Sunday, March 08, 2009

On Foot in San Diego: Sherman Heights, the Charleston of San Diego

Soon after I moved to Del Mar, a seaside town twenty miles north of downtown San Diego, my furnace needed to be replaced. They call it a furnace out here, but it's not more than a glorified heater. I complained to the furnace guy about needing a new furnace. His response, "well, lady, it is an old house". Where I came from a 1973 house was not an old house, but this formed my notion that San Diego was a city of fairly new houses without the history we had back East.

I still had that impression when I first saw the 1867 Villa Montezuma on one of my history outings a couple weeks ago. OK, I conceded there was an old house out here, but it was rare enough to be a museum piece.

That notion was dispelled last weekend when I took a walking tour of Sherman Heights led by Louise Torio who lives in a restored Victorian home down the street from the Villa Montezuma. Louise is a trove of information about the architecture and history of Sherman Heights. She pulls along a little suitcase of old pictures showing what this part of San Diego looked like more than a hundred years ago. I was fascinated walking in this place of history.

By the end of the tour, my head was spinning with Victorian, Queen Anne, Greek revival, mission revival, Craftsman, Spanish colonial revival...all this and more in these few city blocks.

By way of a little history, Sherman Heights was San Diego's first residential subdivision built on land bought by Captain Matthew Sherman, here fresh from the Civil War. While Alonzo Horton was buying the land for the now downtown San Diego, Sherman bought 160 acres just east with a great view of the bay. I figured he bought the whole lot for $800. He built his family a little farmhouse on the land in 1868 and the structure is still not only still there, but nicely restored.

Set a little uphill from Horton's New Town San Diego, Sherman Heights soon became the place to live - location, location, location - for all those doctors, lawyers, government workers, and other builders of the city. The county assessor built a home across from Louise's house.

This, by the way, is Louise's house and the cottage next door she and her husband have restored. I asked about the colors and, indeed, these are authentic Victorian house colors.

According to Louise, the area has about 400 historic places, some still unrestored but many are like this handsome home.

They were really into balconies and porches. I could just imagine the view looking east toward the mountains at sunrise or west over the growing San Diego town toward the bay at sunset.

The architectural detail in restoring the homes is amazing...

Even Jack in the Box has caught the revitalization fever with its Craftsman bungalow.

Many more historic homes are waiting to be restored in Sherman Heights. This little Queen Anne house still needing a redo caught my eye. Hm-m-m, with a little time and money...

Along the way, we came across a mural designed by muralist Mario Torero, reflecting the multi-ethnicity of Sherman Heights painted in 1980 on the side of a food market.

Louise introduced a woman in our group, Liliana Garcia-Rivera, who had actually been one of the young people who painted the mural, the girl in the yellow sweater.

Liliana's family lived in the home across the street from the mural and she is working on restoring this beautiful home. Like many of the homes in the area, the restoration will involve removing the stucco placed over the original wood siding of the house.

The view of the bay is gone, replaced by San Diego's building skyline. The beauty of it is still with us, thanks to Lousie Toro and those who are restoring and revitalizing historic Sherman Heights.

Louise leads tours of Sherman Heights every first and third Sundays of the month.

For more pictures of Sherman Heights and Villa Montezuma, go to


Pat said...

Ooh, wouldn't it be fun to restore that little cottage? Call the realtor - I'll be right there!

Katharine said...

I was tempted.

Friends of the Villa Montezuma, Inc. said...

Kathie, thanks so much for coming on the tour. There are so many wonderful historic stories to tell about the Sherman Heights Historic District, and so much to share. You've captured some of the wonderful, amazing buildings we have (built 1860-1930s), plus the new sympathetic infill construction (like the new Jack in the Box and the Rob Quigley-designed Sherman Heights Community Center). On tour also talk about all the layers of history with the many ethnic and religious groups that settled in Sherman Heights. This neighborhood remains interesting and dynamic because it is an example of both EARLY and CURRENT San Diego diversity. All tour proceeds benefit the nonprofit Friends of the Villa Montezuma, Inc. (FOVM), the group who since 1974 has been devoted to the Villa. The FOVM has so far gotten over half a million dollars earmarked for Villa foundation replacement. Learn more about us at It is a fun afternoon for a good cause!

Friends of the Villa Montezuma, Inc. said...

Oops. It should be "wonderful buildings from 1860s," not 1860. LT

Kappa no He said...

I would so love to live in any one of those houses...even the Jack in the Box. Gorgeous!


Katharine said...

Yeah, they are gorgeous but not as big as they look. Lousie said her house was only a little over 1000 sq. feet and I don't imagine that allows for a jacuzzi tub and walk in closet.