by Lucinda Eddy
WHEN the City of San Diego designated the Villa Montezuma as a historic site in 1970, the house was in poor structural shape. Major work would be needed before the doors could open to the public. Initial funds made available by the City, the Junior League of San Diego and San Diego History Center, enabled restoration work to begin. In addition, the Villa’s location in an area served at that time by the Model Cities program, made possible a federal grant from H.U.D. Finally, interest in the Villa Montezuma project generated support from both individuals and groups who gave time and donated services and materials to ensure that the Historical Society would, indeed, open the doors in November, 1972. Historic preservation became an important issue to many San Diegans and the restoration of the Villa became one of the first major triumphs.
Initial restoration efforts included replacement of missing and dry-rotted decorative shingles on exterior sides of the house. A new wood roof, which duplicated the ornamental pattern of the original, replaced the badly deteriorated composition shingles. Restoration of the south side balcony, front porch and entrance erased the modifications made during the boarding house days of World War II. A coat of white paint gave the Villa a freshened appearance.
Through the years, the Villa’s interior had fared better, overall, than the outside structure. Restoration included releading the sagging stained glass windows and refinishing the old fir floors. Fortunately, the Villa’s numerous owners had seen fit to retain the warmth and beauty of the house’s richly paneled walls of redwood and walnut and elegant embossed Lincrusta-Walton ceilings. The Villa’s five fireplaces also retained their original decorative overmantels and ceramic hearth tile. By 1976, however, the Villa’s main floor sagged dangerously, so a new foundation replaced the crumbling brick beneath two-thirds of the building.
The ongoing restoration of the Villa Montezuma has proved to be an expensive and time-consuming operation which has involved the labor of many skilled craftsmen. A Villa Advisory Committee works with the Villa’s Curator to determine priorities among the many projects awaiting attention. San Diego Historical Society’s Curator of Collections looks for appropriate furnishings and accessories to augment and improve the decoration of each room so the Villa’s portrayal as a late nineteenth century home is an accurate reflection of the period.
The desire for authenticity, high upkeep and the specialized skills necessary to achieve a sensitive and faithful restoration, made the Villa a costly venture and one that required additional financial support. In 1974, a fundraising event known as “Designers Showcase,” attempted to raise money specifically to duplicate the five elaborate wallpapers selected by the Villa’s original owner, Jesse Shepard, for his second floor gallery. Over the years, many successive layers of paper applied by later owners had obliterated all but a few scraps of the original wallcoverings. The “Showcase” proved to be a successful fundraiser and has since become an annual event which provides restoration money for the Villa and other important San Diego History Center collections.
Also, during the mid-1970s, the Assitance league of San Diego County chose the Villa to be the focus of one of their philanthropic projects. Through fundraising efforts which included a series of weekly luncheons held in a multi purpose room in the basement area of the museum, the Assistance League raised money to renovate the Villa’s kitchen. Since this room had undergone many changes and virtually no information existed pertaining to its original appearance, the decision was made to recreate a turn-of-the-century kitchen rather than attempt what might later prove to be an inaccurate restoration. The result was a delightful interpretation of a 1900s kitchen, replete with a variety of authentic, serviceable kitchen furniture, cast-iron stove, and “time-saving” gadgetry, cooking utensils and dishes. Since completion of the kitchen, this area has become a favorite of visitors and school groups who enjoy the opportunity to handle and operate the many early “labor-saving” devices on display.
Each year continuing restoration has fortified staircases, reconstructed porches, rebuilt window casings and refurbished such areas as the basement kitchen, library and bedroom suite. In March of 1986, however, an accidental fire swept through much of the second floor, destroying the gallery rooms, an office, attic space and half of the Villa roof. Fire damage also affected the Music Room’s decorative redwood and Lincrusta ceiling, causing it to buckle and sag. Water mixed with soot stained the beautiful paneled walls in several rooms on the main floor. Only the quick response on the part of the fire department and their previous knowledge of the house and its valuable contents, saved the Villa from complete ruin.
Following the assessment of fire damage, it became apparent that some unique challenges lay ahead. The City appointed a contracting firm specializing in fire damage to work closely with restoration experts to determine the safest and most effective manner in which to preserve as much of the original fabric of the house as possible.
After the Villa’s many priceless stained glass windows and transoms had been removed for safekeeping, the portions of the Villa untouched by the fire were carefully buffered from the possibility of later damage during the reconstruction and restoration phases. Sensitive and well-planned teamwork resulted in the successful removal of the badly sagging Music Room ceiling in five large sections and salvage of much of the ornately embossed frieze around the ceiling’s perimeter. State of the art technology combined with superb craftsmanship to restore existing nineteenth century materials and to reproduce with like quality decorative woodwork, trim moldings, wall and ceiling coverings, and exterior shingles, roofing, gables and decorative metalwork. Twentieth century additions included installation of new wiring throughout the house, a monitored smoke and fire detection system and central heat.
As restoration of the Villa progressed, the Curator worked with San Diego Historical Society’s Curator of Collections and the Villa Advisory Committee to assess necessary furniture repairs, and select fixtures, fabrics and rugs to replace those heavily damaged by the fire. In addition, a Villa Montezuma Restoration Fund Committee, made up of San Diego History Center volunteers and community leaders, worked hard to raise money to cover the costs of improvements not handled by insurance. Many donars, including the San Diego Fire Department, gave generously to the cause.
After nearly fifteen months of effort by the City, restoration specialists, Historical Society staff and a host of dedicated volunteers and generous supporters, the Villa re-opened in June, 1987, in time to celebrate its centennial birthday.
SINCE the Villa opened in 1972, the scope of operation has included not only use of the facility as an historic house museum, but use as a site for changing exhibits and as a community cultural center. Guided tours cover the main floor and basement kitchen where visitors may actually touch many of the artifacts. No protective ropes exist. A second floor gallery houses several exhibits each year, alternating the fine arts displays with historically based exhibits featuring San Diego History Center collections. Ethnic folk festivals, “theatre in the street,” jazz performances, concerts, poetry readings and lecture series, are some of the many activities which have been held at this site. To meet the needs of the community, a neighborhood educational enrichment program for children was begun in the early 1970s. This successful program continues today. Community groups also use the house for meetings, and, on occasion, the house becomes an elegant backdrop for weddings and receptions. This variety of programming has helped to make the Villa Montezuma both a unique and a valuable resource for all of San Diego to enjoy.
The Villa Montezuma remains a superb example of eclectic Victorian architecture; a monument to the ornate and exotic tastes of the late nineteenth century. Interpretation of the house in light of this period through innovative exhibits, programming and additions to the Villa’s permanent collections, continues to be a challenge and priority for museum staff. Its role in a multicultural community and efforts to interpret the rich ethnic heritage of the people who live there also continues to be an important objective. As the Villa Montezuma begins a second century of life, it stands as a tangible bridge from the past to the future; a remainder of an era when refinement and culture were elevated to the level of high art and optimism and opulence reigned supreme.
LUCINDA EDDY has been Curator of the Villa Montezuma since May of 1985. It is primarily due to her efforts (following the disasterous fire of March 1986) in coordinating the many carpenters, painters, landscapers, volunteers and workers of all sorts that the house was restored in time for its centennial anniversary in 1987. Ms. Eddy received her M.A. degree in history from the University of San Diego where she completed a thesis on the early San Diego woman architect Lilian Rice.