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A Cultural Landscape

The Caltrans Site of Old Town San Diego

By Victor Walsh

With its paved walkways, trellised gardens and patios, and subtropical gardens, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (OTSDSHP) presents a cultural landscape that never existed during the 19th-century, the park's period of historic significance. The majority of the shrubs and bedding plants in this historic park are modern introductions to the nursery trade or hybrids of older, smaller varieties. The concrete walks, potted plants, and fountains, both in the plaza and in the courtyards of the surrounding buildings, are twentieth-century, largely Spanish Revival additions.

California State Parks now has an opportunity to begin to improve the park's non-historic setting. Assembly member Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) recently introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 2081 to expand the park's boundaries to include the soon-to-be vacated Caltrans property on Juan Street. The District 11 Office complex contains asbestos materials and its demolition will free up historic space so that State Parks, for the first time, can recreate a more authentic cultural landscape.

Throughout much of the 19th century, the San Diego River flowed behind Presidio Hill, and down into the bottomlands across what is now Rosecrans and Taylor Streets and then past a series of bluffs south of Old Town towards Mission Bay. The McCoy House, which State Parks reconstructed in 2000, originally stood on a bluff overlooking the river. Traces of the bluff are still visible on the slightly elevated ground adjacent to the building and parking lot.

Old Town, 1872

Much of the area traversed by the river was marshland. Stands of willow and small islands provided nesting spots for magpies, thrashers, ducks and geese. Rabbits, hares, squirrels, deer and antelope fed on the tall grasses and outlying gardens, attracting scores of bobcat and wolves into the 1890s according to Walter Gifford Smith.

The river played a critical role in Old Town's development. The first settlers, many of whom were retired soldiers from the hilltop presidio, planted their gardens or huertas near the river and built their adobe homes on elevated ground west of the plaza. The area's semi-arid climate and the river's irregular water table caused alternating floods and droughts, making gardening difficult and risky. Today the Presidio Park golf course occupies much of this historic space. The Caltrans acquisition could be used by State Parks to create a Mexican era cultural landscape-ideally the huerta of a soldier-settler. This entails more than just planting historically appropriate vegetation. It also requires the development of a historic landscape plan that is accurate in terms of spatial organization of plantings, land use practices, tools, pathways, fencing, and water sources. The design should reveal or at least discuss the impact of the river on early settlement patterns and how early settlers altered the topography.

At least three gardens existed on the river flood plain west of the plaza during the Mexican era. Captain Francisco María Ruiz, commandant of the presidio, planted the first recorded garden in Old Town (ca 1810-20) near the Casa de Carrillo on what is now the Presidio Park Golf Course. District Judge Benjamin Hayes, who visited this site on September 8, 1856, noted in his Emigrant Notes that the garden was an orchard, consisting of 26 pear trees and a small number of olive, fig and pomegranate trees. The pear trees were arranged in neat rows behind the adobe, and were hand-watered from 12-foot deep wells.

Two years later a representative from the State Agricultural Society visited the old garden. By this time, the "well-cultivated" garden was fenced with carisa and irrigated by a very "simple wind pump" to extract available ground water.

Other gardens on the west side of the plaza included several large huertas off what later came to be called Garden Street. These belonged to Guadalupe Machado and José Manual Silvas and/or his daughter María Eugenia. They included orchards and occupied the sloping terrain above the San Diego River.

River flood plains generally have richer and deeper soils than other locales because they are nourished from floodwaters and they collect eroded soils from upslope and upstream.

The other documented garden in Old Town during the early Mexican era belonged to José María Estudillo, who lived with his son José Antonio and family in the Casa de Estudillo on the east side of the plaza. An avid and knowledgeable gardener, José María planted olive and peach trees, and citron, mint, borage, rue, and medicinal herbs like canohalagua (alleviates fever and dropsy). Contrary to public perception, the Estudillos never had a formal Old World garden with tiled walkways and fountain as currently exists in the casa's courtyard. That garden was originally designed by Hazel Waterman in 1908 during the heyday of Spanish mission revival.

The typical Californio garden during the Mexican period was primarily functional, not ornamental. Plants were cultivated in small plots, usually bordered or fenced by a cactus hedge to protect them from foraging cattle and wild animals. Prickly pear and century plant were commonly used for this purpose. Fences were also made of willow saplings and branches cut from the riverbanks. Orchards were usually planted apart from the gardens or huertas.

Garden plots included vegetables like beans, squash and wild cucumber, herbs such as rosemary, thyme and tarragon, and grain crops like barley, usually arranged in clumps or rows. Plants noted for their medicinal value included cáscara sagrada (sacred bark of Rhamnus), Yerba Santa (holy plant used to cure sore throats and lung congestion), and tea of Elderberry blossom to fend off spells.

Flowering plants, such as Castilian Rose, geraniums, and cup of gold vine, were grown in separate beds close to the adobe-brick homes. They were used to decorate interior rooms, especially family altars, and for Catholic religious ceremonies. Jasmine was sometimes planted around the adobes because its aroma sweetened the evening air.

Acquisition of the Caltrans property provides an opportunity to develop more fully Old Town San Diego's history during the Mexican period. Several historic adobes, including Henry Fitch's two-story trading outpost, existed on this site during the 1830s and 1840s.

This crusty New England sea captain, the first American to settle in the Mexican pueblo, married Josefa Carrillo in 1829. Marriage into this established Californio family provided Fitch with capital and connections to open the first real store in Old Town. The store stood at the corner of Wallace and Calhoun streets, just outside of the park's existing boundary. Over the following decade (ca 1835-1845), it did a brisk business trading cowhides, tallow, and aguardiente (brandy) for textiles and apparels shipped in from New England, China, and Mexico.

At this early date State Parks has made no decisions about whether to reconstruct any historic buildings assuming it becomes the owner of the Caltrans parcel. In this writer's opinion, reconstructing Fitch's adobe-brick store as either a concession specializing in products of the hide and tallow trading era or possibly a museum dedicated to the history of the Californios, a cultural group that remains largely forgotten, would be an important contribution to this park's historic mission.

Lastly, the acquisition will provide a better-defined park boundary. Taylor Street, unlike the existing street boundary, is a major auto thoroughfare. Visitors entering the park from this vantage point will be able to better grasp the vital historic link between Presidio Hill, site of the first Spanish fort and mission in Alta California, and Old Town San Diego.

Caltrans has proposed to sell this parcel for $13 million. Public agencies have priority over private entities in bidding on such state property, but if public money is not appropriated, then Caltrans can sell it to a private developer provided the existing asbestos-contaminated building is razed.

This acquisition provides an unprecedented opportunity to enhance the historic experience of visitors to Old Town San Diego SHP. Hopefully the Assembly's Committee on Appropriations can devise a plan, which the legislature will approve, that allows State Parks to acquire this important historic property.

2006 - Volume 37, Issue 2


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Remembering the Overbaugh Mansion

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