California history began near Old Town San Diego where the first homes and businesses outside the presidio were built. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is the biggest attraction in San Diego’s Old Town at the southern end of Mission Valley. Nearby Heritage Park has restored Victorian architecture and Presidio Park overlooking Old Town features the Junipero Serra Museum.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
California life during the Mexican to early American periods, 1821–1872, is recreated in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park — the most visited state park in California. The restoration and stabilization of historic adobes and other buildings began when the area became a state historic park in 1968. Admission to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park museums and buildings is free. Here are some highlights of what you can see when visiting.
La Casa de Estudillo — 1827
LaCasa de Estudillo was built by Jose Antonio Estudillo, the son of Captain Jose Maria de Estudillo, commander of the San Diego Presidio. Jose Antonio, his wife, the former Maria Victoria Dominguez, and their seven sons and five daughters lived here along with other members of the family until 1887.
La Casa de Estudillo was turned over to a caretaker in 1887 who sold its tiles, locks, doors and windows. In 1910 architect Hazel W. Waterman supervised the restoration of the house with funds provided by the Spreckels family. Because it was converted at that time into a commercial venture called “Ramona’s Marriage Place,” this building was influential in increasing popularity of Mission Revival architecture and the “Ramona” legend though it may not have been the actual spot referred to in Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel.
The U-shaped house is built with dried mud adobe bricks, heavy wood beams and sienna-hued clay-tiled floors. Furnishings provided with the assistance of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America include authentic Spanish and Victorian furnishings. On view in various rooms throughout the adobe are heavy wooden dressers, beds and armoires, fine linens, silver and clayware.
A kitchen is stocked with antique tools and utensils though it is most likely that all cooking took place outdoors much like in the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street in Los Angeles. A small, windowless room serves as a representation of a chapel. It contains an altar covered with ornate gold-plated candelabras and crucifixes. Several of La Casa de Estudillo’s rooms are purported to be haunted.
The garden enclosed in the U-shaped building has palm trees, flowering succulents, citrus trees and other desert-friendly plants. Plantings have been restored to those planted by Jose Antonio Estudillo, who was a botanist by hobby, replacing those planted as a romantic setting for “Ramona’s Marrage Place.” Fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, spices and flowers were grown in the past for family use.
La Casa de Bandini — 1829
Juan Bandini married Dolores Estudillo daughter of Jose Maria Estudillo in 1822. He built La Casa de Bandini across Calhoun Street from La Casa de Estudillo, completing it in 1929. Though born and educated in Lima, Peru Bandini became a Mexican citizen after traveling to California in 1819 with his father who was the master of a trading vessel. A charming public speaker, fluent writer, excellent dancer, fair musician and fine horseman, Bandini was also involved in early San Diego and California politics. Financial losses required the sale of the building sometime before 1869. The new owner, Alfred Seeley, added a second story and reopened it as the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The building also served as a store, pickle factory and motel annex. It now holds a Mexican restaurant by the same name. Plans are underway to restore Casa Bandini/Cosmopolitan Hotel to its 1869 appearance including the removal of the stucco from the second story.
The Seeley Stable
After Alfred (Albert) Lewis Seeley purchased the LaCasa de Bandini and converted it into the Cosmopolitan Hotel he built a stable barn next to it. The building currently on the site is a reconstruction of the original. Born in Illinois in 1822 and a stagecoach driver since the age of 17, Seeley started the United States Mail Stage line. The Cosmopolitan Hotel and stables served as a depot for that stage line. Seeley Stable Museum contains western memorabilia donated by Roscoe E. (Pappy) Hazard. Displays on the ground floor include two restored large tandem freight wagons from the Roscoe Hazard collection and a carreta (ox cart)—the oldest vehicle in the state park collection.
The upstairs loft has an extensive collection of Native American artifacts — most of which are not specific to Southern California. Covered Wagons, a Blacksmith Shop and a Wood Shop are highlights of the back courtyard. Roscoe E. Hazard (1881–1975) constructed many of the highways in southern California. Bridge 57-619, at Adams Avenue in San Diego county built in 1970, is named the “Roscoe E. Hazard Memorial Bridge.”
Colorado House — 1851
In 1850 Cave Johnson Couts began construction of the Colorado House across the Plaza from the home of his good friend, Juan Bandini. Ysidora Bandini, Jaun Bandini’s daughter became Cave J. Couts wife. When open in 1851, hotel rooms were available for $15 per month. Couts had come to San Digeo at the age of twenty-eight, a U.S. Army Lieutenant of Dragons to provide protection for the Boundary Commission. The Colorado House burned in 1872. It was reconstructed in 1992 and now houses the Wells Fargo Museum. Wells Fargo opened its first office in San Francisco on July 13, 1852. In April 1861 Wells Fargo took charge of the western end — California to Salt Lake City — of the Pony Express route to keep it running.
Robinson-Rose House — 1853
When James W. Robinson — a Texas lawyer who once had served as provisional governor of that territory in the days leading up to Texas’s Independence War with Mexico — built this two-story building in 1853 it was the commercial center of Old Town serving as his family residence, the home of the San Diego Herald, the San Diego and Gila Railroad Office and numerous other stores and private offices. Robinson’s wife Sarah — the first Anglo woman to come here — sold the building in 1868, having maintained it since James death in 1857, to a long-time family friend, ambitious entrepreneur and first Jewish settler in San Diego Louis Rose. Rose had traveled to San Diego from El Paso, Texas in the same wagon train as James and Sarah Robinson. Fire destroyed part of this building’s roof in 1874. An impressive Old Town San Diego circa 1872 diorama is now on display in the Robinson-Rose House.
Mason Street School — 1865
School was in session year-round and was free and open to all children at the Mason Street School. Its first teacher, Mary Chase Walker, was paid $65 a month and the building featured such modern amenities as an iron stove for heat and a water bucket and dipper for plumbing. The one room Mason Street School was San Diego’s first public school. San Diego Historical Days Association now operates the historical landmark, holding ongoing adult education classes on California history. Desks made around the turn of the century fill the small class room.
Racine and Laramie — 1830s
A home was built on this spot in the 1830s by Juan Rodriguez, a leather jacket soldier stationed at the Spanish presidio who had been given the land as compensation for military service. The Rodriguez home burned in the fire of 1872. San Diego’s first cigar store opened here in 1868-69 where Racine and Laramie sold “cigars, tobacco, stationery and furnishing goods.” The building is now furnished with period pieces to recreate that store.
Johnson House — 1869?
George Alonzo Johnson, who had gained some fame as a Colorado River steamboat operator, built this house around 1869, possibly as an office for one of his brothers or as a convenient Old Town residence for his wife Estafana. The Johnsons lived on the Penasquitos Rancho — the first private rancho, granted by the Mexican government in 1823 — about 20 miles away. Johnson was elected to the State Assembly in 1863 and again in 1865, He was appointed Collector of the Port of San Diego in 1883. Deteriorating finances forced the sale of the Penasquitos Ranch in 1980 and the Johnson family moved into this Old Town house where they lived until his death in 1903.
Plaza del Pasado (formerly Bazaar del Mundo) Plaza del Pasado is a collection of restaurants and shops located near one corner of Historic Old Town Historic Park. While the main entrance is on Juan Street the Plaza del Pasadocan be entered from the Plaza. There are galleries, gift shops, a book store, collectables and more in addition to a couple of food to go and several highly rated restaurants in Plaza del Pasado.
Old Town San Diego
There are a number of historic buildings outside the State Historic Park in Old Town including the Adobe Chapel. The Adobe Chapel was the first parochial church in the first parish of California after the secularization of the missions in 1832. The home of John Brown on Conde Street in Old Town was bought by Don Jose Aguirre in 1858 Thomas Whaley established the first brick yard in San Diego to complete in 1859 what is now the oldest brick structure in San Diego, The Whaley House.
The home, located at 2482 San Diego Avenue, was filled with mahogany and rosewood furniture, damask drapes, and Brussels carpets. The County of San Diego purchased the Whaley House in 1956 and began a major renovation of the property.
The Save Our Heritage Organisation assumed the stewardship of the property for the County of San Diego in September of 2000. Some believe the house to be haunted. The Church of the Immaculate Conception is located near the northwest end of San Diego Avenue. Although the cornerstone was laid in 1868 the movement of the community to ‘New Town’ in 1872 caused the church to lose its parishioners and it wasn’t dedicated until 1919. Today the church serves about 300 families in the Old Town area. Immaculate Conception Church stands on a corner just outside Old Town State Historic Park.
The Boosters of Old Town (BOOT) is a nonprofit organization which supports Old Town San Diego State Historic Park with interpretive programs and sponsorship of activities reflecting life in San Diego from 1820–1872.
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