Mission Hills' weird history

Coffins, gardens, and white folks

Sessions acquired land in Mission Hills (north of Lewis and east of Stephens Street). She planted poinsettias, sea lavender, bougainvillea, blue palms, magnolias, eucalyptus, and monkey puzzle trees. In what is now Palmetto Street, she planted palms.
  • Sessions acquired land in Mission Hills (north of Lewis and east of Stephens Street). She planted poinsettias, sea lavender, bougainvillea, blue palms, magnolias, eucalyptus, and monkey puzzle trees. In what is now Palmetto Street, she planted palms.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Before Captain Henry James “Ninety Fathom” Johnston plunked down $16.25 for 65 acres of prime Mission Hills real estate in 1869, the area was a wasteland of weeds, scrub, and chaparral; a “hopeless tangle of barren hills and ugly holes,” according to one early observer. Up to this time, only 40 Kumeyaay Indian families inhabited the land in an encampment they called Cosoy. Beyond their small village was abundant game—rabbits, opossum, deer, antelope, sheep, and raccoon—which the Kumeyaay skillfully hunted.

By the 1920s, Mission Hills was in the throes of a “Spanish Colonial Revival” epidemic. Streets were now lined with white-washed stucco homes sporting low-pitched roofs, decorative ironwork, tiled floors and walls.

By the 1920s, Mission Hills was in the throes of a “Spanish Colonial Revival” epidemic. Streets were now lined with white-washed stucco homes sporting low-pitched roofs, decorative ironwork, tiled floors and walls.

Ninety Fathom Johnston was familiar with this area—at least from afar. He was the skipper of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s sidewheeler, the S.S. Orizaba, which regularly shuttled passengers and cargo from Oakland to San Diego. As he’d steer the Orizaba into San Diego Bay, he’d look up at the towering promontory, full of hills and valleys, and fantasize about abandoning sea life to settle there. Although Ninety Fathom eventually claimed a large patch of this land as his own, he died before he could erect his dream home. His widow inherited his holdings, and she in turn bequeathed it to their daughter, Sarah Johnston Cox.

In 1872, Cyrus Arnold, a dry goods merchant, and Daniel Choate, an attorney/real estate developer, purchased their own tract near Ninety Fathom’s purchase. They called their subdivision “Arnold & Choate’s Addition.” It ran from Arbor Drive in the north to Randolph Street in the west to Curlew Street in the east and University Avenue in the south. No homes had been built in the area yet; the first major “construction job” in Mission Hills would be a vast cemetery—a posthumous “home” for San Diego’s early founders.

On the hill overlooking Old Town, Spanish-born Father Antonio Ubach (“the last of the California padres”) mapped out a ten-acre cemetery in 1874 because the Old Town cemetery in the valley below had nearly reached capacity. San Diego leaders would later divide the new cemetery into two five-acre plots: a northern cemetery for Protestants and a southern one, later christened Calvary Cemetery, for Catholics. Over the next 70 years, at least 1650 souls would be laid to rest in the Catholic section of the cemetery; the Protestant tract would never be used for burials, however.

It was not until 1886 that Sarah Johnston Cox, Ninety Fathom’s daughter, focused attention on her inherited Mission Hills acreage, which extended from Sunset Boulevard in the north to Arguello Street in the east to Witherby Street in the west, plus a few “odd-shaped” blocks in the south. She renamed the area “Johnston Heights” and the following year commenced construction on asprawling Victorian home at the highest point of her land’s southern slope. Coincidentally, at the time, her father’s beloved ship was being dismantled in San Francisco. Johnston Cox retrieved pieces of the ship, including its saloon’s sideboard and companion way railing, and used the timber and ornamentation to complete “Villa Orizaba,” her new residence.

The house was unique. It boasted a gabled roof and covered front porch and shiplap siding, stylish shingles, and lathe-turned ornaments. Johnston Cox painted it a flamboyant Tuscan red, trimmed with green. It would remain the only home in the Mission Hills area for several years.

“Commuting” to San Diego’s shopping district for Johnston Cox and her ilk was a challenging task. They traveled by horse and carriage down the precipitous grade to Old Town, then boarded a steam train to Fifth Avenue and L Street, then took a horsecar or trudged by foot through the dust and mud to Marston’s Store on F Street. This one-way trip (made by car today in ten minutes) took the Johnston Coxes over an hour. Sixteen years after Sarah Johnston Cox assumed residence in Johnston Heights, she greeted her first neighbor. Schoolteacher-turned-horticulturist Kate O. Sessions (who came to San Diego from Oakland aboard the Orizaba in 1884) had been forced to “uproot” her experimental nursery and botanical gardens from San Diego’s City Park (later renamed Balboa Park) in 1903, after the city’s planning commission, led by Julius Wagenheim and George Marston, informed her that roads and trails would soon be constructed through the park’s 1400 acres.

Hoping to ensure she would not have to move again (this would not be the case), Sessions acquired a tract of land in distant Mission Hills (north of Lewis and east of Stephens Street) and set up her sales office and yard. She would remain at this location until 1928, when she ran out of space and was forced to move again—this time to Pacific Beach.

Upon her newly acquired acreage Sessions planted poinsettias, sea lavender, bougainvillea, blue palms, magnolias, eucalyptus, and monkey puzzle trees. In the area that is now Palmetto Street, she also planted palms. At the end of Lark Street, she built lath houses and a packing house. Sessions situated her own home at the northern corner of what is now Montecito and Lark. And because she abhorred “glaring” white cement sidewalks, she persuaded city officials to tint the sidewalks surrounding her home brick red. Sessions’ brother Frank became Kate’s next-door neighbor soon after. He’d been raising performing steers that could balance on teeter-totters and do tricks before crowds. But once he’d established residence in Mission Hills, he let his steers graze among the canyons by his home.

Wealthy businessman John D. Spreckels, owner of San Diego’s electric streetcar company, was an acquaintance of the Sessionses. Kate prevailed upon him to extend a streetcar line to her nursery; at the time, only one perilous dirt road beside a canyon ridge led jittery customers to her sales yard. Spreckels agreed, provided that Sessions convince city planners to grade and widen the rugged thoroughfare. He was a staunch believer that “transportation determined the flow of population.” Over the years, he’d learned that many of his most lucrative lines ended at “attractions” like the nursery/botanical gardens of Kate Sessions.

With flower shop employee Alice Rainford, Sessions drove her horse and buggy to various property owners’ residences, gathering signatures for a petition to improve the area's road system. She collected enough signatures to spur city planners into action. Soon, Spreckels’ No. 3 Fifth Street car line’s route was extended to the juncture of Lewis and Stephens Streets, where Kate Sessions’ nursery stood. (By 1916, this line would extend even farther to Fort Stockton Drive and Trias Street.)

As visitations to the area increased, other small shops sprouted near Sessions’ nursery. Investors, aware that the streetcar lines would soon extend to the heart of Mission Hills territory, began to snap up lots north of Johnston Heights.

In 1904, the prescient Sarah Johnston Cox urged Pacific Beach developer Oscar Cotton to consider subdividing her property, then selling the resultant lots for $1000 each. She took the skeptical Cotton to her home, where he stood knee-deep in greasewood and dust, studying the windswept, still-inaccessible expanse. He finally told Johnston Cox that he would not undertake such a venture. “I thought the property too far out ever to amount to much in my lifetime,” he later recalled in an interview with a San Diego paper.

Fortunately Charles Gordon, C.H. Swallows, N.M. Goodwin, and his son, Percy Goodwin (sometimes called “The Big Four”) were more optimistic about Mission Hills. They formed a syndicate to purchase 60 acres to the north of Sarah Johnston Cox’s property, proffering $36,000 for the land—$600 an acre. Their new tract, called the “Mission Hills Subdivision,” extended roughly from Mission Valley in the north to Witherby and Stephens before terminating in the hills above Old Town.

The Big Four hoped to transform their new real estate purchase into one of San Diego’s most prestigious residential districts, stipulating in their deeds that no home valued below $3500 could be erected on their subdivision. (At the time, bungalows cost $2500, a four-bedroom brick house, $4500.)

From a downtown office, the syndicate partners took turns chauffeuring potential Mission Hills residents in Stanley Steamers (which “sped” along at 12 to 15 miles per hour) to their subdivision at the top of the hill. The partners handed interested customers brochures that promised the nascent development would be a “first-class community” devoid of hotels, apartments, theaters, schools, churches, and poultry ranches. The tract would also be “whites only”—according to Restriction No. 15 of the partners’ deeds. Excluded from residency would be “any person not belonging to the Caucasian race, as owner, lessee, or tenant. nor in any other capacity, except as servant.”

Sales of the Big Four’s lots were brisk—and just as lucrative as the men had hoped. What they had bought for $600 an acre sold within weeks for $800. Two years later, at least one of the Big Four’s tracts would net $6500.

The Big Four’s subdivision, the environs that later became part of Mission Hills, continued to transform. A citrus grove was planted along Trias Street; an olive orchard took shape on Fort Stockton Drive. Beyond that, two small dairy and chicken farms were built; their owners carted milk in wagons along a dirt path named Canyon Road (now Allen Road).

By now, the era of the automobile was dawning. Along the old, craggy road that extended from Fourth and University into Old Town, and northward over hillocks and hollows toward Mission Hills, travelers in horse-and-buggy would pass stranded motorists beside their automobiles, some stuck in mud, others with punctured tires, and still others stricken with mysterious mechanical problems.

In 1908, another syndicate, composed of George Marston, Charles Hamilton, Elisha Babcock, and John Kelly, purchased 22 acres from cash-strapped Kate Sessions, who had been forced to sell off the property surrounding her nursery to remain solvent. The men hired New York architect George Cooke to lay out their tract. Then they filed what would be the first Mission Hills map with the San Diego County Recorder’s Office.

Marston and his colleagues were also responsible for naming many streets in the area. As new homes were built, new roads were created for better access. Some streets (such as Hawk and Dove) were named for birds. Others, such as Arden Street, named for the “Arden forest” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, had more capricious origins. Most were named for prominent early San Diegans: Arguello Way, for the prominent Spanish landholding family that settled at the lower end of San Diego Bay, Couts Street, for Cave lohnson Couts, son-in-law of Juan Bandini, the army lieutenant who mapped Old Town’s streets; Juan Street and Bandini Street, also named after Juan Bandini; Fort Stockton Drive for Commodore Robert Stockton, commander of California’s coastal military operations; Kettner Boulevard, for Congressman William Kettner; Pringle Street, for one of San Diego’s first police officers, George Pringle; Puterbaugh Street, for Judge George Puterbaugh, who allegedly banished the “ladies of the evening” from San Diego’s Stingaree District; Robinson Street, for Alfred Robinson, author of Life in California Before the Conquest.

Inspired by George Marston’s success, Harry Leverett Miller, grandson of Ninety Fathom Johnston, resubdivided the area surrounding Sarah Johnston Cox’s beloved Villa Orizaba and renamed the district Inspiration Heights. Within its limits, Johnston Avenue became Sunset Avenue, and the street that led to Villa Orizaba became, appropriately, Orizaba Street.

Majestic two-story mansions in a variety of architectural styles—Eastern-influenced, Tudor, Italianate, and Spanish Colonial—were built beside smaller, humbler California bungalows. The larger homes, landscaped with scores of trees and shrubs planted by new homeowners, served as able windbreaks for the residents and their livestock.

Three architects—Irving Gill, Richard Requa, and William Templeton Johnson—contributed to Mission Hills’ eclectic personality. Gill popularized the broad-roofed. Mission-style home that became ubiquitous throughout Mission Hills in the 1920s. Requa, Gill’s former associate, also built in this style; Requa s house at 4346 Valle Vista (1911) still stands today. And Johnson, the Italianate/Romanesque-inspired creator of the Natural History Museum and downtown’s main library and post office, built an impressive home for himself at 4520 Trias Street; this, too, remains standing.

By the 1920s, Mission Hills was in the throes of a “Spanish Colonial Revival” epidemic, which ignited after architects Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslowpresented such buildings at the 1915 San Diego Exhibition. Mission Hills’ streets were now lined with white-washed stucco homes sporting low-pitched roofs, decorative ironwork, tiled floors and walls, and formal tropical gardens. T.F. and Katherine Carter were two developers who’d been bitten by the Spanish Colonial Revival bug. They purchased a tract at what later would be Randolph Terrace and specified in their deeds that only “Spanish-type" homes, with white walls and red-tile roofs, could be built upon their land.

Sunset Boulevard also experienced great development in the 1920s. By 1927, the thoroughfare boasted 39 homes, most of them palatial manors. E.T. Guymon, Sr., made rich by real estate and railroad investments, erected a 10,000-square-foot, 28-room estate at 2055 Sunset. Architect John McKnight built a home the size of a castle at 2031 Sunset, which was later purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego as a residence for its bishop.

A thriving business district soon bustled along Goldfinch and Washington Streets. But after the Depression hit in 1929, building in the area declined. Some smaller homes timidly took their place beside their more statuesque neighbors, adding to the neighborhood’s eclectic character. In 1939, the Catholic Church relinquished its rights to Calvary Cemetery in order to secure WPA (Work Projects Administration) funds for the construction of an adobe wall surrounding the plot. The cemetery, deprived of its maintenance funds and neglected by government officials, slipped into disrepair. It remained untended for the next 38 years.

Mission Hills’ position overlooking San Diego Bay proved useful to American defense strategists during World War II. Soldiers set up military emplacements throughout the area and erected an observation post in the statuary garden of Union Street homeowner Al Wuest. A “barrage balloon” was kept at the foot of the Redwood Street hill at India Street; every evening it would be raised to the skies, trailing nets and ropes, in order to entangle any enemy aircraft that might stray into its path.

Following the war came an era of prosperity. Shops, delicatessens, and restaurants sprung up in Mission Hills, particularly along Lewis Street. Mission Hills’ residential district now had 26 subdivisions owned by land-holding corporations and individuals.

In 1960, a Tijuana citizen, Guadalupe Ramos, petitioned San Diego city officials to disinter four bodies that remained buried at the neglected Calvary Cemetery; a Mexican general and three Mexican soldiers, all killed in battle at Tijuana on May 9, 1911. Eventually Ramos’ request was granted. The four men’s graves were located and opened so that their identities could be confirmed. Each corpse, still clad in shreds of old uniform, held a crucifix.

Citizen complaints about the garbage-strewn cemetery increased. A local newspaper labeled Calvary “one of the city’s biggest disgraces—a carpet of overturned headstones, beer cans, and broken bottles.” Vandals defiled the cemetery’s graves; students used the grounds as a picnic spot, lover’s lane, and “partying” site. Beautification steps finally began, and by 1977, the site was transformed into what is now Pioneer Park. The land was cleared of litter, headstones were moved to the southeast corner of the park (and others transferred to Mount Hope Cemetery), and graves were relocated to other cemetery locations in the county.

As Mission Hills came into its maturity, grassroots movements formed to stem future commercialization and density. When Green Manor, a 13-story high-rise apartment building for senior citizens, was erected at 4041 Ibis Street in the early ’70s, citizens rallied for—and were granted—a 30-foot height limitation restriction for all new buildings. In 1985, the San Diego City Council enacted the West Lewis Street Planned District Ordinance, which preserved the quaint atmosphere of the street while permitting a convenient shopping site for locals.

Today, the neighborhood retains a comfortable small- town atmosphere. Homes averaging $366,100 are well-tended and attractive. The population is a yuppified blend of young couples, families, and senior citizens, 95 percent of whom are white (contrasted with California’s overall Caucasian population, which is only 58 percent white). Verdant landscaping—pines, eucalyptus, acacias, junipers, and star-jasmine groundcover (some of it planted by Kate Sessions herself) contributes to the village’s “casual chic” ambiance. The predominantly older, Spanish-style residences and lush gardenscaping lend the district a romantic agelessness; it could be 1937 or 1957 or 1997—were the new Mercedes sedans and family Volvos obscured from sight. Crime rates are low compared with those of other similarly sized San Diego communities; nonetheless, citizens remain vigilant. Neighborhood Watch signs are posted on almost every main thoroughfare.

What endears Mission Hills to its citizens is its enduring past. Its history is visible in its extant buildings and plantings, in its diverse architecture styles, and in its colorful street names. Perhaps even Kate Sessions and Sarah Johnston Cox would have enjoyed living among its current residents.

Susan Vaughn is a regular contributor to the L.A. Times and co-author of Los Angeles: Realm of Possibility.

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