Sometimes it seems as though the history of San Diego began with the invention of pastel stucco. The residential heritage of the city consists largely of rows of nondescript stucco boxes, with an occasional white-frame box thrown in for variety. If one looks hard enough, though, it’s possible to find exceptions, but they are vanishing.
Halfway up the hill to Mission Hills is one of those exceptions. Plopped down in the middle of an otherwise drab residential neighborhood on the fringes of Mission Hills and Old Town is a rambling, block-long gingerbread house shrouded in vines and vegetation. The redwood shingle structure, snaking along the side of the hill at Titus Street, between Pringle and McKee, seems out of place. It would be more at home in a secluded mountain valley, but there it is — on the side of a hill a bit too close to the roar of Interstate 5 and Lindbergh Field.
It is called the Hillside Colony, or just the Colony. It is a reminder that there is in fact a rich heritage to the neighborhoods of San Diego, if one just knows where to look. These cool evenings the air is smoky from the fires burning in the fireplaces of most of the twenty-five apartments. And the vegetation that lines the walkways and the patios within the Colony is a lush green from recent rains.
But closer inspection reveals the rough spots around the edges. The garages at the far end have become dilapidated, and in places the landscaping is overgrown. The shingles are faded and in places disintegrating. The truth is that it has become a slightly disheveled collection of apartments with a slightly disheveled collection of tenants. And lime is running out on the Colony. The residents have all been notified that by April 15 they must move out. New owners plan to bring in heavy equipment then to make the soil borings that will help determine a new use for this stretch of valuable residential property, with its view of San Diego Bay and Point Loma. They say they are not sure just what that use will be, but one thing is fairly certain: it will no longer be quaint little apartments, covered with vines, where the rents range from $110 to $ 175 a month. Within a matter of months, all or part of the Hillside Colony will probably be gone.
Nearly everyone who has lived in or around the Colony has heard a story about its history: the first buildings went up in 1902, or maybe it was 1915. Definitely no later than 1917. or is it 1918? Some think it used to be an artists' colony; others argue more forcefully that while some artistic people may have lived there, that is not why it is called the Colony. There’s a rumor it was once a nudist colony, but most people doubt that. There’s also talk that when Rosarito Beach and the Coronado Islands were gambling spas, the rich and famous from Hollywood would spend the night at the Colony on their way to and from Mexico. Some say Edna St. Vincent Millay lived there for a year or so when she was young. And a beautiful blond starlet, once married to actor Franchot Tone, spent her fading years at the Colony before she finally committed suicide.
The distinctions between fact and embellishment have been blurred by time, but certain things seem clear. In its early years, the Colony was owned by Ann MacDonald Steffes, a large, tough, independent woman. She may have been artistic, and she may have encouraged artistic people to live in the Colony, but mainly it was simply a piece of income property. She took special care of the Colony and its tenants, but she was much more a landlady than a patron of the arts.
Among the first Colony buildings were a barracks and a recreation room bought from the Army and moved to the site from Camp Kearny, one of the southwest’s main marshaling points for troops in World War I. Over roughly the next twenty years, Mrs. Steffes slowly added to the Colony.
She employed a carpenter, who, under her personal direction, built small cabins and little additions, each one costing no more than $450 to construct. She furnished them with antique fixtures and furniture culled from estate auctions and rummage sales. Rooms rented for fifteen to twenty-five dollars a month. She painstakingly landscaped the site and transformed the entire block into a garden. Tekla Mollenhauer remembers Mrs. Steffes’ Colony as something unique even then. Mollenhauer grew up in Europe, the daughter of a commercial attache. When the family returned to the States in 1937, they stopped in San Diego on their way to Portland. The family found the Colony, and never did make it to Portland. “The Colony always made me think of the Europe I knew,’’ says Mollenhauer, who lived there for seventeen years.
The story goes that sometime around World War II, Mrs. Steffes’ health began to decline. The residents of the Colony would take turns caring for her, and there was hope that when she died, she would leave the Colony to the tenants. That was not the case, and in the years after her death the Colony passed through a succession of owners. Some had more feeling for it than others, but gradually it lost some of its charm. The antiques began to disappear with each departing tenant, 'and now few of the original furnishings remain. Then, in the 1960s, the “hippies” took over. The rich wood interiors gave way to day-glow graphics, and the landscaping was neglected. Neighbors complained that the Colony was becoming an eyesore and the tenants were little more than vandals. In the surrounding neighborhood, there is still some resentment toward the Colony that dates from the Sixties.
In the Seventies, however, the Colony made something of a comeback. New, more stable residents moved in and began to take more pride in their home. The psychedelic interiors were redone; the ravaged vegetation was slowly reborn. Today most residents have lived in the Colony at least a few years, some nearly twenty years. They are an eclectic lot. There’s a goldsmith and some teachers and a sand-casting sculptor and a woman truck driver and a tuna fisherman and a yacht broker and a beautician and an electrologist and an attorney and more. There have been gays and drug dealers and students and a “kept man.” There are people in nine-to-five jobs, but there are many for whom the low rent provides the freedom for other uses of their time. Some wouldn't think of working full time, and some just want the choice to work or not work as they please. “We might be bums in our own ways,” explains Kathleen Mazur, who first moved into the Colony in 1965, “but we all have a little bit of talent and a little bit of education .” Mazur, a registered electrologist, lives in a spartan cabin off to one corner of the Colony, the fifth Colony apartment she has lived in. “We’re all generally into imaginative and casual living, where we can be on our own, ” she says. “It seems we’re all rugged individualists. We tend to be loners.” But they all find a common bond in being a part of the Colony. They know that their collection of apartments, with its gardens and walkways, is something rare in a time when a community has come to mean an apartment complex with a rec room, tennis courts, and Jacuzzi. “Here we are, in the middle of a very busy city, at the convergence of a couple of freeways and Lindbergh Field, but we can walk in and be totally removed from it,” says resident Chris Daniels. “It’s like a little never-never land.” They know there is a price to pay for this unique lifestyle. They know the roof may leak, the stove or the plumbing could go out. and the repairs may be little more than temporary. They know that for years the Colony has skirted condemnation, and that it would be virtually impossible to bring everything up to present building and electrical codes. One resident jokes that all the neighbors should rally to save the Colony because if it is torn down, the termites will have to go elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Still, to the very end there has been a waiting list of about forty people wanting to live in the Colony. And most were not waiting just because the rent was dirt cheap. Most people who have moved into the Colony have followed a similar pattern: they stumbled on to it one day and they fell in love. They inquired, put their names on the waiting list, and if they were patient enough or persistent enough, they finally were offered an apartment. There is something of a hierarchy to the Colony, so usually the newest tenant has to start in one of the smallest units. Like the “Foxhole.” The Foxhole is set down a step from ground level and consists of two rooms. The main room has about enough space for a bed and one chair. The second room consists of a kitchen sink crammed into one corner, a shower stall in the middle, and a toilet at the far end, which is reached by walking through the shower. It is tiny, but it is charming in its own way.
There is a small loft space suspended from the ceiling of the main room, and two skylights let in the afternoon sun. Outside is a private, latticed garden that in summer serves as an extra room.
Few of the apartments are larger than one bedroom, but as the ones that are larger than closets open up, they are usually filled by Colony residents, and everyone moves up a notch, leaving another tiny apartment to be filled by a newcomer. Each apartment has its own unusual features and unique charm. And some long-time residents have spent good money — $2000 to $8000 — to make themselves a home.
But for years they have heard rumors that the Colony might be sold, and they have worried about their future. At one point they even considered trying to band together and see if they could buy the Colony themselves, but that idea fell through. Late last year they heard the rumors again. A deal for the sale of the Colony was in escrow. On February 21, escrow closed, and a few days later all tenants were given notice to vacate the Colony by April 15.
The new owner is Western Investment Company, a group formed four years ago that specializes in the development, sale, and exchange of residential income property. Company officials cautiously speak in generalities about their plans for the Colony. “Our main interest is to retain the integrity of the Hillside Colony,” says Charles Richardson, one of the partners in the venture. “It’s not our intention to demolish the whole thing.” But Richardson is not about to look at the Colony as some sacred landmark, either. “Take a good, objective look at it.” he says. “Some people have done very nice things to their apartments, but some apartments you wouldn’t want to live in.”
Richardson’s partner, Daniel Whitaker, has talked to some of the residents, who say Whitaker has told them he can’t be sure exactly what will be done until the soil tests are conducted. He told them he loves the Colony, he loves its setting. He wants to live there and he wants other members of his family to live there, too. But that doesn’t mean the Colony can stay as it is. One plan, he told them, is to put up townhouses, maybe thirty units. They would be made of wood — not stucco — and they would be sensitive to the surroundings. There would be a stream running through the site and a gazebo and a Jacuzzi and underground parking. The townhouses would sell for $90,000 to $ 100,000.
As a group, the tenants of the Colony are not the type of people to be in the market for $100,000 condominiums. “A lot of us living here are just hanging on,” admits Chris Daniels, and of course they don’t want to leave. Some tenants want to organize to save the Colony, or at least to put off their eviction for a few more months. They have held a couple of Sunday-night meetings to plan strategies, but attendance has been poor and progress limited. So far, they have proved mainly that the Colony is a collection of individualists and that working together is hardly one of their strong points. There is an undercurrent of resentment among the residents, with some complaining that others are more concerned with the inconvenience of having to move than with saving the Colony.
And there is a stronger feeling that attempts to hold on to the Colony as they know it are futile. Some residents have checked into their legal rights and found they have no recourse. Some have checked into historic preservation and found the colony is not historic enough. No famous architect designed the Colony; no presidents slept there; no historic events took place at its doorstep. That does not mean, however, that there is no outside interest in saving the Colony. Carol Lindemulder, president of Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO), says that when she was told late last year that the Colony might be sold, she tried unsuccessfully to find a buyer interested in preserving it. Now she says she will contact the new owners to sec if they can be convinced al least to keep a portion of the Colony intact.
But it’s not something to which SOHO can give a high priority. “It’s a shame. It’s definitely a shame, but unfortunately, there arc not enough people to fight to save everything, so you have to concentrate on what you know you can win,” Lindemulder says.
The Colony is not a particularly good fight because even some of its admirers agree its time may have passed. “It has sort of outlived its usefulness. I’m afraid,” says resident Daniels. “I realize any new owner would have to bring everything up to code, and that may be impossible. But I would be happy to hold on for a few more months to enjoy it a little longer.” The residents all know its faults too well, and many blame the old owners for not spending the money years ago on upkeep that would have made the Colony acceptable by today’s strict guidelines.
Within the neighborhood, there is some ambivalence about the Colony. There are fond memories of its past, but the present is another story.
Clinton Johnson has lived next door to the Colony for thirty-two years and was an admirer for much of that time. But he, like some of his neighbors, is surprised there would be any historic interest in the Colony, and he will not be too sad to see it go. “I think the owners have gotten their money out of it many times over,” Johnson says. “As far as it being an asset to the community, that time ran out years ago.”
Other neighbors are more positive about the Colony, but they are generally resigned to the fact that the Hillside Colony may no longer be an economically sound proposition. That doesn’t make it any easier, however, on the people who have made the Colony their home.
Some of them cried when they were told they would have to leave. They cried about the loss of a community and an environment that cannot be replaced. These are truly handmade homes, in a setting that is a welcome retreat from the bustling world. Weeks after the termination notices went out, Kathleen Mazur would still get misty-eyed at the thought of giving up the Colony after fifteen years. She sat on the sofa in her small cabin, a box of Kleenex at her side, and talked about the small touches, the rich wood, the fireplaces, the oddly placed windows, the built-in bookcases and tables and furniture that date back to the time of Mrs. Steffes. “It’s always been sort of like playing house,” she said. “Now it’s going away and we’ll all have to grow up.”