Painted Lady

From many neighborhoods in San Diego, you can look out and see other neighborhoods. That’s how it is in a city of hills. When I lived on Boundary Street, in North Park, I could look out my front window and see what seemed to be the last big hill before the border, its bald peak covered with a multitude of antennas. From the hill we live on now, on B Street, we can see downtown and the harbor to the west and south. On a clear day we can see the tip of Point Loma from our back door. From certain places on Point Loma, you can see all of San Diego. In contrast, from the house I grew up in on Long Island, I could only see the house across the street.

Now I live with my husband in the Giddings House, built in 1911 on top of a hill that really does turn golden in the sunset. From our front window, we can see all the way to the Navy hospital, on the next hill over, where huge black helicopters bring the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have a great view of the house across the street, a three-story late Victorian number complete with pointed turret and superfluous cornices. Floor-to-ceiling windows curve 270° around each story of the turret, and its third floor hosts a picturesque balcony with miniature columns. I can picture a wealthy businessman’s wife standing on that balcony, at the end of a day in 1910, watching the streetcar climbing Broadway, bringing her husband home from his toils downtown.

While I watch the sun set over the city’s building tops, I imagine the turn-of-the century developers of this neighborhood climbing the slope out of downtown, shedding bowler hats and tailcoats, reaching what is now the B Street summit at the long slant of afternoon, and declaring the hill “golden.” Previous to these reconnoiters, when San Diego was a fledging city in the mid 1800s, Golden Hill was a dusty mesa with a great view. As San Diego's population began to expand rapidly in the latter half of the 19th century, land speculators took a chance on developing plots on the outskirts of the established city site. Several successful businessmen built houses in the new neighborhood, among them Mathias Heller, who pioneered “cash-and-carry” grocery stores in San Diego, and the son of Colonel George Giddings, who operated and later owned the “Jackass Mail,” the first overland mail route from the east to San Diego. The old Golden Hill mansions still sit pretty on their perches, above the streets of downtown San Diego, clinging to plots that seem to be trying to subdivide out from under them.

Evidently the turreted house across the street from ours used to be one of these grand mansions, but now the current owners, a stout old woman and her equally stout son, seem to be having a little trouble keeping up with the upkeep. For most of the six years we’ve lived across from it, it looked like Lily and Herman Munster would answer the door--if you dared to knock. We took to calling it the “Munster House,” warning visitors that Eddie or Grandpa might emerge at any moment.

When the house’s owners gave the foreboding front door a new coat of shiny black paint and experimented with an attractive caramel color on the first floor, we thought the old place was finally due for an upgrade to “painted lady” status. Unfortunately, the restoration stalled at that stage for almost two years. The moldy, peeling, once-white clapboards and dilapidated woodwork continued to sag behind 100-year-old bougainvillea and wildly overgrown vines. The mansion seemed doomed to crumble into the annals of history. Nevertheless, tourists kept coming by to snap photos of the place, taking home a fitting souvenir of the decayed grandeur of the Victorian era. The iconic house even earned itself a place on the banners the Golden Hill CDC recently put up around the neighborhood.

In contrast, the two guys who own the “Giddings property,” where we live, have meticulously restored the Craftsman-style mansion to its splendor of yore. The cedar shakes are new, the windows are new (but made to look old), the crown molding is stained a handsome dark brown. When we moved in, they solemnly advised us not to scratch the finish on the “$25,000” staircase. More and more houses in this neighborhood are getting these kinds of renovations, changing ownership and receiving the royal restoration treatments they require, though the streetcar has long since abandoned its route, and today’s wealthy businessmen usually choose further-flung suburban neighborhoods.

The gentrification of Golden Hill has hiccupped along over the six years we’ve lived here, bringing fresh paint and a few brave restaurateurs. To our surprise (and relief!) the Munster House even got its share of the neighborhood makeover. After a few false starts, including a disturbingly butter-yellow shade of paint and what appeared to be volunteer labor, a man who seemed to be a contractor finally showed up in a white work truck emblazoned with the words “Jesus: The Love. The Life. The Miracle.” We nicknamed him “Jesus” and joked that it would take a miracle to repaint that old place.

But Jesus stuck with it, and, over several long months of unsightly transitional stages, he managed to get a fresh coat of paint over most of the house. (He seems to have overlooked the cornices.) We were impressed when he put a primer on before applying the final coat of color, a soft sage green with salmon and burgundy accents. The result is more teenage make-up job than “painted lady,” but we appreciate the effort. The view out our front window doesn’t exactly evoke the heyday of the Golden Hill mansions, but at least it’s greener!

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