Tuesday, December 27, 2005 | In her
Instead she perpetuates many of the myths that continue to haunt Old Town. Throughout the 20th century, Old Town’s revitalization as an historic tourist destination played on the refrain of what the historian-journalist Carey McWilliams calls the “Spanish heritage fantasy.” George Marston, Richard Requa, Cave Couts, Jr. and Diane Powers helped revitalize Old Town, but in the process recast its history in the mold of a “mythical Spanish age” noted for its romance, chivalry and refinement.
Contrary to May’s claim, Couts took considerable liberties in his 1930 rehabilitation of his grandfather’s home, the Casa de Bandini. The entire building was stuccoed. The first-floor porch was plastered and trimmed with a balastrade railing of cast stone.
He did not honor his “family heritage;” rather, he reinvented it because none of these features or materials existed in the single-story, U-shaped adobe when his grandfather and family lived there from 1829 into the early 1850s. There was no second-story. It was added in 1869 by Albert Seeley when he converted the dilapidated adobe into a fashionable hotel and stage stop, called the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The walls were wood-framed with wood siding, not adobe.
Diane Powers remodeled the Casa de Bandini’s rear courtyard and interior space from 1978-1980. She brought “the spirit of history with her,” or so we are told by May. Powers decorated the first-floor dining area with tile, painted artistry and imported statuary; installed rustic overhead wood beams; and elevated and replanted the courtyard with lush, sub-tropical gardens to showcase in her words “the magnificent, historic hacienda of Juan Bandini.”
Like Couts, Powers created a past that simply never existed. The building took on the appearance of a luxurious Spanish colonial hacienda that in no way resembles either Juan Bandini’s original home or the later Cosmopolitan Hotel of Albert Seeley.
The new concessionaire, Delaware North, recently hired Heritage Architecture and Planning and Reyman Brothers Construction to restore the historic building to its heyday of operation as the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Non-historic elements, such as those mentioned above, will be removed. The exterior stucco on the first floor will be removed, and the adobe walls will be restored to their original state when the Bandini family lived here.
California State Parks selected Delaware North over Diane Powers because the company intends to commit $12 million to rehabilitate three historic buildings – the largest single facility improvement by any concessionaire in California State Park history. They must be rehabilitated or restored as accurately as is possible because they are “our physical link” to an otherwise vanished past. If their appearance misrepresents the past, then we will surely misinterpret their historical significance and those associated with them.
This is why the restoration of the Casa de Bandini/Cosmopolitan Hotel is so important. With its imposing stucco columns and walls, wrought iron grillwork, exotic gardens, and other decorative features, it misrepresents the past. Is it little wonder that May sees Juan Bandini as a “legendary renaissance Californio” who entertained “legions of notables?”
But this Peruvian-born rancher and civic leader was more than just an elegantly dressed dandy who loved to dance and entertain. Having served as a delegate to the Mexican Congress, a member of Alta California’s assembly (diputación) and town council (ayuntamiento), he was an important political figure. He hatched numerous plots against Mexican rule in this building, including revolts against Gov. Manuel Victoria in 1831 and Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado in 1836-1837. Although he initially welcomed U.S. military occupation and California statehood, he became increasingly critical of American rule, especially of the Land Act of 1851 that allowed claimants to challenge the validity of Mexican land grants in American courts.
This brings us back to that proverbial question: Whose history is it, anyway? Old Town San Diego is a state historic park. Its primary interpretive period is from 1821, when former soldiers from the presidio built the first adobes, to 1872, when a calamitous fire sealed the community’s fate. Over this half-century, the Mexican-Catholic pueblo evolved into an American frontier town with the county’s first courthouse, public school and newspaper (San Diego Herald). It was not a “rootin’-tootin’ Western town,” as May so dismissively opines.
Its people – native Indians, old Californio families, Spanish-speaking vaqueros, U.S. soldiers, Mormon Battalion recruits, American tradesmen and ranchers, Jewish merchants, Chinese service workers, and dreamers and scoundrels of every nationality – represented different traditions, classes, experiences and expectations.
Old Town’s history is not easy to tell because it is many stories – stories of near-forgotten people who left few literary records to posterity. These are the stories that California State Parks has begun to tell in the exhibits at the McCoy House Interpretive Center and in the binder texts of the diorama at the Robinson-Rose Visitor’s Center.
Most of the park’s five million yearly visitors have little understanding of Old Town’s history. Many are from out-of-state and foreign countries lured by the shops, restaurants and mariachi music. The park is overly commercialized – a “Colonial Mexico with Master Charge” in the words of one writer. The paved walkways, trellised gardens and patios, and mish-mash of historic and non-historic buildings present an alluring but confusing and false historic setting. Many visitors consequently are unaware that they are even in an historic park.
The park lacks an historic presence or raison d’être. Its real history, like that of the Casa de Bandini/Cosmopolitan Hotel, remains hidden beneath the layers of stucco, ceramic and stone tile that now embellish the building. What May, Powers and others fail to recognize is that this not only misrepresents the building’s historic appearance, but also the Bandini family and by association the Mexican and early American periods of Old Town’s history.
The “Days of the Dons” with its cast of dashing, Spanish-born caballeros and dark-eyed doñas entertaining lavishly never existed in San Diego or for that matter, in most places in Mexican California. San Diego was a hardscrabble, remote outpost, populated by a tough race of former soldiers and rancheros, usually of Mexican and Indian ancestry. Most of them lived in simple adobes roofed with tule thatch and dried mud. Life in the pueblo and outlying ranchos revolved around hard work, not idle extravagance – even for the land-rich Juan Bandini.
Most non-Indian people called themselves Californios rather than Mexicanos. Ties to the mother country were tenuous at best, complicated by regional identities, distance and the Mexican Republic’s inability to colonize Alta California.
During the height of the rancho era in the 1830s and 1840s, the pueblo was the principal hide and tallow trading port and source of custom collections on the Pacific Coast. Later, during the American period, army topographical engineers and entrepreneurs struggled without much success to divert the San Diego River’s course and to connect the town via railroad to the outside. More often than not, their expectations went unfulfilled, and New Town quickly displaced Old Town as the county’s commercial and civic seat.
Despite tensions triggered by the U.S.-Mexican War, collapse of the hide trade and ranching, outbreaks of disease, recurring floods and the great fire, Old Town endured. It not only survived the 19th-century, but also bore witness to a remarkable melding of cultures. It did not become another Western “ghost town.” Newcomers put down roots, often married into Californio families, and helped forge a pluralistic society – a diversity that was reflected in their buildings, gardens, crafts, amusements and folkways.
Descendants of many of those early Californio families – the Aguilars, Osunas, Machados, Marróns, Carrillos, Serranos, Estudillos, Bandinis, Alvarados, Picos and Silvases – continue to reside in the area on both sides of the border.
Their stories await discovery buried beneath the layers of fantasy and myth that have for too long prevailed in Old Town.
Dr. Victor A. Walsh is a California State Park historian in San Diego. He can be reached at