by Clare Crane
THE Villa Montezuma, at 1925 K Street, is without a doubt the most interesting and imaginatively designed Victorian house still standing in San Diego. Built in 1887, the Villa Montezuma is the unique artistic creation of Jesse Shepard. Viewed in a larger context, however, the Villa Montezuma is a romantic and colorful symbol of the great Southern California “Boom” of the 1880s and stands as a tangible link to this tumultuous and optimistic period.
Prior to the arrival of the railroad in 1885, San Diego had been a dusty little frontier town. The journey across the desert and over the mountains was so difficult that nearly everyone came by steamer, landing at Alonzo Horton’s long wharf at the foot of Fifth Street. With completion of direct rail lines from the East to San Diego, in 1885, the population of the town jumped from 5,000 to over 40,000 in anticipation of the industry the railroad would surely bring. Coupled with the irresistible attractions afforded by San Diego’s bay and climate, real estate prices soared.
In an effort to bring “culture” to boomtown San Diego, civic boosters and real estate promoters backed the construction of opera houses, schools and colleges; and they persuaded Harr Wagner, editor of a San Francisco literary magazine, The Golden Era, and his artistic circle of poets, painters and musicians to settle in San Diego. One of the most interesting and colorful of The Golden Era circle was Jesse Shepard, the spiritualist, musician and author for whom the Villa Montezuma was built.
In yet another sense, the Villa Montezuma remains a product of its time, an outstanding example of the late nineteenth century architectural style known as “Queen Anne.”
The rise and fall of “Queen Anne” as an architectural style is a revealing chapter in American social history. It illustrates the power of expositions in shaping taste, and the extent to which “conspicuous consumption” dominated Victorian values. “Queen Anne” reigned supreme from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, to the Chicago Fair of 1893.
A group of British buildings designed for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition became one of the most influential exhibits illustrating the new Queen Anne style already popular in England. The Exhibition was widely visited and publicized in magazines and newspapers and officially introduced this architectural form in America.
Characteristic of Queen Anne style was an asymmetrical floor plan, and the exuberant, eclectic ornamentation of exterior surfaces, a distinct contrast with earlier styles which stressed symmetry and simplicity. Additionally, Queen Anne frequently utilized corner towers, steep roofs, gables, turrets, porches, bay windows, tall chimneys, and often windows of leaded or stained glass. Gable ends could be filled with Tudor half-timbering or Eastlake geometric designs; windows and doors were often surrounded by Greek or Roman columns and pediments; and exterior walls were typically covered with a variety of shingle patterns, painted in rich, dark colors with contrasting trim.
Queen Anne was not just for the wealthy; it could be built in all sizes and in varied materials. Queen Anne cottages were advertised for as low as $500-$1000. The ease with which this style lent itself to decorative display, however, endeared it most to the socially conscious, rising American middle class; for the degree of ornamentation best indicated the size of the homeowner’s pocket-book and gave tangible evidence as to that person’s financial standing in the community.
By 1895, the popularity of Queen Anne architecture declined. The Columbian World’s Fair held in Chicago, in 1893, proclaimed the demise of ostentatious decoration with a new style called Classic Revival which recalled the formal lines of buildings found in ancient Rome and Greece.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Queen Anne had fallen completely out of fashion. One writer, Gellett Burgess, wrote the final epitaph for Queen Anne with the following description: “[Queen Anne] should have a conical corner tower; it should be built of at least three incongruous materials …; it should have its window openings absolutely haphazard; it should represent part of every known and unknown order of architecture; it should be so plastered with ornament as to conceal the theory of its construction; it should be a restless, uncertain, frightful collection of details, giving the effect of a nightmare about to explode!”
BUILT on a gently sloping hill, the Villa Montezuma is two stories high, with a partial basement containing a kitchen and store rooms. A tower room on the south side of the house — surmounted by an Arabesque dome — was Shepard’s study.
The main entry to the house is on the north side. Once inside, one is immediately struck with the richness of the dark, polished redwood and walnut walls, the silvery Lincrusta Walton (a linoleum-like material) ceilings, and the warmth of the sunlight diffused through the numerous art glass windows, which are placed not only on the exterior walls, but are used as transoms over several interior doorways as well.
The magnificent main floor of the interior is remarkably well preserved: the ceilings, walls, art glass windows, and tile-faced fireplaces are very nearly as they were in 1887. The arrangement of the rooms precisely follows the description that was printed in the San Diego Union of September 25, 1887. The house was designed, following the ideas of Jesse Shepard, by the architectural firm of Comstock and Trotsche, a talented and prolific team who designed many of San Diego’s noteworthy residences, commercial and civic buildings during the “Boom” period of the 1880s. The art glass made by John Mallon of San Francisco, the fabric, furniture, and other interior decor, were all selected and arranged by Shepard.
To the left of the entry hall is a reception room, illuminated by a beautiful art glass window depicting grapes and flowers. Called the Pink Room when Shepard lived here, the upper part of the walls had pink fleur-de-lis designs. Fabrics used in furniture and drapery had pink tones, and even the candles (the only source of illumination, originally) were pink. The floor in this room, like those throughout the house, is of polished fir. When Shepard occupied the house, all the floors were liberally covered with Turkish or Persian rugs in colors which harmonized with furniture and draperies.
Beyond the reception room is the Music Room which occupies the entire east side of the house. A rounded projection at the northeast corner of that room contains a small conservatory with a tile floor, an ideal spot for growing exotic plants. Art glass windows in which the four seasons are represented by characteristic flowers, enhance that area. On the long, east wall of the Music Room is a huge, magnificent art glass window depicting the Greek poetess, Sappho, attended by two cupids. In separate panels, on either side, are representations of John Milton’s “Il Penseroso” and “L’Allegro”.
At the north end of the room, high on the wall, are circular windows which contain portraits of Beethoven and Mozart in art glass; and in similar style and position on the south wall, are portraits of Rubens and Raphael. Beneath them are two full-length portrait windows which are allegorical representations of the Orient and the Occident. The face of the figure representing the Orient is said to be a portrait of Jesse Shepard himself, characteristically associating himself with the mysticism of the Eastern world rather than with the materialism of the West. The ceiling of the Music Room is covered with Lincrusta Walton in silver-gray, with an elaborate redwood-strip pattern laid over it.
ON the south side of the house, centrally located between the Music Room and the Red Room (to be described later), is the Drawing Room. This room contains a corner fireplace and a stunning eighteen-foot-wide bay window whose upper sashes contain life-size art glass portraits of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Corneille — the great poets of England, Germany and France. These, and the other portraits mentioned before, are remarkable for the delicacy with which the features and flesh tones are rendered. Their faces are enamel, painted on single pieces of glass, and the surrounding decoration is made of richly-colored leaded glass, interspersed with numerous bevel-edged “jewel” pieces.
Next to the Drawing Room, on the south side of the house, is a bedroom, an unusual feature since most large, Victorian homes had bedrooms upstairs. The Red Room, as it was called, was Jesse Shepard’s own bedroom. The walls of Lincrusta Walton are white with gold fleur-de-lis. The bedcover and pillow shams, decorated with art needlework, were red, as were the candles.
Between Shepard’s bedroom and the back hall, is the bathroom or dressing room. Though indoor plumbing was not added until 1890, this room would have contained a washstand and, perhaps, a tin tub.
At the southwest corner of the house was the Gold Room, again named for the original color tint of walls, ceiling and drapery. This was Shepard’s library in which he kept his books on art, music and literature, many of them handsomely bound gift copies. Glass transoms over each of the three windows add color and warmth to this room.
Between the Gold Room and the Blue Rooms, on the west side of the house, is a stairwell leading down to the kitchen. Even here, Shepard placed an art glass window — a portrait of Saint Cecelia playing the organ. This patron saint of music was appropriately located so that visitors coming up the hill would know that this was the home of a musician. Shepard often hung a lantern in the stairwell so that the glow cast by the stained glass could be seen all the way downtown.
The northwest corner of the house was occupied by the Blue Rooms which accomodated Shepard’s faithful secretary and companion, Lawrence Waldemar Tonner. A corner fireplace, with bevel-edged mirror above, matches the fireplace in Shepard’s bedroom. This L-shaped suite originally contained furniture, drapes, candles, and bedcover in pale blue colors.
Between the Blue Room and the entry hall (we have now come full circle and are back at the north side of the house), is the dining room with Lincrusta Walton ceiling and redwood walls. Here is the most elaborate fireplace, with an ornate overmantel of Classical design, complete with French beveled crystal doors. Two art glass windows depict Summer and Autumn as young girls gathering flowers.
The kitchen can be reached from the west side stairwell leading down from the Villa’s main floor. Very little is known about this part of the house and, in all likelihood, Shepard seldom frequented this area designed for servants’ use. Besides the kitchen, the lower level contained storage rooms, a servants’ dining-room, laundry room and basement. Lack of evidence regarding the use of any rooms as servants’ living quarters, suggests that Shepard had day help only.
FROM the entry hall, one mounts a graceful staircase to the second floor which has been restored and papered with wall coverings that are replicas of the original designs. When Jesse Shepard occupied the house, he used this area as a museum and art gallery. Here were displayed etchings, portraits, sculpture, letters, and other memorabilia given to Shepard by European rulers, literary and artistic acquaintances, and titled patrons during the 1870s and 1880s when he toured Europe and made a name for himself as a uniquely talented vocalist, pianist, and composer.
A narrow staircase leads up from the second floor to the tower room which has an unobstructed view in all directions, sweeping around San Diego to Point Loma, San Diego Bay, and south to Mexico. This was Shepard’s “sanctum sanctorum,” furnished with a desk and a revolving chair, so that he could enjoy the view from any side while he wrote. In this room, most likely, Jesse Shepard began his professional writing career.
As John Maas remarked in The Gingerbread Age, buildings like the Villa Montezuma are “perfect symbols of an era which was not given to understatement. They are in complete harmony with the heavy meals, strong drink, elaborate clothes, ornate furnishings, flamboyant art, melodramatic plays, loud music, flowery speeches and thundering sermons of mid-Nineteenth Century America.”
CLARE CRANE received her B.A. degree from San Diego State University and her M.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles. She obtained a Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego. Dr. Crane has lived in the San Diego area since 1946. Her research on the Villa Montezuma has benefited the San Diego History Center’s restoration of the house greatly. In addition to teaching classes in local history at San Diego State University, Mesa College and United States International University, Dr. Crane remains a very active member of the San Diego “history” community.