The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1989, Volume 35, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

by Barbara E. Fredrich
Department of Geography San Diego State University

Images from this article former Mission Cliffs Gardens

Linkages between nature and culture are often visible in earth materials and architectural form. Insight is enhanced when that form is positioned in space and time. The contribution of cobblestones to architectural history of San Diego exemplifies this. While considerable information exists for New York and Wisconsin, the subject has been largely neglected in Southern California, and ignored in San Diego. I have traced the architectural role of cobblestones form European contact to the early twentieth century. Then I have examined their distribution in portions of four San Diego communities where, as a domestic vernacular artifact, they were featured in retaining walls, piers, pillars and chimneys in the bungalow landscape.

Cobblestones are broadly described as natural, and round medium-sized stones,1 and “large enough for use in paving, “according to a 1957 American College Dictionary.2 More specifically, cobbles range from 64 to 256 mm diameter (Wentworth scale). Olaf Shelgren and associates define cobble-stones in lay terms: “A pebble is a stone held by two fingers, a cobblestone is that held by one hand, and a boulder needs two hands to hold.”3

The mesas of San Diego, highly stream-dissected ancient coastal terraces, are covered by a thick layer of coarse marine deposits. Cobblestones are readily observed in exposed road cuts along lower canyon walls and are typically uncovered in backyards by gardeners.

Not so apparent is the position of cobblestones in San Diego’s development from the beginning of European contact. Sebastián Vizcaíno, during his ten day visit in 1602, named the small peninsula on the east side of Point Loma, La Punta de Los Guijarros, or Cobblestone Point.4 By 1825 nine whaling vessels operated out of San Diego. These were owned by a Boston firm which had purchased Pueblo lot that included Cobblestone Point. Captains started using the cobblestones on the beach collecting the shingle in small boats and transferring it to the ship’s hold as ballast for safe navigation. It is suggested that Water and Milk streets in Boston are two streets paved with these stones.5 The Puntatoday is known as Ballast Point.

The events surrounding the construction of the first jail in Old Town in 1850 provide another interesting linkage. The cobblestones in the structure were set without benefit of cement, the building was damaged by rainfall prior to completion, and the first prisoner dug his way out with a pocket knife. Historian William Smythe commented, “The only prisoner ever successfully confined within the walls is a fine pepper tree cheerfully growing in one of the cells.”6

The San Diego River presented a challenge to those who attempted to alter its course. One author describes how the Padres in 1803 started to build a dam across San Diego River bed about three miles east of the Mission:

They also built an aqueduct. It was constructed of tiles placed on cobblestones. . .and carried on a stream of water one foot deep and two feet wide for domestic use and also for irrigation.7

Flooding during 1811, 1839, and 1855 sometimes caused the San Diego River to alter its channel course from False Bay to the San Diego harbor. During 1855, Lieutenant George Derby completed a dam which was to turn the river back into false Bay. However there were freshets in 1857 and 1862. Not until 1877 was channel completed. Some 70 white men and 75 Chinese were employed to scoop out a channel into Mission Bay and create a 7,735 feet long levee which was positioned east on the base of Presidio Hill and west on the base of Point Loma:

It was twenty-five feet wide at the top and forty-one feet wide at the base, and rested on a bed of stones three feet deep. It was laced and topped with stones.8

Descriptions of the San Diego townscape during the 1870s provide ample socioeconomic information to include a building count of 800, and a population of 2300,9 or 3000.10 The landscape north and east of town, that is, north of B and east of 16th Street, was a brush-covered mesa. I found no references to the use of cobblestones.

The late nineteenth century witnessed a boom and bust economic cycle associated with Santa Fe rail service to Los Angeles and the connecting line to San Diego. Residential expansion was impressive. For example University Heights was opened in 1887 by the College Hill Land Association. East San Diego, also founded in 1887, was incorporated in 1912 and consolidated with San Diego in 1923.11

Recognizing a relationship between transport nets and population flow, John D. Spreckels continued to extend his street railway to the new subdivisions of Hillcrest, Normal Heights, and East San Diego. The fervent promotion of land development by speculators was another factor in landscape change. Major streets were paved. The road via University Avenue to La Mesa was graded. A sole building stood in Normal Heights in January 1906; at the end of that year, there were forty-the incremental change, in part, attributed to the presence of the University Heights Reservoir. Normal Heights and Hillcrest were platted after 1910.

While Smythe in 1907 addresses the issue of the use of native materials to create a natural harmony with the landscape, he does not document usage of cobblestones as street pavement, and there are no references to cobblestone homes in San Diego. Neverthless, I suspect there were cobblestone retaining walls not unlike the one in University Heights (page 2).

The concept and methods of stone masonry likely diffused from the east coast, primarily New England, to San Diego prior to 1900. The construction of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, and following that, the appearance of the first cobblestone building in upstate New York helps show that cobblestone masonry came to western New York via English masons who helped build the stone works for the Erie Canal.12 The setting of the architectural form, in the landscape was important:

The beauty of cobblestone buildings depends on light. Without this particularly sunlight, the texture of the stones and mortar joints are minimized, and the fascinating patterns recede. Sunlight, raking across the textured surface, gives a vibrancy to the building that is unique. Perhaps the most harmonious manifestation of man and nature in upstate New York is the rural cobblestone building dappled by sunlight and surrounded by open fields.13

The use of stone masonry as a folk art tradition diffused 60 to 75 miles from an epicenter near Rochester, New York, an area which includes about 90 percent of all the 600 stone buildings constructed between 1825 and 1865. Cobblestone homes are justified:

These houses were very efficient in that they had fireproof walls, resisted the elements, needed no painting, and provided a use for the luxuriant crop of stones which had to be removed because they interfered with hoeing and plowing. These houses were also colorful and full of interest. Little wonder that the art of cobblestone construction spread so rapidly through the region. It filled a need.14

Cobblestones were collected in stone boats, hauled to the construction site, and sorted for size and color at a “cobble bee.” Occasionally a cobblestone veneer was applied to wood plank structures. The variation in masonry techniques may be the consequence of professional rivalry among the masons. The use of Data stones, often incorporated in the walls above the entrance door, was common.

Later, the mid-western states of Wisconsin and Illinois contributed to the population and the perpetuation of cobblestones as a vernacular architectural form. Richard Perrin, surveying pioneer architecture in Wisconsin from 1835 to 1870, concurs that the southern Wisconsin cobblestone houses were built by masons from New York state. He notes also that the cobblestone mode was in short duration and did not constitute an architectural movement in Wisconsin.15

In the late nineteenth century an architectural form appeared that facilitated and almost demanded treatment with cobblestones; this was the bungalow. Its origin and diffusion in a global context, has been carefully traced to the single-story, wide-spreading, thatched-roofed homes of Bengal India. Under British colonial rule the bungalow came to be identified as a unique country home, primarily associated with the aristocracy. The architectural form emerged in England as an estate cottage, then a second home, or seaside resort, and later symbolized a Bohemian retreat from the physical and cultural confines of urban society during the early twentieth century. From England, the concept of the bungalow was transferred to the American South, 16 as well as plantations in Assam, Ceylon, and Brazil.17

Considered by some a socialist response to capitalism, the bungalow form connoted a lifestyle of simplicity, individuality, harmony with nature, craftsmanship, and perhaps early post-Victorian suburbia. According to architectural historian Robert Winter, it was “not strongly affected by urbanization and thus without inflated property values. It was only in such streetcar suburbs and auto suburbs that the bungalow could be built and the dreams fulfilled. “He adds Warfield Webb suggestion that bungalows were popular because the new urban dweller enjoyed urban amenities but missed the rural environment.

At the same time they longed for the detached, single-family dwelling historically affirmed by individualist democracy-the rural small town America of the nineteenth century. The bungalow was thus ideal is adapting the older America to the new.18

Cobblestones artifacts, symbolizing a personal experiment, and an aesthetic and resource statement, found their architectural forum in Southern California and elsewhere. Architects Charles and Henry Greene, considered by some,19 but not Rubin20 or Winter,21 as the original designers of the bungalow form, identified the word, bungalow, with living in California, a stylistic closeness to nature. In fact, cobblestone chimney pieces were featured in the 1908 Bandini Bungalow. Cobblestones and boulders in retaining walls and piers decorate The Theodore Irwin House in Pasadena.22 Finally, a cobblestone chimney is pictured in the Charles Pratt House, Ojai.23

Irving Gill, in 1899 purchased a two-acre tract near Hillcrest where he tested new construction techniques. A section of photos published in The Journal of San Diego History in 1979, shows a 1908 canyon home in Hillcrest with a cobblestone retaining wall. A photo of the Russel Allen house in Bonita also shows a low cobblestone retaining wall. The 1915-1916 Scripps House for Ellen Browning Scripps also has a cobblestone retaining wall.

While Gustav Stickley was not a proponent of a cobblestone decor to Craftsman homes, he did concede cobblestones were appropriate materials especially when combined with brick and linked to Japanese architecture in Southern California.24

Apart from a feature in the Homes section of the San Diego Tribune,25 attention given to the San Diego bungalow tradition is minimal. Perhaps Clay Lancaster dissuaded a few researchers with his preface to his discussion on San Diego dwellings.

In contrast to the sophisticated examples…that we have examined…there were other bungalows that were less pretentious…. Builders of the first group were more or less familiar with the ideals of the movement, and they were inspired accordingly. Builders of the second tended more to take features from the first and incorporate them without real understanding. Most…started with the handicap of a dull, flat little lot hemmed in by neighbors. . .26

Nevertheless, I suspected that examples of both bungalows and associated cobblestone artifacts existed in the city, and that these would be spatially related to residential history and transportation lines. Consequently, I surveyed cobblestone architectural artifacts in a portion of San Diego encompassing an approximate ten square mile area south of Interstate 8, west of College Avenue, east of Highway 163, and north of Landis Avenue, including the communities of University Heights, Normal Heights, North Park and East San Diego (pages 8 and 9).

This survey was conducted by car primarily; wherever a density of cobblestone artifacts occurred, I used public sidewalks. Later I returned to examine and photograph exemplary artifacts. Although some cobblestone walls were observed across canyons, only structures observable from the street were counted. Occasionally, interested homeowners provided additional information. The four general categories of cobblestone artifacts surveyed include: 1) retaining walls, 2) piers or porch pillars, 3) chimneys, and 4) anomalies.

Retaining walls were the most prevalent form of cobblestone usage; some 322 were found in the area studied, 98 of which occurred in the University Heights-North Park area, 82 in Normal Heights, and 92 in East San Diego. Their distribution along canyon rims and old transport lines is evident. The rock used for terrace walls typically was described as “dug out of the hillside.” Their height depended upon the slope of the terrain; generally they average one meter high.

Cobblestone piers, indicated by open triangles (on page 8), are less numerous. Some 42 are found in University Heights and North Park west of Highway 805, and 16 are found in Normal Heights and East San Diego. Some may frame a wooden base and support a wooden beam to the roof; others appear with a buttressed base for additional structural support. Many are comprised of a naturally colorful collection of cobblestones. Rarely are cobblestones painted.

Cobblestone chimneys are least in number, 27 in University Heights and North Park, 24 in Normal Heights and East San Diego. There is a decorativeness to chimneys with set patterns and designs. The design is especially striking in a two-story structure. Sometimes the masonry combines cobblestones and brick.

Several cobblestone artifacts are unique and impressive. For example, there are two cobblestone homes located within two blocks of each other in Normal Heights. The one more easily observed is a single story structure with attached garage, facing Adams Avenue but extending to the rear down the canyon lot. Excluding the porch awning and the decorative roof tiles, the entire edifice is constructed of cobblestones (page 11). Nearby is two-story cobblestone-boulder bungalow constructed in 1912, complete with cobblestone garage, chimney and retaining walls (page 12). The sidewalk is dated 1913.

While most cobblestone walls, including the one surrounding the Aztec Bowl at San Diego State University, are constructed to retain earth, a few are free-standing. One Such example in domestic architecture is located on 44th Street (page 13). Another, in University Heights, features a stone-filled archway as well. Cobblestone pillars and a block-long cobblestone-boulder wall mark the entrance and perimeter of the former Mission Cliffs gardens in University Heights. Researcher Beverly Potter noted that cable car service brought a considerable number of people to the end-of-the-line five-acre amusement park known as “the Bluffs”-the ownership of which was the San Diego Cable Railway Company until 1892 when the company went bankrupt. John Spreckels chose to develop it as a quiet, garden-like public park. A Scottish landscape designer, John Davidson constructed a stone wall around the park.27 Inside, a cobblestone wall retained a circular pond. Unfortunately, the gardens were closed in 1929; all that remains today is the long wall and a few pillars.

Three sets of pillars are discerned in the Normal Heights-Kensington area; one wide-spread set, situated on Terrace Drive, is readily observed at the end of Madison Street facing East, across Highway 15. The second is located near Kensington Drive and Madison Avenue. The third pair consists of pillars on the north corners of Madison Avenue and Edgeware Road. However, these are not the only cobblestone pillars in the study area. In-deed, in East San Diego, I found a single pillar at the southeast corner of Landis Street and Chamoune Avenue; the sidewalk was dated 1915 and Chamoune was called Castle Street; there was another nearby at 46th and Landis Street. Smaller pillars appear at Estrella Avenue and Reno Drive.

The concept of mass-prefabrication of homes was well-established by the early twentieth century. A plethora of articles on bungalows complete with ads for construction plans for as little as $5.00 appeared in popular magazines; these plans were easily copied. Some of these plans include cobblestones as integrated components in the designs. For example, the Plaza model in Aladdin’s 1919 catalog features a cobblestone chimney and several porch pillars.28 Stevenson’s and Jandl’s Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company, contains fourteen residential designs which specifically display cobblestones. Four models feature cobblestone foundations only (No. 107, The Avoca, The Katonah, and No. 101); the remainder feature cobblestone chimneys and/or porch piers. These include in order of appearance in the text: The Dover, The Sumner, No. 241, The Ashmore, No. 140, The Arlington, No. 264, The Savoy, The Stone Ridge, and No. 138.

The earliest model dates to 1908; the latest to 1934; most were advertised between 1912-1925. Half of the models are considered bungalows. Often the descriptive phrases attempt to entice the prospective buyer, imaging land-scape harmony and economy. For example, The Ashmore with a “rugged, massive cobblestone chimney adds the final touch of stability and bungalow character,29 or No. 140 “A cobblestone foundation, porch pillars and chimney give this bungalow a rustic beauty seldom seen in buildings at such a low price.”30 Finally, a description of No. 138, a 1913 model:

Houses like this with a cobblestone foundation, porch, piers, and chimney are becoming quite popular. In many sections of the East and West, cobblestones of various tints can be procured at a nominal price (very often can be procured free of charge), and when used in a design such as our Modern Home No. 138 it adds a beautiful effect to the building.31

In addition, the Montgomery Ward’s 1927 Sheridan model features two large cobblestone chimneys, but no piers or walls.32

Cobblestone decoration in accompanying the bungalow tradition, completed the vernacular architecture and fulfilled a romantic landscape taste. They were plentiful, easily accessible, of interesting colors and surface texture;33 thus, their use required only labor and patience; the reward was beauty, suitability, and permanence in a home.

Ernest Flagg, a New York architect, believed that persons of modest means could construct homes from local stone, using a mosaic rubble wall, a combination of concrete with field-stone facing, both constructed as one unit.34 Flagg’s contributions were published in several professional and popular journals during the 1920’s and 1930’s including the Ladies Home Journal, Scientific American, and the National Weekly. However, in 1930 he found that concrete block could be cast and raised at less cost than his system of rubble walls. Flagg did not publish or advocate its use after 1930.35

In June 1919, there appeared an article entitled, “Everybody Likes a House of Stone” in Good Housekeeping by Julius Gregory in which he extolled the virtues of a stone house; however, his comments on cobblestones heralded/precipitated its decline in importance in architecture.

You may occasionally have seen a house of round cobblestones and wondered why they were so ugly when most stone walls are beautiful. They are unpleasing because such stones cannot be built up naturally in a wall; they need plenty of mortar to hold them together. It is a case of taking boulders which were never intended to be used as building materials and forcing them to serve. The effect, of course, is unnatural and ugly36.

The term bungalow was substituted with the word cottage by the late 1920s. Woodrow Wilson’s accusation that Warren Harding had a “bungalow mind,” did little to help the term, and possibly by association, cobblestone artifacts. The bungalow mania had waned, but the houses have remained. Perhaps this is why so many cobblestone walls are covered with cement. Certainly the theory of cobblestone masonry diffused into the middle class community; however, the quality of work declined from 1915 to the 1930’s.

The persistence of cobblestones as an architectural artifact can be attributed in part to its harmony with the early twentieth century craze for bungalows. The staying power of some of these artifacts is doubtful. As demand for housing intensifies, some neighborhoods will change in morphology from single family residences to multi-family dwellings. There may not be room for cobblestones. Apart from a faltering tradition, and where bungalow demolition does not prevail, cobblestone chimney maintenance in relation to seismic events and current building codes could constitute problems for the homeowner. The raw materials are easily unearthed; ultimately lies the question of knowledge of cobblestone masonry and the availability of manual labor. However, the historic preservation efforts in Golden Hill and other communities near Balboa Park signify that the cobblestone folk-architecture tradition will remain for some time. Other communities await further exploration.



1. Webster’s Dictionary (1928), p. 183.

2. American College Dictionary (1957), p. 231.

3. Olaf William Shelgren, Jr., Cary Lattin and Robert W. Frasch, Cobblestone Landmarks of New York State (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1978, p. 1.

4. Anonymous, “Historical Landmarks of San Diego County,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, (Vol. 5) 1959, p. 6.

5. Edward J.P. Davis, Historical San Diego: The Birth Place of California; A History of Its Discovery, Settlement and Development, (1953), p. 28.

6. Willam E. Symthe, History of San Diego, 1542-1908 (San Diego: The History Company, 1908), p. 262.

7. Davis, Historical San Diego, p. 22.

8. Richard Pourade, The History of San Diego, Vol. 4 (San Diego: The Union/Tribune Publishing Co.), p. 143.

9. Richard Bigger, et. al., Metropolitan Coast: San Diego and Orange Counties, California (Los Angeles: University of California, 1958), p. 20.

10. Ibid

11. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego and of Its Founder, Alonzo E. Horton (San Diego: Pioneer printers, 1969), p. 93.

12. Shelgren, Cobblestone Landmarks, p.20.

13. Ibid., p. 27.

14. Carl F. Schmidt, Cobblestone Architecture (1944), p. 15.

15. Richard W.E. Perrin, Historic Wisconsin Buildings: A Survey in Pioneer Architecture,1835-1870 (Milwaukee : Milwaukee Public Museum, 1981), p. 100.

16. James R. Curtis and Larry Ford, “Bungalow Courts in San Diego: Monitoring a Sense of Place,” The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 34 (Spring, 1988), p. 80

17. Anthony D. King, The Bungalow (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 115.

18. Clay Lancaster, The American Bungalow: 1880-1930 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985), p. 115.

19. John E. Rickert, “House Facades of the Northeastern United States: A Tool of Geographic Analysis,” Annals, Association of American Geographers, Vol. 67 1977), p. 525.

20. Lancaster, American Bungalow, p. 119.

21. Alan Gowans,The Comfortable House (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985), p. 74.

22. Lancaster, American Bungalow, p.133.

23. Ibid.

24. G. Stickley,The Best of Craftsman Homes (New York: Dover, 1979), p. 141.

25. San Diego Tribune, October 4, 1985.

26. Lancaster, American Bungalow, p. 142.

27. MacPhail, New San Diego, p. 129.

28. Gowans, Comfortable House, p. 31.

29. Ibid., p.88.

30. Ibid., p. 110.

31. Ibid., p. 322.

32. Ibid., p. 200.

33. Lancaster, American Bungalow, p. 140.

34. Ernest Flagg, Small Houses; Their Economic Design and Construction (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), p. 57.

35. Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), p.79.

36. Gowans, Comfortable House, p. 74.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the author.