Blog : San Diego

Davis-Horton House -168 Years and Still Standing!

Davis-Horton House -168 Years and Still Standing!

The Davis-Horton House


410 Island Avenue

 Architecture: Two-Story Wooden New England Saltbox

 Mortice and Tenon Construction

Through rain and sleet and storms, and even through floods – yes, two of them – the Davis-Horton House, the oldest standing structure in downtown San Diego, has managed to survive.


The little yellow house on the corner of Fourth and Island has a long and storied history. It was originally pre-cut in Portland ,Maine, in 1850, along with nine others, loaded on a ship, the Cybele, and sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Its original purpose was to serve as housing for the 49ers, the miners who were flooding northern California in search of gold. Gold had recently been discovered in the Sutter’s Mill area, and fortune hunters were coming in droves from all over the country hoping to seek their fortune. One room in such a house could rent for as much as $1,000 per week! However, by the time the Cybele reached San Francisco, the Gold Rush was slowing down considerably, and the houses were no longer in demand. The houses and even the ships were for sale at a highly reduced rate.


William Heath Davis, a wealthy merchant and ship’s captain, saw an opportunity and seized it. Although he was based in San Francisco, he had previously done some surveying in the San Diego area, and had always felt that our current downtown, with its beautiful natural harbor, would make an excellent town and seaport. Davis purchased the Cybele with its cargo of houses, and had it sail south back to San Diego. He knew if a town was to be built, housing was a first priority. This was followed by the construction of a 60 foot long pier at the foot of Market Street. Davis’s new town was centered in what is now Pantoja Park in the Marina district, and the Davis-Horton House was originally located on what is now State and Market Streets. Its first inhabitants were Army officers stationed with the Army of the Pacific. Two prominent occupants were General Nathaniel Lyon and General John Bankhead MacGruder. When the Civil War began, many of the soldiers were sent back East to shore up Union troops, while others left to return to the southern states and to support the Confederacy. General Lyon was the first Union general to be killed in the war, while General MacGruder served with distinction for the South.  After the war, MacGruder returned to the area, and became a rancher in the National City area.


The next notable person to inhabit the house was our Founding Father, Alonzo Horton. Mr. Davis had lost $700,000 in a warehouse fire, and was forced to give up his dream of a new city by the bay.  However, he urged his acquaintance , Mr. Horton, to visit San Diego, as he felt the area had promise. Horton agreed, and after a brief visit, he had a public land auction called and purchased 960 acres for $265.00 , or roughly twenty seven and a half cents per acre. He promptly began to lay out a city and sell lots. Needing a place to live, he purchased one of Davis’s little houses, and in a most cavalier gesture titled it in his wife’s name. The house was then moved from its original site at State and Market to 227 11th Street, where it remained until it was moved in 1980 to its current location. The Davis-Horton House is the only house in which Alonzo Horton lived that is still standing. Horton had five mansions built during his years in San Diego; they have all been razed.


Upon the Horton’s departure, the house served as a boarding house for a brief period of time. The next tenant of note was Anna Scheper, a German immigrant, who purchased the house for $1,500. Ms. Scheper operated the first “County Hospital” in the dwelling.  She was paid a dollar per day per patient by the county to care for indigent citizens. Consequently, she housed patients in every room with the exception of the parlor and the kitchen! Nurse Scheper maintained the hospital for eight and a half years, and was credited with providing excellent care to those under her supervision.


In 1898, the house was purchased by a German immigrant couple, Henry and Lina Lohman, who had been renting the house. As they were older and childless, they took in a 5-year-old boy , who was begging in the neighborhood. The little boy, named George Deyo, had been deserted by his mother, father, and grandmother. When the Lohmans passed away in 1936, quite close together, they left the property to George.


George never married, but while strolling along 5th Avenue, he noticed a young man around 10-11 years old, who was also begging. This scruffy looking fellow was trying to secure funds to attend a new craze – the movies! George took a liking to the boy, Edward Lanuza, and asked Edward’s grandmother, who was raising him, if he might take him into his home and raise him. Edward’s grandmother was more than happy to oblige George!


Edward grew up, married a young woman named Esther Gonzales, and brought her to live with he and George. The Lanuzas had four children and continued to live in the Davis-Horton House with George. The house still did not have electricity, and was not electrified until it was opened as a museum in 1984.


When George passed in 1977, he left the house to Esther Lanuza, as he felt that Edward had a gambling problem and might sell the property to bankroll his games.


In 1979, Esther sold the land where the house stood to Robert Oswald, and in accordance with George Deyo’s wishes, deeded the house to the city.  In was moved in 1980 to its current, and permanent, location. It now operates as a non-profit and the home of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation.


Before the last move, a  basement gallery was constructed, and the two-story house placed over it. The gallery has served as a gift shop, offices and most recently as offices and as a venue for historic presentations and exhibits.


Through three locations, numerous tenants, several purposes and a slew of owners, this house has survived, and is visited by thousands yearly. However, this little jewel in the heart of the Gaslamp, now needs help to mitigate the effects of two floods suffered in less than one year. Fortunately, none of the antiques were damaged, but the basement suffered severely.  It is in the process of being reconstructed internally, waterproofed and made ADA compliant. To this end, a special fund has been set up to assist in this massive endeavor, and to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the historic Davis-Horton House.


To contribute, please visit our website or come visit the museum Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 – 5:00 daily and 12:00 – 4:00 on Sundays.


Sandee is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]

History for the Holidays

History for the Holidays

Join us on Sunday, December 9th from 2 PM – 4 PM for our annual Holiday Open House! Our halls will be decked with Victorian-style Christmas cheer and there will be free house tours, docents dressed up in period attire, and light refreshments!  Come experience the holidays at the oldest edifice in the historic Gaslamp Quarter!

The Ghost of Christmas Past – A Victorian Christmas

The Ghost of Christmas Past – A Victorian Christmas

No era has influenced the way we celebrate Christmas as much as the Victorian era. Before the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837, Christmas was largely unheard of. One of the most significant cultural shifts within the Victorian period was the introduction of the holiday season, which occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The increase in wealth and the infrastructure allowed factory workers to take Christmas Day and Boxing Day off , and celebrate the holiday with their families. The term Boxing Day originated when the less fortunate opened their boxes of gifts from the wealthier classes. It is still commonly used today in Britain and Canada to celebrate the day after Christmas.


The custom of giving and receiving gifts was originally done on New Year’s Day, but as the significance of Christmas began growing, it was moved to Christmas Day. It also became a time to reward children with gifts, although the gifts differed greatly according to the family’s financial status. At the beginning of the Victorian period, the children of the rich received handmade toys, which were quite labor intensive to make and expensive. The children of the poor received stockings filled with fruit and nuts, a tradition we still have today. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, factories were able to produce toys more rapidly and much less expensively, so they became more accessible to all. The size of the gifts also increased. Initially, small gifts were hung from the tree, but as the gifts began to increase in size and complexity, the placement of gifts became “under the tree.” The popularity of the indoor tree grew quickly giving rise to the new market for ornaments in bright colors and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter by candlelight. The first advertisements for tree ornaments appeared in 1850. One of the most popular ornaments was the glass Christmas pickle. It was hidden way inside the branches of the tree for good luck. On Christmas day, the finder of the pickle was either given a special extra gift or allowed to open his/her gifts first. The tradition of the pickle dates back to a medieval story of two Spanish boys traveling home to celebrate Christmas. They became weary and stopped at an inn, where the innkeeper, an evil man, stole their possessions and hid them in a pickle barrel. Luckily for them, St. Nicholas came along, saved them and sent them on their way. Victorians also placed candles on their trees, which have now been replaced by electric lights.


The Christmas tree, itself, was a tradition brought to England in 1840 by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, from his native Germany. This tradition is one of the most significant aspects of our modern Christmas celebrations.


Mistletoe and holly became popular decorations, and for weeks before Christmas, these greens were sold by vendors on the streets. Holly was the most popular as it was a fairly common hedge on wealthier estates. However, selling holly became a somewhat precarious business if a vendor was caught helping himself to the branches of one such house! Such a poor soul would be lucky if all he lost was his cache of holly and didn’t end up in jail.


What would Christmas be without cards? Believe it or not, they did not begin with Hallmark. The first Christmas card was made in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, who asked an artist, John Callicort Horsely, to create a card Cole could sell in his art shop. The card featured a group of people around a festive dinner table and a Christmas message. Sir Henry had 1000 printed and sold them for one shilling each, which was considered rather pricey for ordinary Victorians. The idea was successful though, and the wealthier families began sending out cards every Christmas. Queen Victoria was a huge fan, and had her children create and send their own cards. In 1870, a halfpenny postage rate was introduced, and printing technology became more advanced, which made this a more accessible custom for the less affluent. By 1880, over 11.5 million cards were printed, and a national tradition was born. Some of the early commercial cards were rather creepy though, as they featured ogres chasing bad children, scary clowns and other unpleasant themes. But – commercialization of Christmas was well on its way!


Another commercial Christmas industry was born when a confectioner, Tom Smith, came up with a new and unique way to sell sweets. His invention was a simple tube-like package, which was filled with candy and small gifts, and when pulled, would snap apart. Voila! the Christmas cracker!


By 1881, simplicity in holiday decorating had given way to elaborate and elegant customs. In Cassell’s Family Magazine, the lady of the house was instructed that it was worth the while to bestow some trouble on the decorations of the rooms and especially on the menu for the Christmas feast. Early Victorian recipes indicate that the traditional mince pies were originally made with meat, a Tudor tradition, but in the 19th century the composition of this dish changed. Recipes without meat, but heavy on dried fruit, became the norm. The turkey also has its roots in Victorian times, as it was the perfect size for a middle-class family, and quickly replaced the traditional goose. Poor people often subscribed to a “Goose Club,” where they put aside small sums on a regular basis to save for the Christmas feast. Thus, this would ensure that even the poorest would have a feast to celebrate. Oysters, often called the “protein of the poor,” were also popular.


After the feast, the entertainment would begin. Victorians loved entertainment and parlor games were a favorite. These games helped pass the time and cheered everyone up. At times, however, they could prove a bit dangerous. Along with such staples as charades and musical chairs, there was snapdragon. Snapdragon was not a game for the faint of heart, as a bowl was filled with raisins, covered with rum and set ablaze. The task was to snatch the raisins out of the bowl and eat them while they were still afire. For the less daring, there was rabbit kissing, in which a lady and a gentleman put a piece of cotton between their lips and rubbed noses until their lips met.


Another form of entertainment was caroling, which began in Elizabethan times, but was popularized by the Victorians, and served as a means to gather around the wassail bowl. Going from house to house and singing might prove tiring, and carolers were usually invited in to share a cup of hot punch called wassail. The basis for the punch was either apple cider or beer, which was then enhanced by adding cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, lemon slices, and sometimes roasted crab apples. The punch often became thick and foamy, and the foam floating on the top was called “lamb’s wool.”


As in modern times, football also became a tradition and form of entertainment on Christmas Day. The games consisted of league matches, which became so popular that they often caused the fans to postpone their Christmas feast in order to attend the game. The first league match on Christmas Day occurred in 1889, and drew a crowd of 9,000.


A Victorian Christmas and our modern Christmas are alike in many ways. The celebration helps to bring family and friends together with feelings of goodwill and sharing. As Charles Dickens says in his Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, “God bless us everyone.”


The staff of the the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation wishes everyone a happy holiday season, and we invite you to History for the Holidays on December 9, our annual open house featuring the Davis-Horton House lavishly decorated in true Victorian style.


Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]