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Reconstructing a Landmark: How a Popular Book, Cultural Attitudes Transformed San Diego's La Casa de Estudillo

Casa de Estudillo floor plan (primary)
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Ramona's Marriage Place Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks
Postcard of La Casa de Estudillo when the house was marketed as "Ramona's Marriage Place." |  Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

To visit a historically consequential home is to make the past more tangible. Surrounded by aged walls and antique furnishings, we are tempted to be literal-minded, as if we had entered a time machine and were plopped into that past. But if walls could speak, an important 19th century landmark in San Diego’s Old Town, La Casa de Estudillo, would convey a different story. It is a tale of the complexity of history, of the ways that the past mirrors the attitudes of any given era, including our own. 

Landmark homes, preserved and renovated for their significance, are part of a bigger cultural picture in attitudes toward the past. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a collective desire took hold on both coasts -- and in between -- to preserve sites that represented colonial and national history. It happened with Jamestown, the first British settlement in Virginia, and it happened in California, with the newfound interest in restoring the crumbling Spanish missions and other California structures of the era of Spanish and Mexican governance. In the case of La Casa de Estudillo, craze for a novel, Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 “Ramona,” added to the site’s appeal and transformation. 

Reconstruction of La Casa De Estudillo
Construction at La Casa de Estudillo. | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

Two pasts neatly converge with La Casa de Estudillo: the lineage of a prominent family and the history of California in an era of transition from Mexican to American rule. Not only was it a seminal example of a residence of the affluent and the powerful, it also housed the first schoolhouse and the first courthouse in San Diego. La Casa de Estudillo was home to four generations of the Estudillo family, beginning in 1830, when its first portion was completed, and ending in 1887, when the last of its family residents left for Los Angeles. (The local Kumeyaay likely did all the work, we are reminded.) By the late 1840s, the structure was L-shaped and by 1852 it had the U-shape it still features, when an expansion was completed. The house was declared a California Historical Landmark in 1932, became part of the California State Park system in 1968 and was added as a registered National Historical Landmark in 1970. 

Capitan Jose Maria Estudillo was a military commandant at the nearby San Diego Presidio when work on his home began. His wife, Doña Maria Victoria Dominguez de Estudillo came from a prominent family as well. The generations of Estudillos who were to live in the house impacted the political and cultural life of the emerging town notably. Jose Guadalupe Estudillo, for example -- grandson of Jose Maria and Doña Maria -- became president of the board of trustees of the city of San Diego in 1868, and during his tenure set aside land that became Balboa Park; in 1875, he was elected state treasurer. It’s no coincidence that the family built their home when they did. Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 led to a new policy of providing land grants and the Estudillos were given large ones: in Otay, Temecula and El Cajon. Their wealth would derive from their large herds of cattle, raised at these locales, while the Casa in Old Town was their townhouse. 

La Casa De Estudillo Floor Plan
A floor plan of La Casa de Estudillo.  | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

Back then, in the nascent era of preservation, Americans liked their history to be filtered through a rosy veil. They invented images of harmonious British colonials and Native Americans joining hands at the first Thanksgiving or Spanish clergy and tribes co-existing nicely as the missions emerged up and down the coast. Of course, relations between those who had lived in these places for centuries and recently arrived Europeans were never that simple or happy. But authenticity was secondary; atmosphere mattered most.

From 1910 to 1964, La Casa de Estudillo was marketed as “Ramona‘s Marriage Place,” putting us in the mindset of the story of Ramona, who was in those years a phenomenally beloved heroine of Jackson’s widely popular novel about life in Southern California during the period of Mexican power. The words were even painted on the structure. By the late 1960s, though, attitudes were moving in another direction: atmosphere was being reshaped by knowledge at numerous sites. And in recent years, that drive for greater authenticity has yielded significant revisions to the rooms at La Casa de Estudillo and to its narrative.

Old Spanish Kitchen in La Casa De Estudillo
Old Spanish kitchen in La Casa de Estudillo. | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

The history of the way La Casa de Estudillo has been presented to the public is a microcosm of the manner we have moved from an emphasis on atmosphere to a desire for greater historical accuracy. It had fallen into ruin after the Estudillos departed. Local magnate John D. Spreckels acquired it in 1906, and funded a reconstruction. The remodel was completed in 1910 under the purview of architect Hazel Wood Waterman, who was truer to the vision of “Ramona” than that of social history. She added fireplaces to several rooms, for example, where there were none before; it fit her Arts and Crafts vision of what would give a Mexican era California home a measure of charm. But beginning in 1969 -- the bicentennial of San Diego -- the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America committed themselves to furnishing the Casa in the style of its period. There was a flurry of furnishings added in the ‘70s, but a new phase of change has gathered momentum in the last three years, with the reinstallation of the rooms in the house to fit advances in historical scholarship. 

La Casa De Estudillo Marketed as Ramona's Marriage Place
La Casa de Estudillo was once marketed as "Ramona's Marriage Place." |  Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

Yet we shouldn’t feel too negative about the influence of “Ramona” and the accompanying romanticization of history says Amy Lew, the senior park aide for the California State Parks service who devotes her time to the Casa. She cautions against being too quick to condemn the earlier mania for all things “Ramona” and the departures from historical realities it produced.

“We, in our contemporary wisdom, can laugh at the naiveté of seeing history through ‘Ramona,’” Lew says, “but many have said it is the book that saved the house.” 

All this past of the Casa -- as a tourist attraction and historical landmark, as an emblem of family history and California cultural history -- is newly explained to the public via audio information and lucidly written text, present in both English and Spanish. And this history, de-romanticized, is getting its due in new installations for the living room, the kitchen, the dining room and an array of other rooms that bring us closer to the lived experience of the Estudillos and others, such as renters and servants. Consider these added realities: To adapt to an era of growing commerce, the family leased out space for a store in the early 1850s and the items on the shelf now replicate what was available at the time, from canned oysters to candy to a popular liquor of the day, pulque. In the bedroom of the Estudillo children, there are additional beds for Mexican, Yuma and Kumeyaay Indians who served as servants and cared for them. One room encapsulates the evolving views of the period and how objects have represented them in the home. 

Bedroom set as used by Father Alonzo E. Horton.
"Bedroom set as used by Father Alonzo E. Horton." | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

Credit the text and audio segments to longtime museum educator Vas Prabhu, who has had distinguished tenures at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the San Diego Museum of Art. The eye-catching graphic design of the informational panels one encounters is the work of graphic designer Tanya Bredehoft, who has done significant signage projects for museums, nature centers, aquariums and a host of other spaces.

Both Prabhu and Bredehoft were part of a team of consultants, in 2013 through 2015, led by David Krimmel, a highly regarded specialist in museum exhibit design. Rounding out the initial group of consultants was Stephanie Weaver, widely known as a visitor experience consultant for places as diverse as the San Diego Zoo, the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Also advising were Bruce and Alana Coombs of the Save Our Historical Organisation (SOHO). Even as their contract ended, work continues under the direction of Lew, staff and interns at the Casa.

La Casa De Estudillo Outdoor Area
An outdoor corridor at La Casa De Estudillo.  | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

In this push to make the history of the Casa more accessible and, yes, more accurate to scholarship and archaeology, the new text and graphic design was a big step. Karen Beery, manager of education and interpretation for Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, says that the process has been designed to produce a clear narrative about the social realities of the period and the way the house functioned. These details have also helped shape what to do next with items and their installation. (Both she and Lew estimate that renovations will probably take another two years, which includes bringing the site into line with standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

Intriguing examples of this abound. Consider the case of a domestic device called a shoo-fly. It’s not something found in a contemporary dining room, but at the time, bugs were a major problem because of the way the house was open to the outdoors. The shoo-fly was a large, impressive plank-like construction suspended from the ceiling and a household servant was enlisted to move it back and forth. The chances of locating one from the period were virtually impossible, explained Lew. And even if one could be found, it wouldn’t have looked right. The Estudillos’ shoo-fly would have been new in its day. To achieve this, Krimmel built one from the information, visual and textual, available about it. 

Ramona's Marriage Place 2  Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks
La Casa de Estudillo was once marketed as "Ramona's Marriage Place." | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

This kind of ingenuity has been intrinsic to the operation. Krimmel has supplied cast acrylic to simulate liquid in the cordial glasses for the same room. For the children’s bedroom, Lew has made cloth dolls true to the period. Such handiwork graces several rooms, appropriately uncredited since the public should see each room’s décor as part of a whole. They also enlisted contemporary blacksmiths to make elegant copper vessels when originals couldn’t be found. 

One of the long-standing heroines of the Casa restoration is Therese Whitcomb, professor emerita of art history at the University of San Diego. She has led the way for the funding and acquisition of objects and furniture for its interior for some four plus decades, through her leadership in Southern California as the museum properties chair for the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.

“Our aim is education,” she explained of the Dames’ long commitment to the Casa and their passion for historical homes.

They are known, in fact, for their assistance with a large array of homes across the United States. (They are involved in 39 states and the District of Columbia) In California, they have furnished and helped maintain houses in San Diego, Salinas and San Francisco. 

Sala of La Casa De Estudillo
Sala (living room) in La Casa De Estudillo.  | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

Whitcomb consults regularly with Lew about next steps. One of Lew’s missions has been to catalog all of the objects that are currently being used in or stored for the Casa. This inventory was unprecedented and once the list was in place the Dames de-accessioned about one-third of them. They were either from the wrong period or found to be irrelevant to the history of the home. These items, sold at auction, generated funds for the acquisition of new and future objects. 

On a recent visit to the site, Lew happily displayed tiny cups and saucers true to the period that could have been used to serve chocolate. They are British in origin, dating from the 1850s, which is true to what the Estudillos would have used. The search for the right items takes Lew and the Dames far and wide; she found these cups in an antique mall in Las Vegas, a city without an old town. 

The point, with the reinstallation of the rooms, has been that all of them, in Lew’s words, “should be based on archaeological evidence.” 

There is one other additional and more subjective inspiration for the work that she and others continue to do. 

“I’d like to think that we are making the Estudillos who lived here proud with the work we have done,” she said.

Dining Room in La Casa de Estudillo
Dining room in La Casa de Estudillo. | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.
Guest, Blue Bedroom in La Casa de Estudillo
Guest bedroom in La Casa de Estudillo. | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

Additional information on La Casa de Estudillo can be found here.

Top image: A floor plan of La Casa de Estudillo. | Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks.

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