A Palace of the Arts

Villa Montezuma


1925 K St. Corner of 20th and K

Architect: Comstock & Trotsche

Architectural Style: Victorian Queen Anne

Builders: Cheney and Leonard

When most people envision a Victorian mansion, they inevitably think of a Queen Anne edifice. It seems to typify the golden age between 1880 and 1910, which stressed opulence, imagination, gaudiness, exuberant, eclectic ornamentation and over-the-top originality.

Although the Queen Anne style is most often associated with houses, this architectural mode is also expressed in hotels, schools, cottages, churches and even offices. Classic examples can be found throughout San Diego and include the Hotel Del Coronado and a bevy of beauties located in Heritage Park in Old Town.

The Queen Anne style was named after England’s Queen Anne, whose reign (1702-1714) was distinguished by a period of great economic growth, when wealthy Brits and aristocrats were building elaborate homes as monuments to themselves. It later became a distinctly American style, even boasting regional variations. However, they all have several distinct and identifying characteristics. The structures have asymmetrical facades, wraparound porches, turrets, towers and balconies, irregular steeply pitches roofs with intersecting gables, patterned shingles, a variety of large windows with some incorporating stained glass, and a heavy wooden front door. The interiors feature intricate wood trim called spindle work, fireplaces lined with glazed tiles, elaborate wooden staircases, and ornate metal doorknobs and hardware. Some also incorporated hidden rooms and staircases.

None personifies this age of romance and artistic creativity more than San Diego’s Villa Montezuma, built in 1887 for Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard, a.k.a. Jesse Shepard, world renowned musician, artist, author, and spiritualist.

The man was as interesting as his house. He was tall, thin, handsome, poetic, had unusually large hands, possessed an ethereal singing voice, and was extremely self-confident. An acknowledged musical genius, Shepard, who was born in England in 1848, performed extensively in all the courts of the Continent before coming to San Diego. He was persuaded to come to our fair city by William and John High, local ranchers, landowners and leaders in the spiritualist community. The High brothers financed the construction of Villa Montezuma to Jesse’s specifications. The cost was $19,000 plus an additional $7,000 for the stained-glass windows. Jesse selected the crest of a rolling hill in the Sherman Heights area, which allowed him a stunning view of the burgeoning city and the San Diego Bay. The house was completed in June of 1887, and Jesse opened its doors to the Press in the Fall. He then began to host receptions and entertainment, often called his “musical seances.” As spiritualism was a craze sweeping the country at the time, the house was an instant hit with the spiritualists in the community. Jesse Shepard was said to channel the souls of past great musicians through his music, which was exceptional. He often simulated several instruments simultaneously, even though there was only one person playing. One such piece Shepard performed was known as the Grand Egyptian March. It was his signature piece, and using only the piano and his own voice, Shepard recreated a battle complete with two opposing armies clashing. Some of his most ardent admirers were Mrs. Sarah Babe Horton, Mrs. Edward Bushyhead and Mrs. Fidelia Shepard (no relation). The ladies, as you may have guessed, were wives of prominent San Diegans and doyennes of society.

The house itself was, to quote Keats, “a thing of beauty.” Jesse loved old houses, calling them a “combination of mystery, beauty, and illusion,” and

this house was no exception. It was, and is, stunning. It must be seen to be fully appreciated.

When the Villa opened its doors, the interior furniture, fabric, glass, and decor were a feast for the senses. The main entry to the house was on the north side, with the entry hall featuring dark mahogany and walnut walls. a silver Lincrusta (linoleum like material) ceiling, and numerous art glass windows and interior transoms. To the left was a reception room, dubbed the “Pink Room,” as the upper part of the walls had pink fleur-de-lis designs and the furniture was upholstered in shades of pink.

Beyond the reception room was the Music Room, which occupied the entire east side of the house. It featured a rounded small conservatory with an encaustic tile floor, and art glass windows portraying the Four Seasons. The long east wall of the Music Room displayed a magnificent art glass window depicting the Greek poetess, Sappho, with separate panels on either side representing John Milton’s “Il Penseroso” and “Il Allegro.” At the north end of the room are circular windows containing portraits of Beethoven and Mozart, with similar portraits on the south wall of Rubens and Rafael. Beneath them are two full length portrait windows featuring allegorical representations of the Orient and the Occident. It was said that the face of the figure representing the Orient was that of Jesse Shepard.

On the south side of the house, centrally located between the Music Room and the Red Room (Jesse’s bedroom), was the drawing room. This room contains a corner fireplace and a stunning eighteen-foot-wide bay window featuring art glass portraits of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Corneille – the great poets of England, Germany and France.

Next to the Drawing Room was Jesse’s bedroom. This is an unusual feature of a Victorian home, as it was customary to have bedrooms on the second floor. As might be surmised, all the furnishings, wallpaper and candles were red. Between the bedroom and the back hall was the dressing room.

At the southwest corner of the first level was the Gold Room, which Jesse used as his library. Again – everything was done in shades of gold with art glass transoms.

Between the Gold Room and the Blue Room was a stairway leading down to the kitchen – complete with an art glass window of Saint Cecilia playing the organ. The kitchen level also contained storage rooms, servant’s dining room, laundry room and basement.

The Blue Room, aptly named for its pale blue draperies, bed linens, upholstered furniture and candles, was the bedroom and office of Jesse Shepard’s longtime secretary and companion, Lawrence Waldemar Tonner.

Between the Blue Room and the entry hall, in the dining room, is the most elaborate fireplace of all – it has an ornate over mantel and French beveled crystal doors.

Returning to the entry hall, (one has now come full circle) a stunning staircase rises to the second floor to a museum and art gallery. The gallery displayed paintings, etchings, sculptures, letters, and other memorabilia gifted to Shepard by European rulers and his other patrons. This room gives way to a narrow staircase leading to the Tower Room, which has an unobstructed view of San Diego, Point Loma, San Diego Bay and even Mexico. It was here that Jesse began his literary career, using the nom de plume Francis Grierson.

Jesse and his secretary lived in the house for approximately two years, and the Villa then passed through numerous owners, none of whom experienced much good luck during their tenure. Not surprisingly, this gave way to the feeling that the house was “cursed’ and even haunted. Although rumors fly, as they will, Louise Torio, President of the Friends of the Villa Montezuma, the non-profit managing the historic property, says it is not

haunted, but enchanted. It is certainly a symbol of a bygone era dedicated to opulence and beauty, where there was no such thing as “too much.” The Villa is now open for guided tours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. To reserve a spot, visit VillaMonteczumaMuseum.org.

Between January 27 and early April, in conjunction with the Davis-Horton House, the Villa will co-host a special exhibit, “A Splendid Decennium: Victorian to Vanguard” featuring works by internationally acclaimed fiber artist, Marty Ornish plus period art, furniture and ephemera of the period.

Sandee is the Historian and Lead Tour Guide for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].