, the master bedroom is plain and airy, in opposition to the dark, heavily upholstered rooms of the previous century that were still favored at the time this house was built. An heirloom rocker provides continuity with the past.


Gill’s genius is seen nowhere more clearly than in the kitchen, here presided over by the Barker family cook, John White, better known at home as “The Duke”, Typical kitchens of this period were simply rooms with an exposed sink and furniture brought in to hold foodstuffs. The built-in cabinetry and counters, easily cleaned floor and functional layout did not become standard design for another twenty years. Only the gas stove gives away the date of the kitchen, but not all cooks today would prefer it to their cramped electric ranges.

Built in the late 1880s for S.G. Havermale, this rambling brick and shingle home became some years later the residence of U.S. Grant, Jr. Southern California magazines of the time proudly illustrated the home as proof to wary Easterners that civilized life was indeed reality in the Far West. One had a splendid view from the verandahs and tower windows: built on Prospect Hill, the house eventually made way for the late El Cortez Hotel.


Seen through its doorway is the library, Here, on a fine Persian carpet, is Mr. Grant’s desk, and around the bookcases, personal souvenirs and pictures. While these objects suggest the personality of the owner, the room is still a “public” one, and has a business-like air.

billiard room

Passing through the library we come to the billiard room, with its massive Eastlake-style table. Here (one hopes) family and friends can relax a bit, around the table or the Koch piano from New York, or stretched out in one of the rockers or the well-pillowed sofa.

The sitting room

The sitting room, adjacent to the dining room, is arranged for relaxation as well, with comfortable chairs and settee and a gas reading lamp attached to the ceiling fixture. The wallpapers in this room impart a cosiness. If a large house takes effort and money to maintain, it also affords its owners “just the right setting” for every activity.

Tent City

San Diego’s climate has always been regarded as a special asset, and San Diegans have always spent much of their leisure time out of doors. For some decades less affluent resort-goers chose the Hotel del Coronado’s neighbor, Tent City, for their weekends and holidays. The tents were semipermanent, with solid floors and canvas walls, just the place to avoid the stifling heat of the back country or to spend a few weeks’ leisure far from home.

Tent City interior photograph

Before the advent of bus-sized recreational vehicles, some complete with bathtubs, this interior photograph of a well-appointed Coronado tent might have seemed even more unusual. The elderly unidentified resident, photographed about 1903, clearly had no interest in roughing it at the beach. Surrounded by parlor chairs and table, draperies and a very sturdy dresser-bureau, she surveys us with the dry calm of a hostess At Home.

J.P. Mills residence

Although the 1920s are best remembered for the lush stylizations of Art Deco and the Moderne style, Southern California’s newly affluent more often preferred Spanish Revival, such as the J.P. Mills residence, Sunset Cliffs (c. 1930). This eclectic Beaux Arts style usually owed more to the lobbies of fashionable new hotels, as the Biltmore and La Jolla’s La Valencia, than it did to the villas of Sunny Spain.

Master bedroom suite

The Master bedroom suite. The French Roccoco furnishings were conventional enough in affluent boudoirs, but surely few San Diegans have ever been able to boast of two polar bear rugs in the bedroom (or have wanted to).


The wrought iron, “Spanish” furniture and draped shawls of the vestibule match the house’s Mediterranean facade. The leaded “Art Glass” ceiling and windows bring us right back to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s affluent America.

Chinese Room of the Mills house

The Chinese Room of the Mills house. The end of the Ch’ing Dynasty in China saw a flood of inexpensive orientalia to America, and many homes had a smoking  to tea room done up in a sort of Grauman’s Chinese style. The portieres are Cantonese festival banners.

Martinez residence

San Diego’s mild climate and brilliant skies were a natural backdrop for Mediterranean style villas such as the handsome Martinez residence seen here about 1927. Mission Hills and La Jolla still have many of these large “villas” from the 1920s which have changed only in their interior furnishings.

Martinez residence

The floor plan of the Martinez residence had a particularly graceful flow from room to room. The Renaissance style upholsteries in the living room (above) help to balance the room with its massive fireplace.

Coffroth residence

J.W. Coffroth residence (c. 1926). This well-known San Diego racehorse and polo trainer’s living room featured Spanish Revival ceiling stencils and an eighteenth century Chinese celadon vase on the piano shawl.

California Bungalow

Relatively few photographs survive of middle class interiors. Here is the front room of a classic California Bungalow seen in the late 1920s. Thousands of these bungalows were built in Southern California between 1910 and 1925 as new residents sought their dream of “a home of one’s own.” This particular example probably dates from about 1918. The expensive Persian and Chinese carpets seen in so many of the interiors on these pages are here replaced with oriental style Wiltons, and some interesting Southwest Indian rugs, inexpensive at the time. Along with the family photos there is a copy of the popular painting “The End of the Trail” hung by the front window beyond the bird cage.