When La Mesa History Center’s historic home tour organizer Jim Newland describes the annual event, happening in person on Nov. 5 after two years of distancing, he talks about the wider area encompassing Grossmont and Mt. Helix, Rolando and College Grove, and weaves in commentary about culture, unseen red-lining and public history.
“Recognizing our history allows us to have a foundation to hold on to with our perspective, allows us to look at documentation and facts with a personal side to the story, it puts the human scale on it,” Newland said.
Tour attendees will connect how “the same architects building in San Diego were also building out here,” Newland said, including early modernists who lived in the greater La Mesa area.
“La Mesa is historically interesting— even though we have a few custom homes here and there, the north side is almost all tract housing, it has some of the first tract homes in the county. Clairemont got the first push with Allied Gardens coming shortly afterward, the same people who got Murray Manor going in the early to mid- 50s. We have that heritage of blue-collar, working class folks whose successful grandkids now own grandpa’s house built in 1954,” Newland said.
The home tour itself begins at the Grossmont High School ‘castle’ building which opened in 1923 after a two-year build. Although it is a convenient starting point for the tour buses being used, it is also historically notable with a stone facade carved from local quarries and an Italianate design by architect Theo Kistner.
“Kistner built this in 1922 as one of the first schools in the area, and also ended up doing Memorial Junior High and Roosevelt. Fletcher not only gave him the central location on the railroad line, where the trolley and highway are now but also gave him all the stone from the quarry of what would become eastbound I-8. It’s made out of stone so it has a castle feel, but with the butterfly shape you could get daylight into multiple sides of the classrooms, designed when electric light was not the thing it is now,” Newland said.
A couple highlights of the tour include two houses designed by Lloyd Ruocco, a leading modernist who designed portions of Scripps Institute of Oceanography with its recognizable lines as well as work from Cliff May.
“Cliff May was a local San Diego boy who grew to be the most prolific architect without a license. There are folks who believe he’s responsible for about a thousand custom homes without any architectural degree. His father-in-law was a developer at Talmadge Park and told him he couldn’t marry his daughter unless he had a real job,” Newland said, so May started designing furniture and, later, buildings. Greater La Mesa’s architecture, according to Newland, is a ‘Who’s Who’ in 20th century design.
“There’s Stanley Scott with his Americana ranches— you couldn’t find the wood used in his houses now even if you could pay for it; he built around the swimming pool with the idealization of the suburban lifestyle…There’s Harry Hayden Whitely who made a name with Los Angeles mansions then came to San Diego and built some of the exhibition buildings at the Del Mar fairgrounds,” Newland said.
One particular Mt. Helix house has “a hidden bar behind a bookcase and an accordion room divider,” Newland said, Whitely touches that stands out.
There are later homes on the tour as well, Newland said, including one built in 1977 that evokes design from half a century past.
“This is our first time branching out into the 1970s. Now that it’s getting to be 50 years old we can look back and see that evolution into ranch style with the big view walls, glass and high open ceilings,” Newland said, with later houses that feature sunken floors and plenty of carpeting “as opposed to all the hardwood.”
Throughout La Mesa, there are excellent examples of historical architecture which reflect a changing society as the small city took shape, Newland said, such as apartments deliberately built near Dale Elementary atop old poultry farms in an effort to place a school near children.
Moving forward as the city grapples with where to place new and preferably affordable housing, Newland said he finds it interesting to hear pushback from some residents wanting to hang on to what they perceive as historic character when “all the areas built up in the past four to five years were zoned for development thirty or forty years ago” and are just now seeing new construction.
“Much of the housing in La Mesa is actually well designed. Some of the nicest custom tract houses in the city are on the east side, and it’s interesting to help people understand they have a place with roots,” Newland said.
Visit www.lamesahistory.com for more information on the home tour.