Old Town San Diego lays claim as the birthplace of California by merit of Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra’s mission established in 1769. It was the first of 21 permanent Spanish missions and by the 1790s it was the largest. The area’s defensive position was established on Presidio Hill and the town grew up around its base.
Under Mexican rule after 1821, the tiny community gained the status of El Pueblo de San Diego. When Richard Henry Dana published his account of his life at sea in Two Years Before the Mast he described his stop at the port of San Diego in 1835 thusly: “about forty dark brown looking huts...and three or four larger ones, white-washed.”
When California became a part of the United States in 1850 San Diego, with a population of 650, was incorporated as a city and named the county seat of the newly established San Diego County. Still, most visitors moved on up the coast when sailing around Cape Horn and South America. By 1860 the population was only 731.
More ominous for the community was the establishment of “New Town” San Diego four miles to the south and closer to the harbor. The exodus from “Old Town” was so complete that in 1871, government records were moved to a new county courthouse in New Town. The following year a fire crippled what was left of original San Diego. By the 1880s there was no more New Town - it was just San Diego.
Long forgotten Old Town San Diego became an historic park in 1968. Three original adobes were restored and other structures rebuilt. Many are now home to cultural museums, shops and restaurants. Our walking tour of the birthplace of San Diego will begin on the town square that, in the Spanish tradition, was at the center of commercial and social life...
west end of Old Town Plaza
James W. Robinson arrived in San Diego in 1850 from Texas to practice law. During the seven years before he died in October 1857 at the age of 57 Robinson would be the town’s most prominent personality with his fingerprints on politics, business, transportation and anything else important in San Diego. His two-story adobe housed not only his family and his law practice but offices for the San Diego and Gila Railroad and the San Diego Herald as well. After his death businessman Louis Rose, who came with Robinson from Texas, bought the building as a home. A fire in 1874 left the adobe uninhabitable and the building today, serving as a visitor center, is a replica structure. It is said to be haunted with unexplained electrical happenings - it could be related to the discovery 35 years after his death that James Robinson had a secret family back in Ohio that he abandoned when he was in his early twenties and never spoke of again.
WALK ACROSS INTO THE OLD TOWN PLAZA.
First Flag Monument
Old Town Plaza
With California as a prize in the Mexican-American War, Stephen Clegg Rowan was executive officer of the USS Cyane, a single-masted naval sloop that sailed into the port of San Diego on July 29, 1846. Rowan led a platoon of marines on a five-mile march to Old Town Plaza and planted the first United States flag in Southern California here.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE ROBINSON-ROSE HOUSE, WALK DOWN THE RIGHT (SOUTH) SIDE OF THE OLD TOWN PLAZA.
Casa de Machado y Silva
San Diego Avenue, south side of Old Town Plaza
This long, low-slung building began life as a small adobe home constructed by Jose de Machado y Silva in the early 1840s. It grew and was operated as a restaurant for a spell, staying in the family for 100 years. In the past seventy years it has done duty as a church, saloon, art studio, retail shop and is currently operated as a house museum.
Racine and Laramie Store
San Diego Avenue, south side of Old Town Plaza
Alexi Racine and Charles Laramie were Canadians who started selling tobacco products here in 1869. Juan Rodriguez constructed the building as a home on land he received from the Mexican government for military service in the 1830s. It burned with most of the town in 1872 and this is a 1970s reconstruction.
San Diego Avenue, south side of Old Town Plaza
This two-story frame structure opened as a hotel in 1851 but was primarily commercial space until it burned in 1872. In 1993 Wells Fargo & Company rebuilt the wooden building and operated a museum here for awhile.
First San Diego Courthouse
San Diego Avenue, south side of Old Town Plaza
This was the first building in San Diego assembled with kiln-fired bricks, completed in 1847. Until it burned 25 years later, the small brick structure served the community as a town hall, schoolroom and courthouse. It was reconstructed in 1992.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK A FEW STEPS DOWN MASON STREET.
Mason Street School
Mason Street, south of San Diego Avenue
The first classes in San Diego were convened in private homes. That ended in 1865 with the construction of this one-room schoolhouse which handled students from the ages of 4 to 17. By 1872 more space was needed and a new two-story school appeared. San Diego’s first public school building was carted away for use as a residence and then a tamale factory. It escaped demolition in 1946 and was brought back to its original location here.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO OLD TOWN PLAZA AND TURN RIGHT AT SAN DIEGO AVENUE.
Casa de Estudillo
east end of Old Town Plaza at Mason Street
This expansive U-shaped adobe at the center of town dates to 1829, constructed by Captain Jose Maria de Estudillo who commanded the San Diego presidio. The walls range in thickness from three to five feet, the better to support massive beams. The Estudillos stayed until 1887 and the town showcase was restored in 1910 by John Spreckels of the Pacific sugar fortune who, when he died in 1926 at the age of 72, would be eulogized as “one of America’s few great Empire Builders who invested millions to turn a struggling, bankrupt village into the beautiful and cosmopolitan city San Diego is today.”
2616 San Diego Avenue
This was the last adobe built in Old Town and represents two of pioneer California’s most powerful families. Miguel de Pedrorena, was a Spanish ship agent who came to San Diego in 1842 and married into the Estudillo family. He became a merchant and represented the San Diego area in the California State Constitutional Convention in 1849. His son, Miguel de Pedrorena, Jr., pieced together this home in 1869 and then gave the building to his sister, Isabel de Altamirano. Her father-in-law, Jose Antonio Altamarino, was an influential mining magnate and cattle rancher in Mexico and Southern California.
San Diego Union Museum
2602 San Diego Avenue
Miguel de Pedrorena also owned this property and in 1851 he had this single-story wood frame structure prefabricated in Maine and shipped around South America to stand here. In 1868 the first editions of the first newspaper in Southern California, the San Diego Union, were printed here. The Union is still in existence, publishing as the senior member in the San Diego Union-Tribune partnership that began in 1992.
Immaculate Conception Church
2540 San Diego Avenue
This was the first church to be constructed in California that was not part of the historic Spanish mission system. Thaddeus Amat, the Bishop of Monterey, placed the cornerstone in the ground in July 1868, just as the population of Old Town was beginning to shift south to “New Town.” So many people were leaving that construction was halted with the brick walls already having risen to twenty feet. It was not until 1914 that the walls were taken down, the bricks cleaned and reassembled into the present sanctuary. The church that had been planned for in 1848 was finally dedicated on July 16, 1919.
2482 San Diego Avenue at southeast corner of Harney Street
New York-born Thomas Whaley was on the first ship to sail west, the Sutton, for the California Gold Rush in 1849. By 1851 he was peddling cargo from ships up and down the California coast but San Diego grabbed him and he stayed to erect the first two-story brick structure in Southern California. To build it he had to establish San Diego’s first brickyard.
TURN ON HARNEY STREET, WALKING PAST THE WHALEY HOUSE, HEADING NORTH. CROSS JUAN STREET AND TURN RIGHT INTO HERITAGE PARK.
While downtown San Diego was able to reuse and save some of its 19th century commercial buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter there wasn’t as much patience for aging Victorian wooden homes. Hundreds were bulldozed to make way for an expanding modernized city. Seven, however, were rescued and hauled to this county park and restored, preserving the history of San Diego’s Victorian architecture.
Temple Beth Israel
head of Heritage Park Row
Congregation Beth Israel is San Diego’s largest and oldest Jewish congregation, tracing its roots to 1861. This wooden frame temple was erected in 1889 at Second Avenue and Beech Street and is one of the oldest synagogue buildings west of the Mississippi River. The price tag was $3,500. It was used by the congregation until 1926 when it was abandoned for a much-needed larger facility.
Senis Cottage2450 Heritage Park Row
This gabled vernacular cottage was typical of a late 19th century San Diego working class home. Eugene Senlis worked for Kate Sessions, who earned the title of “Mother of Balboa Park” when she orchestrated an arrangement to plant 100 trees every year in exchange for 32 acres of parkland on which to operate her nursery. Sessions grew trees from seeds imported from Europe and South America, some of which are still growing on Old Town Plaza.
2454 Heritage Park Row
John Sherman, a cousin of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and United States Senator John Sherman, known as the “Ohio Icicle,” built this house for $20,000 in the fall of 1887. The striking Stick Style design was provided by Nelson Comstock and Carl Trotsche who were responsible for many of San Diego finest Victorian buildings. Sherman sold the property after only 18 months and in 1897 it was acquired by Augusta Gilbert, widow of lumber baron Alfred H. Gilbert. The Gilberts were active in the Amphion Club which brought renowned musicians and artists to San Diego and many performed in the home including Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, humorist Will Rogers and classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Moved here in 1971, the Sherman-Gilbert House boasts the only authentic widow’s walk in San Diego.
2460 Heritage Park Row
A Tennessee-born Cherokee Indian, Edward Wilkerson Bushyhead came west in the California Gold Rush when he was 18 years old in 1850. He had learned the printing trade in the Cherokee Nation which served him well when mining did not pan out. In 1868 Bushyhead arrived in San Diego with printing equipment in tow and started the San Diego Union with William Jeff Gatewood. The popular “Ned” Bushyhead served as deputy sheriff of San Diego County for about ten years and he built this Italianate-flavored home on the corner of Cedar and Third streets. After his death in 1907 his body was returned to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma.
2465 Heritage Park Row
Henry Guild Burton was born in Vermont in 1846 and received his medical training in New York City. He received an appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant as a first lieutenant and assistant army surgeon in 1876 and rose to the rank of captain by the time he was transferred to the San Diego Barracks on account of his frail health in 1890. He retired in 1892 to private practice and constructed this classically-inspired, sparsely-decorated home in 1893 at the corner of Grape Street and Third Avenue.
2470 Heritage Park Row
This exuberant Queen Anne home from 1889 exhibits many of the hallmarks of the popular picturesque Victorian style including asymmetrical massing, wraparound porch, corner turret and the use of varied textures in building materials. Harfield Timberlake Christian, who started a San Diego title company, built the house on Cedar Street when he was 36 years old.
2490 Heritage Park Row
John McConaughy established the first passenger and freight service between San Diego and Julian using horse-drawn transport. He constructed this two-story Victorian residence on the corner of Cedar and Union streets in 1887. It was later purchased by the Keating family who had owned one of the 19th century’s largest farm equipment companies back in Kansas. George Keating moved to San Diego in 1886 but died two years later.
WALK BACK DOWN THE HILL TO HARNEY STREET AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT ON JUAN STREET.
Mormon Battalion Historic Site
2510 Juan Street at northwest corner of Harney Street
In the 1840s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was lobbying the United States government for assistance in their migration to the Rocky Mountains to escape religious persecution. When President James K. Polk requested a battalion of 500 volunteers to fight in the Mexican War, Mormon leader Brigham Young saw this as a public relations opportunity for the church, demonstrating evidence of its loyalty to the United States. So in July 1846 the only religiously-based unit in American military history set out from Council Bluffs, Iowa to join the bloody fray. When they arrived in San Diego 1,900 miles later the unit, along with 32 women, had completed the longest military march ever. The battalion helped westward expansion but its only action came in Arizona in an affair known as the Battle of the Bulls. A startled herd of cattle rushed the wagon train, wounding two men. In retaliation the Mormons opened fire on the stampeding bulls, slaying ten to fifteen of the bovine enemy.
TURN LEFT ON TWIGGS STREET.
Old Town Theatre
4040 Twiggs Street at northwest corner of Calhoun Street
This restored 248-seat playhouse is home of the Cygnet Theatre Company, founded in 2003 and named for England’s Swan Theatre which was a competitor of William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The Globe has been recreated in Balboa Park several miles away.
TURN RIGHT ON CALHOUN STREET.
Seeley Stable Museum
2630 Calhoun Street
This is a 1970s reconstruction of the stables Albert Seeley built for his stage line between San Diego and Los Angeles. The original barn was raised in 1869 and demolished in the 1920s. The Seeley stagecoach operation lasted until the railroads came in 1887. Now a museum, the barn displays the area’s finest collection of 19th century work vehicles.
2660 Calhoun Street at southeastern corner of Mason Street
The core of this house was built in the late 1820s by Juan Bandini who would hold a number of political offices through the years in San Diego. After financial reversals the crumbling U-shaped adobe was sold to Alfred Seeley for his stage line to Los Angeles, in 1869. Seeley added a second floor and opened the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The building looks much as it did then, having served many masters in the interim including duty as a pickle factory, a store and a restaurant.
northeast corner of Calhoun Street and Mason Street
George Alonzo Johnson operated a steamboat on the Colorado River and ran cattle on a ranch twenty miles from San Diego. He also represented San Diego in the California State Assembly. He constructed this small frame building as a town house for his family in 1869; after losing the ranch in 1880 Johnson moved here full time.
La Casa de Alvarado
Calhoun Street, north side of Old Town Plaza
Francisco Maria Alvarado built a single story adobe here in the early 1830s which he later subdivided for local businesses. You are looking at a 1987 reconstruction by the State of California.
WALK A FEW MORE STEPS TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE WEST END OF OLD TOWN PLAZA.