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Monday, November 28, 2005 | Now that our beloved Old Town State Park is being “re-interpreted” for us by New York concessionaire Delaware North, we will witness a new era for this venerable plot of land. But before we blindly embrace the new, let’s review the historical developmental layers that shaped San Diego’s cradle of history.
This sacred ground, and adjacent hill, spawned the first Presidio in Alta California, the first Spanish mission site and the first county in the state of California. The old booster slogan still rings true, “San Diego, where California began.” Nineteenth-century historian William Smythe coined the phrase “Plymouth Rock of the West Coast,” a succinct way of placing Old Town into an American context.
So it was after Spain retreated from upper California the little town at the bottom of Presidio Hill, circa 1830, built out along the San Diego River adobe by some of the first families of California: Bandini, Estudillo, Pico, Machado, Silvas and others. The post-mission period is known as the “Mexican Republic” era, the primary initiating layer, the true beginning of San Diego.
Then, the “Americans” came, gold-rushers, land speculators, surveyors and pioneers. In 1850, after one of the shortest territorial status periods on record, California became a state in the Union.
I guess when news of “gold in them thar hills” reached Washington, statehood was expedited.
Old Town now belonged to frontier Victorians through the 1870s and was a rootin’-tootin’ Western town of almost mythical proportions. Mexican adobe precedent, however, persisted. Even as some of the casas were “anglicized” they remained grounded in Mexican vernacular aesthetic.
In 1868, easterner Alonzo Horton tweaked the William Heath Davis Plan and began the initiating layer of American period “New Town.” Centered at Fifth and Market, the plan captured land along the bay to a new City Park (now Balboa Park). This act was a deliberate disassociation from Old Town and birthed an American city at California’s land’s end.
After this evacuation of interest, Old Town languished through the 1920s. It was then that philanthropist George Marston marshaled his resources and empathy toward the area and began its rehabilitation. Marston is responsible for the world-class Presidio Park and Serra Museum (designed by master architect William Templeton Johnson in 1929). He then turned his energy toward the revitalization of Old Town with the early restoration of the Old Adobe Chapel, a small golf course surrounding a restored old Carrillo house and a modern new tourist court, Casa de Pico (ca. 1933).
One of the most significant rehabilitations during this period was the Casa de Bandini, by none other than the grandson of Don Juan and Ysidora Bandini: Cave Couts, Jr.
A boarding house, ballroom and stage stop, the Casa was the cultural center of Old Town. Don Juan Bandini, a legendary renaissance Californio, hosted the likes of Richard Henry Dana, and legions of notables pursuing their fortunes in California.
In 1836 Dana wrote, “A great deal was said about our friend Don Juan Bandini, and when he did appear, he certainly gave us the most graceful dancing that I had ever seen.”
Couts peeled off the frontier-style wood cladding and returned the Casa back to its romantic period, honoring his family heritage.
As Marston revived Old Town, a group of business interests also realized potential, especially after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and an upcoming 1935 California-Pacific Exposition. The effort resulted in a plan by another master architect, Richard Requa.
Marston and Requa promoted a culturally based “Mexican Village” modeled after Olvera Street in Los Angeles. It became the plan, but the Depression and onset of World War II curbed enthusiasm.
Development spurts and long stretches of abandonment have plagued Old Town throughout its history. Again the area languished following WWII through the 1960s. Under new public ownership of California State Parks, there came a call for interest for the dilapidated but historically significant area.
Statewide solicitation produced one taker, an entrepreneur who traveled to Sacramento and made a well-conceived, thorough presentation: designer and businesswoman Diane Powers.
Over the last 30 years Old Town was graced with business savvy by a creative soul who spun her cultural magic into what we’ve come to know as Bazaar del Mundo.
Powers had the spirit of history with her. She was mentored by master architect Lloyd Ruocco, who in the beginning of his career happened to work for Richard Requa. It is also noteworthy that Powers’ period of influence over Old Town had the most sustained longevity, more than any one single period.
The big question is: In the interpretation of history, how and what should be brought to the fore in Old Town? What should be honored or celebrated? All of it one would think. But the fine art of interpretive programming can be tricky.
America’s gold standard is methodology developed by the National Park Service. The NPS provides a fine series of historically appropriate guidelines to ensure federal lands serve their educational mission, and are applicable to the rest of us. Great deference is given to the first layer of an area’s history – that initial beginning. If not for the beginning, why would we be concerned?
So why, one wonders, do Old Town’s new caretakers prefer to reflect the early American period with token gestures from the Mexican Republic era, like wandering 20th-century mariachis? Delaware North’s historical consultants claim they are providing accurate history, but whose history?
In the last few years we have seen an assortment of State Parks’ projects: the Victorian-era McCoy House, a reconstruction that subsumes the Machado/Silvas extant imprint; the frontier-era Jolly Boy Saloon; and the most egregious change, a planned conversion of the Casa de Bandini back to the cowboy shoot-’em-up Cosmopolitan Hotel, wood porches and all. Criticism rages on regarding the sweeping changes coming to Old Town. Some charge there is a strident component of latent racism at work here, or merely a naïve approach to a more profitable historical bias.
One may ask why didn’t State Parks open this up to local discussion before awarding a contract to out-of-towners who are solely dependant on local hobbyist-level historians? Where were the Mexicano history advocates? Where were the noted resident professional historians? Where was our hometown newspaper?
Good, bad or indifferent, we will have yet another layer of development imposed on this little village. It will reflect the values and stewardship, however poorly articulated, of today’s San Diegans.
We can only hope those little adobes work their way out of this new development just as they have for nearly two centuries.
Vonn Marie May is a former chairwoman of the city of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board and is currently a trustee on the board of the California Preservation Foundation. E-mail her at