The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 2001, Volume 47, Number 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

By Mary Mitchell Sadler

Mitchell painting at a ranch near Aguanga November 1950. Courtesy of Mary Mitchell Sadler. World War I interrupted the academic careers of the two Mitchell brothers, my father George Rankin Mitchell, who was pursuing a Master’s Degree in English at Stanford University, and my uncle Alfred Richard Mitchell, who was in training as an artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. As soon as he was drafted my father rushed home and married Clara Daniel to whom he was engaged. They had been students together at San Diego High School. Alfred remained single. Once out of military service both returned to the home of their parents, George and Carrie Mitchell in San Diego. This explains how as a new born infant I was brought home to live in the same house as the artist, and how I can say I have known him all my life.

We were an extended family all living in the same house, my grandparents, my parents, my uncle Fred, and a maiden aunt Carrie. Fortunately it was a big house and my grandmother was a good cook. Grandfather had purchased the home at 1527 Granada Avenue in April 1914. It was described on the bill of sale as the Byron Naylor House (a former mayor of San Diego) in South Park. At that time the Mitchells were operating a successful restaurant known as Mitchell’s Cafeteria on 7th Street. The whole family worked at it. Grandfather ordered the supplies and greeted the diners, Grandmother supervised the personnel and the kitchen, Alfred printed the menus and carved the roasts, before and after school hours George was the cashier, and Carrie set the tables. After the two sons went off to college, Grandfather developed rheumatoid arthritis and had to retire, selling the business. By the time I was born, April 30, 1919, he was confined to his bed or a wheel chair in the large master bedroom on the second floor of the Granada House. Grandma welcomed her sons and her daughter-in-law home to assist her with his care and to handle other household chores that were too much for her. Meanwhile the two brothers looked for a convenient time to return to their education.

By this time Alfred R. Mitchell was already an accomplished artist, having spent three years under the tutelage of Maurice Braun, San Diego’s foremost artist. He had already won the silver medal at the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park in 1915 for a painting entitled Coldwater Canyon, Arrowhead Springs, now in the collection of the San Diego History Center. He had spent a year and a half studying art in Philadelphia, painting a number of large canvases, some of San Diego scenes and some of Pennsylvania. Storing these big canvases, and also shipping them from east to west, was a big problem. I can never remember a time when there weren’t large canvases leaning against the wall in various out of the way places in the house. Of course, in all the homes where my uncle subsequently lived there was always a room to store paintings. Over the years he gave up doing large canvases as they were hard to sell and concentrated on paintings that usually were sixteen by twenty inches. This was the size that fit his sketch box, and could be carried outdoors easily. This same size board divided easily into four spaces each eight by ten inches, which was the size that became so popular with collectors.

Portrait of Alfred R. Mitchell, August 1955. Courtesy of Mary Mitchell Sadler. Uncle Fred was a kind and happy man. He took time to play with my sister, Josephine, who joined the family two and a half years after I did, and me. His penetrating eyes looked out from under bushy eyebrows as if to observe every detail of my face. It was the way he looked at everything in the world and it enabled him to paint pictures of landscapes and seascapes with accurate detail. His mouth was ready to smile and often he broke into a hearty chest-expanding laugh which had us all holding our sides. We were glad he was part of the family because he took a cheerful approach to daily living. Although his own childhood and adolescence had been burdened with the necessity to work at whatever odd jobs he could get to supplement his family’s income as they struggled, he reached adult life with sufficient self-confidence to generate an air of peaceful security. In spite of the hard physical work the whole family did before the establishment of the successful cafeteria, they enjoyed reading good literature and poetry under the guidance of Grandmother. She herself was a college graduate and had operated a private school in Easton, Pennsylvania before her marriage. Grandfather was fond of Shakespeare and at one time had studied to become an actor. Leisure time within the Mitchell family always concentrated on reading classical literature.

During this time when we were all living together, and Uncle Fred was waiting to go back to the Academy in Philadelphia, he did a number of sketches of local scenes in San Diego, now very interesting for their historical record. He also painted a large portrait of my father seated in a chair in the Granada House reading a book. Another large canvas was a portrait of my mother standing in the dining room arranging zinnias in a bowl. His idea in this painting was to combine a portrait with a still life in an interior setting. This painting won acclaim when he showed it in Philadelphia and I’m happy to say it remains in my possession. He also met with other interested persons to raise money to get a Fine Arts Gallery built in San Diego.

In the summer of 1920 Alfred Mitchell met Dorothea Webster, the daughter of the Mitchell’s family physician, Dr. I. Daniel Webster. She was a devotee of art, and the two immediately discovered they had a lot in common. She encouraged him by buying a small painting he had just done of Mission Valley which depicted the San Diego River as it flowed into the ocean. She bought this with the first paycheck she received from the City of San Diego in her newly hired position as a teacher at San Diego High School. Fred was very much taken with her enthusiasm for art and her warm and intelligent personality. They became engaged to be married on the eve of his departure for another year in Philadelphia. It was almost two years before they were married. His letters to her form a very interesting story of his hopes and dreams for his success as an artist, the life he hoped to share with her, and his fears that he would not be able to earn enough money with his art to adequately support her. His very first letter to her, written from the train as he traveled east from San Francisco illustrates how his artist’s eye saw color and form in every passing scene:

October 19, 1920Dear Dorothea,

The trip across the valley and marshlands was about as usual, charming in its way, and quite paintable for the right man. I like the white barns and groups of building amid the clumps of trees, and the pattern they often make against the sky or low hills. The fields too have usually a fine variety of color. But I enjoyed the mountains more. Going through the fruit district the peach orchards were all turning and I never saw such a riot of color. I saw one orchard that was absolutely pink. A sort of bougainvillea red in the sunlight, and the others ranged from this through scarlet vermilion, flaming orange and golden yellow together with all the russets and tans and soft gray yellows. Nicely designed among gray green and silver of the live oaks, and cool silvery green of the manzanita and countless other mountain shrubs with which I am not familiar. These patches in the distance are particularly charming forming as they do they do those delicious spots of warm color in the general bluish of the distance.

Then as we got higher among the pines the hills took on a greenish note, the canyons got deeper, and we could see broad patches of snow ahead. We neared the summit as the tremendous hills made them looked miles high, and the canyons deep beyond measure and full of shadow and quiet mystery.

Wonderful as it is, it seemed today to be lacking the human touch which I am feeling the need of more and more. And I wished you were here, warm and living and secure by my side.

On reaching Philadelphia Fred renewed his acquaintance with other art students, searched for a room to live in, and was again given the leadership of the men’s life class. He spent another full year learning the academics and techniques of good painting. He attended three three-hour classes every day – morning 9 to 12, afternoon 1 to 4, and evening 7 to 10. Classes included portrait painting, drawing and painting from the nude, still life painting, and drawing in charcoal from plaster reproductions of some of the world’s great sculpture. His studies also included the history of art and a knowledge of the lives and works of all the great artists. But the teaching of the Academy was all indoors, and Fred’s real love was plein air painting. With as much free time as he could muster he teamed up with other artists who also wanted to paint outdoors and found places in parks and in the countryside surrounding Philadelphia to paint. He especially admired the work of Daniel Garber and Edward Redfield and was pleased to get their advice and encouragement.

The final and crowning experience of his years at the Academy came in the summer of 1921 when he used the Cresson European Travel and Study Scholarship he had won, and along with three friends, Kenneth Bates, Art Melter and Ross Braught who had also won similar scholarships, embarked for Europe. His letters to Dorothea about this trip are a travelogue of adventure. Here were four young students traveling about Europe eighty years ago as cheaply as possible, not with sleeping bags and cameras, but with sketch boxes and paints. Their enthusiasm for art, architecture, people and the scenery makes interesting reading.

The four young travelers returned to Philadelphia the first week of November. Fred packed up his possessions, mostly art work done at the Academy, paid farewell visits to his favorite teachers, and came back to the family assembled in the Granada House. In the next six months he busied himself getting established as a San Diego artist. He was given an exhibition at Orr’s Gallery that received favorable press. Out of this exhibition one large painting of Mission Valley, entitled In the Valley, was sold for $1000 to the Marston Company for display in their store. This was the most Fred had ever received for a painting, and it gave him the courage to proceed with his wedding plans. He and Dorothea were married in the garden of “Treasure Trove,” the home of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Webster, on July 1, 1922. After a honeymoon in Julian, the couple moved into a flat of their own on Seventh Avenue.

Meanwhile my father returned to Stanford, completed his degree, and took a position teaching English at UCLA, which was situated at that time on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. Mother, my sister, and I moved with him into a flat within walking distance of the campus.

As long as my grandparents lived, the Granada House remained the gathering place for all family holiday celebrations. Whenever we got together we looked at new paintings and heard about new exhibitions. During this time my uncle was elected President of the San Diego Art Guild. He started teaching a night school painting class two nights a week at San Diego High School and also began a private class that met weekly for plein air painting. In time he added more classes to his schedule. My grandfather died in January 1927 and my grandmother the following year. Aunt Carrie wanted to keep the house, but it had to be rented for her support. Before the furniture was removed my uncle painted nine pictures of the house, interiors and exteriors, a beautiful memorial to the family life the Mitchells lived there. My sister and I are happy to share these paintings between us. The one best known to the public is called Hallway of Our House. It was shown at the San Diego History Center in Sunlight and Shadow, a 1988 exhibition of the art of Alfred R. Mitchell.

In 1930 my father took a position with Temple University in Philadelphia and our family moved there. Even when we lived in Philadelphia, and Fred and Dorothea were still in San Diego, we managed to stay in touch by letters and by visits during summer vacations. They had an additional reason to visit Philadelphia as well as to see us, for Dorothea’s widowed mother had returned to the home of her mother, Mary Anna Jenkins, and her sister Florence Jenkins. The three women lived in a three-story house on a large estate in the Quaker suburb of Gwynedd. The house had been built by Dorothea’s grandfather, and was named “Avalon.” It adjoined the Quaker Meeting House and cemetery at Gwynedd. Fred did a large painting of this house which is reproduced on the back cover of the catalog of Sunlight and Shadow. Fred and Dorothea actually spent nine months in this house in the fall, winter, and spring of 1926-27, and during this year, and subsequent summer visits he painted many Pennsylvania scenes and renewed his acquaintance with his former teachers. I recall that on one of his summer visits he took our family to visit Daniel Garber and Joseph Pearson who received us cordially. I remember their old homes in the country and seeing some of their paintings, but I was too young to appreciate the honor it was to meet them. On one of his eastern visits Uncle Fred also took us to art museums in New York and Philadelphia. Uncle Fred made it a point to be aware of what was going on in the art world on the East Coast as well as the West. It was my good fortune to be introduced to art appreciation through him.

The Jenkins family also owned a summer cottage at the summer resort in the Pocono Mountains called Buck Hill Falls. Dorothea’s family spent their summers there, and this is how Fred was able to exhibit paintings at the Buck Hill Falls Inn. This was a valuable connection for him, because he not only won prizes there, but he was able to sell paintings to a number of wealthy collectors.

Not all our family visiting was done in Philadelphia. Some of the summers we drove to San Diego. I recalled especially the summer of 1933 when he painted a portrait of my sister and I together. We also enjoyed seeing the Art Mart on the lawn of the library which Uncle Fred had organized to benefit all San Diego artists. This was in the middle of the Depression and art was not selling. Many of the artists were pleased to sell a small painting for as little as five or ten dollars.

From the time Fred and Dorothea were married they had dreamed of building a home of their own. The big question: “Could they afford it?” Very early they began saving money towards this goal. They knew they could not afford a home as large as the Granada House, nor one like “Treasure Trove” that was designed by the architect Richard Requa for Dr. and Mrs. Webster. Still they hoped to have good design and structure in the small studio and home they wanted. After the purchase of an affordable lot at the corner of Thirty-first and Beech Streets they drew up their own plans and took them to Mr. Requa who agreed to design their house in exchange for a painting. The young draftsman, Lloyd Ruocco, working in Requa’s offices, executed the design drawings. All were concerned about the orientation of the house on the lot to get a window with north light in the studio, and sunlight from the southeast for the bedrooms and family living room. Placement of doors and windows to get breezes from the ocean in warm weather was also a consideration. A double car garage and workshop where Fred could make picture frames took care of their additional needs and filled up the back of the lot, forming a small private garden space between the two buildings. A wall along the Beech Street side of the property provided additional privacy for house and garden. Mr. Ruocco had included a pergola to be shaded by vines along the southern exposure of the house, but this was never added during the lifetime of the Mitchells. At first it was postponed to save money. This proved to be a good thing as the house had no heat for the first several years the Mitchells lived there, and the sun streaming through the windows was appreciated. A portable electric heater was used to heat the bathroom in winter. In addition there was a portable kerosene heater, inherited from the Granada house, that supplemented the heating on very cold days for which the fireplace was inadequate. Eventually Uncle Fred had a gas floor furnace installed in the studio.

Art Mart in front of the Public Library, August 1944. Courtesy of Mary Mitchell Sadler. The Mitchells saved as much money as they could in building the house. Wherever possible Fred traded paintings for work done. He hired a master carpenter to boss the job, and Fred was his assistant. Of course he did all the painting. Only the plumbing and electrical work had to be contracted out. The bronze hardware for the front door and around the fireplace were designed by Fred and cast by his sculptor friend, James Tank Porter in exchange for a painting. Fred later figured that the house and garage had cost $7000.

The house was ready to occupy on August 2, 1937, when the George Mitchell family arrived to move in with them. Fred and Dorothea had invited me to spend a year with them between high school and college. I had graduated from the Oak Lane Country Day School in Philadelphia of that year and my parents needed another year to save money for my college education. For my part, I welcomed a respite from school and imagined I would study art and music in my leisure. The prospect seemed so attractive that my sister Jo wanted to have it too even though she had two more years of high school to go. My parents wisely decided to avert jealousy by allowing her to do it, and the truant officers never caught up with her. Jo and I have often said that year with Uncle Fred and Aunt Dorothea was the happiest and best year of our growing up years.

Mitchell's new home at 1506 31st Street, 1937. Courtesy of Mary Mitchell Sadler. The house had no window shades or curtains when we moved in, only a single overhead light in each room, but the gas, electricity and water were turned on and all the basic furniture was in place. We turned off the lights at night to get undressed and go to bed, there was no landscaping outside the house and no paintings were yet hung, but there was much rejoicing in being in the new house, and best of all not a cent was owed on it!

I marvel at all the work Uncle Fred managed to accomplish that busy year. He never wasted a moment. Two nights a week he taught his evening painting class at the High School. Every week he had his all-day outdoor class and a second afternoon class. In between he painted the remaining trim on the house, prepared the soil of the yard for planting, and put into place all the trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers which he and Mr. Ruocco worked out to complete the ambiance of the new studio-home. There was no sprinkling system, so he had to water the new plants daily, and he did all the driving anytime a member of the family needed transportation by auto. Still he found time to paint pictures – mostly on weekends. He was a very facile painter, and often finished a painting in half a day. In his whole lifetime he did more than a thousand paintings. During that year he exhibited at the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery (now called the San Diego Museum of Art), his usual one-month show in La Jolla, and several small showings in his studio. At Thanksgiving time we had two Open Houses on successive days to accommodate all the people who wanted to see the new studio and the latest paintings. Jo and I helped Dorothea make dozens of sandwiches and cookies to serve, and we acted as hostesses, pleased to meet most of the other artists who formed the group called the Contemporary Artists of San Diego. During the year we met all of them at various exhibitions and social events. We enjoyed being hostesses at the Fine Arts Gallery on opening nights.

Very soon after moving into the new house, Fred and Dorothea told us about a fiesta planned at the Spanish Village over the four nights of the Labor Day weekend. They encouraged Jo and me to enter the Queen Contest. Imaging our happy surprise when I took first place and Jo got second! I’m sure all the other girls from San Diego were mad at the new arrivals from Philadelphia, but it started our new year with publicity and recognition. I’m sure my uncle’s reputation and the beautiful costumes our mother had made for us to wear had a lot to do with our winning.

I’m sorry to have to admit that we proved to be typical adolescent dilettantes that year dropping the art lessons Uncle Fred graciously gave us. His advice that “Art is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration” was all too true, and we didn’t want to work that hard at either art or music and soon quit. Uncle Fred never criticized us or scolded us. He truly understood and practiced unconditional love. In the spring we rented a studio in the Spanish Village where we designed and sold dresses. We earned enough money to pay the rent, but that proved hard work also, and by the end of the summer both of us were ready to go back to school and get the education we needed for serious careers as adults.

Meanwhile Uncle Fred’s garden began to bloom. He loved flowers for their perfume as well as color. He preferred gardenias to camellias for that reason. He had more flowerbeds than lawn as he did want to spend time cutting grass. He planted a night blooming jasmine in the sunken garden outside the bedroom door. He loved sweet peas, nasturtiums, zinnias, and especially iris. He put native plants in the front yard, a California toyon bush, matilaja poppies, and succulents. A couple of Lombardy poplars broke to roof line in front of the house, and a palo verde tree stood at the corner of the garage. The wisteria on a pergola in front of the workshop became the subject of several paintings that have been popular with collectors.

What made our year at “Deep Hearth,” the name that Dorothea had given their home, so happy was that there was peace and serenity in that house. They never quarreled or raised their voices. After breakfast every morning they took a few minutes for spiritual reading and meditation. They prayed silently according to the Quaker tradition in which Dorothea had been brought up. Fred had found his spiritual home in adult life at the 1st Unitarian Church in San Diego. He attended it regularly, served on its Board of Directors, and was an usher. They both liked to attend the evening forum there, and they broadened their worldview by the variety of speakers they heard. Reading at home in the evenings when they didn’t have to go out also enlarged their minds and hearts with philosophy, science and history. Their only way of correcting me or Jo when we did something that displeased them was to leave a note in the daily mailbox. It was a face saving gesture that made it easy to conform to their wishes. They understood how to manage a peaceful home. It was an example that we carried into our adult life.

I believe that this quality of serenity, based on his confidence in God, and his appreciation of beauty and order in nature makes people enjoy his art, as much as the color and realistic detail which he portrays. Looking at his paintings one can have hope for the future.

After my relaxing year with Fred and Dorothea I went off to Stanford University to major in American history. I never went back to Philadelphia to live, although I did go to visit my parents. It was much more convenient for me to spend my short vacations from college in San Diego and I enjoyed my time with my uncle and aunt. When World War II began I left Stanford and returned to San Diego to work for Ryan Aeronautical Company and once again I was living at “Deep Hearth.” We shared the blackouts and the rationing of the war years. My uncle, recalling his own war experiences, watched the progress of the war with great concern. He became the block leader for organizing the neighborhood in case of emergency. Every night he listened to the war news on the radio with great distress.

During this time I was being courted by a young Episcopal priest name the Rev. C. Boone Sadler, Jr. We were married at All Saint’s Episcopal Church on September 4, 1942, and our wedding reception was held at “Deep Hearth.” We moved to La Mesa where he had been assigned to take charge of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. We remained there for eleven years, and all five of our children were born while we were there. We were still close enough to Fred and Dorothea in San Diego that we saw them for family holidays; our children were like grandchildren to them. In 1953 my husband became Rector of St. Luke’s of the Mountains in La Crescenta and we moved there. Even then we managed to visit the Mitchells, to see his latest paintings, and to visit his exhibitions. Geographically, I was closer to them than any of his other nieces and nephews. When his health declined I visited him in the hospital and the nursing home. My husband conducted his funeral in November 1972, a short memorial service held in his studio attended by close friends and family. Dorothea lived on alone for thirteen years. When we retired in 1983 and returned to live in San Diego, I was able to visit her two or three times a week. We used to enjoy getting the paintings out of the storeroom and reminiscing about the times when Fred painted them. Eventually she became ill and had to be hospitalized, then transferred to a nursing home. I spent time with her on her last day. She died peacefully in her sleep on October 13, 1985. Again my husband conducted her memorial service in Fred’s studio.

In the years that have followed, it has been my pleasure to see my uncle’s reputation grow, and the value of his paintings increase. Though I regret Fred and Dorothea never saw the prices his paintings sell for today, I have some satisfaction in knowing that at least some of his heirs have lived to see his work so greatly appreciated. I am happy to be able to tell their story. Alfred R. Mitchell not only produced great art, but he promoted art societies in San Diego. He encouraged others and taught a new generation of artists. He was a devoted husband and brother, and to me he was an uncle who gave unconditional love.

Mary Mitchell Sadler is a native San Diegan, born in St. Joseph’s Hospital, the forerunner of Mercy, in 1919. She was a history major at Stanford University, class of 1942. During World War II she worked for Ryan Aeronautical Company. She has been married to the Rev. Canon C. Boone Sadler, Jr. for almost 59 years. The couple has five grown children.

Mitchell’s works shown in this issue of the Journal