by Karen Johl
The following illustrated essay is a brief look at a new publication, Timeless Treasures: San Diego’s Victorian Heritage, by photographer and San Diego History Center member Karen Johl. For the first time a good majority of San Diego’s Victorian homes have been photographed, identifying data on them gathered, and then collected together in one volume—a project whose completion has long been desired by local architecture students as well as historians. The book is available through the San Diego Historical Society, city book stores and its publisher, Rand Editions / Tofua Press.
IN THE mid 1880s many of the more noted styles of Victorian architecture began to be built in San Diego. Lacy Queen Anne tower houses, tall narrow stick style, and classic Italianates dressed up the drab, dusty landscape of the outpost city.
Plush, architect-designed mansions and simple pattern-book houses alike are examples of the craftsmanship of the late nineteenth century builders. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia introduced to the American public methods of mass produced houses. Innovative new methods including pre-cut wood, new framing procedures, and machinery that produced the wooden decorations embellishing the houses made mass production possible.
Spindles, brackets, fishscale shingles, stained glass, decorative chimneys, and other ornamentation are some of the identifying features of Victorian architecture. They give the houses a whimsical, frivolous appearance – as if to say they should not be taken too seriously. Multicolored paint jobs added to the lighthearted effect.
The pattern-book houses were often built from plans published in the New York Scientific American Architects and Builders Edition and the California Architect and Building News. These publications gave numerous details for features such as millwork and doors, and provided house plans and specifications in each issue.
Shortly after the turn of the century, architectural taste changed to a simpler clean-lined style. The gingerbread ornamentation was then looked upon with disfavor, and many of the houses were remodeled and covered with asbestos shingles or stucco to try to hide their cluttered, overdressed appearance. Drab shingle-color paint covered the once-bright exteriors.
As San Diego began to grow, once-fashionable neighborhoods gradually fell into decay. The facades of their houses likewise began to chip and fade with age. Many of them were torn down since they were now thought to be “old fashioned.” The land was needed for freeways, apartment houses, and the like. Original residents of the neighborhoods moved to newer, more desirable areas.
After the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, some people began to realize that perhaps San Diego’s Victorian houses were worth saving. The chipped paint and sagging porches began to disappear, signaling a return of pride of ownership. Economic necessity began to dictate that remodeling older houses was often more feasible than building new ones. A resurgence of nostalgia made these houses desirable once again.
Many of San Diego’s Victorian houses, originally built to be single-family residences and some rentals, are now serving as apartment houses and office buildings; one is a charming bed and breakfast house. Timeless Treasures: San Diego’s Victorian Heritage was written to honor these houses and their owners for their restoration efforts and to record the images on film before too many more are demolished. By preserving these houses, a piece of San Diego history will have been saved.
Page 173. THE BUSHYHEAD HOUSE (overleaf) was built in 1887 for use as a rental house and was formerly located at 232 Cedar Street—it is now in San Diego’s Heritage Park in Old Town. Edward Wilkerson Bushyhead, the builder, was descended from a Cherokee Indian mother whose son was given the name “Bushyhead” because of his full head of hair. Thereafter, it remained the family’s surname.
Page 175. THE LONG-WATERMAN HOUSE, 2408 First Avenue, is a Queen Anne style Victorian. The first owner of the house was John Long who headed the Coronado Fruit Package Company. Mrs. Long drowned shortly after they moved in and the house was then purchased in 1891 by Robert Whitney Waterman, seventeenth Governor of California, for $17,000. Today it is the headquarters for Parker Industries.
Page 174. THE HAYWARD-PATTERSON house at Twenty-Second and Broadway was built in 1887 by Albert M. Hayward, captain of the yacht San Diego. The house was next owned by Francis Elliot Patterson, a professional photographer who owned a Fifth Avenue camera store.
Page 177. THE GRANDIER HOUSE, at 3620 Front Street was constructed for Mrs. Frank Grandier, a native of Switzerland who was active in local government and founded the San Diego Daily Transcript newspaper. It was later owned by Richard Benbough, brother of an early San Diego mayor.
Page 177. THE TIMKEN HOUSE, built in 1888, is a late Victorian style, Queen Anne, with Georgian influence. The house was designed by the prominent architects Comstock and Trotsche and is located at 2508 First Avenue. The Timkens were prominent San Diego citizens involved in real estate and the fine arts. The house has been a private residence since 1965.