Save The Villa Montezuma

The centerpiece of the Sherman Heights Historic District, the 1887 Jesse Shepard Residence, the “Villa Montezuma.”  It was designed by one of San Diego’s finest Victorian era architectural firms Comstock and Trotsche.  The house is in a class by itself in San Diego architectural history.  It’s a National Landmark.  And is known nationally and internationally as an architectural work of art.

In April 1970 Save Our Heritage Organisation, SOHO, was barely a year old when it dedicated itself to saving this great Victorian.  Joining in support was the Historical Site Board, the A.I.A., and the San Diego Historical Society.

For a time SOHO and the Historical Society worked in tandem until SOHO achieved its Non-Profit status.  Until then cross members such as Kay Porter, Harry Evans and Nick Fintzelberg raised funds for the Villa through the Historical Society.  SOHO founder Robert Miles Parker,  and Nick Fintzelberg testified in Court to stop the planned demolition–and they were successful.  This was a leading happening in the history of Preservation in San Diego.  It lead to the Keeper of the National Register, William Murtagh, coming to town by invitation of SOHO.

It was Murtagh’s first visit to San Diego–and SOHO gave him the grand tour.  A ten-seat van was employed for the occaison.   It was to be driven by Nick Fintzelberg,  but he came came down with appendicitis, so Carol Lindemulder was recruited for driving duty.   On board along with Murtagh were John Henderson, Bob Ferris and Homer Delawie among others.  Miles Parker rode along as narrator and guide.

“Miles could never drive in any way that made sense,” Said Lindemulder.   “He’d be talking and pointing to the right, then say ‘Carol turn left!’ I’d be in the wrong lane–it was wild.  It is amazing Murtagh survived the whole thing!”

“Then we had a luncheon for him downtown at the Home Federal Building.  Mary Ward, Kay Porter, Clare Craine, among others were there too.  At the luncheon Murtagh reviewed for us every necessary detail in submitting the designation of a building for the  inclusion on the National register.  He brought pamphlets and information sheets that showed what kind of information you needed to have.  Mary Ward became a specialist in getting buildings designated.  I can’t even think of how many designations she went on to write in her life.  But those architects learned the same thing too–all because of the Keeper of the National Register coming to town telling us how to do this, which some of us knew nothing about.”

Miles Parker doesn’t recall the wild van ride and the specific details of the day as vividly as Carol.  But he did say the occasion ” worked well for Homer Delawie, Nick, Carol, and Sally Johns.”

Carol continued, “Out of those early happenings–saving the Villa Montezuma, then the Keeper coming, etc., you can say to this day, the importance of the Historical Site Board was strengthened, you can look at the State Historical Building code, the State Historical Commission, and the Mills Act.  San Diego has been represented on those State Boards–primarily by architects.  It was because of those early events–and what the Keeper brought–that got us off the ground and running.  Milford Wayne Donaldson, of course, was later with SOHO.  But he was very much a part of what was going on–and is now State Historic Preservation Officer.

Carol Lindemulder concluded, “When I look at the whole picture of what happened at the beginning, and all the fingers that came after that, is quite fantastic.  None of us could have seen how that would become the history of SOHO.  And how that would effect all historic preservation throughout California–and certainly in the major San Diego area.”

In 2001 SOHO’s Bruce Coons worked as a consultant to Architect Milford Wayne Donaldson on the exterior restoration of the Villa Montezuma.  SOHO board member David Marshall was Project Architect.

“We did a lot of work on ladders with our razor blades scraping away at the layers of paint trying to find the original color scheme.  Bruce and I were sharing ladders, trading razor blades back and forth trying to find those colors until we finally got the match,” Said Marshall.

Bruce Coons remembers “The effort was complicated by the fact that the Villa had gone through paint removal several times in the past, down to bare wood, leaving only the smallest fragments of the original pigment and in many instances, none at all.”

“The available evidence was reviewed, which included paint scrapings, historic photos, books on Victorian color schemes, a previous report by Will Chandler, my own investigations, conversations with people who have worked on the building over the past 30 years, and giving the most weight to the paint analysis by Historic Paint and Architectural Services. A good picture of the original colors began to emerge.”

“I then reviewed the data against common practice of the time, such as: suggested color schemes for Queen Anne Houses, color affinity charts, and another Queen Anne structure built by the same architects also in 1887. The combination of this material presented a strong case for the most accurate color scheme. There may have been additional colors not yet been found, but all major colors have been identified and placed in appropriate locations. Where not attainable colors were placed according to common practice of the time.”

“With this basic 1887 color scheme identified, we now have a true and accurate representation of the house as built when Jesse Shepard resided there.”

In conclusion Bruce said “bringing the colors together for the Villa was a great thrill for me. For the kind of work I do the Villa Montezuma was the ultimate project, and one near to my heart, having wanted to see it in its original state for thirty years.”

David added “When the project was all restored and done, it won some awarads–it was a really great project.  That paint is still on the building and is getting close to needing another paint job.”

Jesse Shepard

Sadly the house has been closed-up for 3 years. It was placed on SOHO’s most endangered list as it sat deteriorating.  Earlier this year San Diego Historical Society relinquish the house to the City due to financial problems.

The current vacant status of the Villa Montezuma has been very detrimental to the National Landmark over the past four years.

The good News is that SOHO is offering its expertise in House Museum operations and historic architectural restoration to the City of San Diego. To stand up for the house it saved 40 years ago.

SOHO’s resume in this regard is one of the best in the nation.

It brought Old Town San Diego’s Whaley House from a falling apart state to being a site visited by people from all over the world. It’s featured on cable programs regularly. Careful period interpretation has guided on-going and continual restoration work–which itself is part of SOHO educational program. SOHO even revived theater productions at the Whaley House, which was also San Diego’s first commercial theater. Before SOHO it had been dark for over a hundred years.

The public had never enjoyed the Whaley House so completely before SOHO took over.

Then when SOHO took over Balboa Park’s Marston House, the resource went from a mildewy shuttered state to standing tall and proud in only 23 days. On May 21, 2010 more people visited the Marston House than in  the entire previous year.

SOHO will be just as successful in making the Villa Montezuma a major cultural tourist destination– which is great News for city tourism, the resource, and for everybody who cherishes this vitally important historical landmark.

Please sign the on line petition to Save the Villa Montezuma

Also view my short film titled Save the Villa Montezuma

Dan Soderberg
I am Dan Soderberg, award winning documentary film maker and phototgrapher specializing in architecture, historic preservation and nature.

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