The Nicest House In Town: Whaley House Book Review
By Bobbie Bagel
Naturally, many visitors are initially attracted to the Whaley House through the compelling stories of hauntings and supernatural phenomena swirling around it. But once they read The History & Mystery of the Whaley House, they will find an even more interesting true story of early California pioneers.
This slim, recently released SOHO publication speaks volumes about the remarkable Whaley family and the unusual legacy of the Whaley House itself. In 1856, Thomas Whaley designed his two-story Greek Revival home in Old Town. The first brick structure in southern California, it cost $10,000 to build. He proudly proclaimed, "I feel I will have the nicest place in San Diego." Back then, the population of San Diego was around 2,500 people, so it could well have been an accurate pronouncement.
But 150 years ago, there was no way the energetic patriarch of the Whaley family could have imagined his house would be nationally recognized with 100,000 visitors coming to tour it each year.
Whaley House Museum historian and the book's author, Dean Glass uses close to 150 historic and contemporary photographs, clippings, and reproductions to tell the Whaley story. First, he introduces all the members of this talented and somewhat eccentric family. Thomas Whaley, a hard-working entrepreneur, ran a retail grocery business on the ground floor of his new residence. Later, he ventured to San Francisco, Alaska, New York, and back to San Diego in efforts to provide for his family. Considered one of the handsomest men in the city, he spent his later years running a successful real estate office, retiring in 1888. He died two years later at age 67.
His wife, Anna, was an accomplished pianist and popular hostess. The Whaley home became the center for San Diego's high society in its early years. The couple had six children. Francis (Frank), the oldest son, was in the newspaper business. He became a justice of the peace, and eventually moved back to the Whaley House. Tommy, the second son, died of scarlet fever in infancy. Annie was the dutiful daughter, caring for elderly relatives. George was a promising musician who suffered from severe alcoholism. Violet, like her mother, was a gifted musician and an excellent painter of miniatures. Her life ended tragically when she committed suicide at age 23, in despair over her recent divorce.
Finally, the youngest sibling, Lillian, was a very interesting personality and long-time resident of the Whaley House. Born in 1864, she was a schoolteacher, opera singer, and a librarian. She worked 35 years at the San Diego City Library. Lillian kept journals and diaries for most of her life. Much of what is known about the family comes from her candid observations. Her prolific writings have provided Glass and other historians a window into late 19th- and early 20th-century life in the region.
Next, the book traces the history of the house itself. Built on a prominent corner, it was a thriving and prosperous home. Over the years, its enterprising owner rented out the second floor for various purposes. It held the Hall of Records, for both City and County. It housed the first commercial theater, courthouse, and Sunday school, as well as the first gambling hall. The elegant brick house had become a central hub of activity in Old Town.
However, in 1885, grief stricken over the death of daughter Violet, the family moved to a house in New Town (now called downtown). Sadly, the Whaley House began its slow, downward spiral. The house was frequently vacant over the next two decades and in serious disrepair.
Around 1910, Frank completed a partial renovation. He operated a small museum there and served as tour guide for Old Town visitors. The family reoccupied the house for a time. But by the mid-1920s, lacking steady tenants, the building's condition continued to deteriorate.
Lillian returned to live in the house in the 1940s and remained there alone and unsettled. She wrote, "I am isolated on this lot and in this house … It is like an island and I feel like a female Robinson Crusoe … " After her death in 1953, the Whaley House stood empty again-abandoned, vandalized, and scheduled for demolition, until the County stepped in to purchase it.
County officials did a great service by saving this historic structure. They supervised the 1960s renovation. It was a sincere effort, but not an accurate one. It wasn't until 2000, when SOHO assumed stewardship of the property for the County that the historically accurate restoration we know today began to take shape.
Excellent color photographs document the home's interior and how each room was returned to its original Victorian period décor. The book highlights the structural changes that returned the exterior to its original design. Reconstruction was done with meticulous attention to detail using period techniques and materials throughout, such as square nails, beaded tongue and groove ceilings, and hand-blown glass for the windows.
Also acknowledged is the archeological project that San Diego State anthropology professor Seth Mallios led on the Whaley House grounds. Working over four summers between 2007 and 2010, his team uncovered more than 60,000 artifacts at this site.
Of course, the book would be remiss without a chapter on ghostly activities, which Glass addresses in an appropriate and respectful manner. It is easy to understand that an exceedingly old house (by California standards) might attract attention regarding the supernatural. After all, the Whaley House was built on the site of a gallows where an infamous hanging took place and was later left vacant and unattended for long periods. The Whaley family tragedies-the unfortunate death of an infant son and the heartbreaking suicide of a distressed daughter-also stoked belief in eerie legends.
A large photograph of the Whaley family tombstone at Mount Hope Cemetery anchors the book's last page. While Thomas Whaley might be surprised by all the attention his home has received over many decades, he would be quite proud of the diligent, professional work SOHO has done to accurately preserve his family's home and legacy. This excellent book reflects that effort.