San Diego and The Gilded Age, Pt. 1

The intricate Villa Montezuma in San Diego, California. 

I recently returned from vacationing in San Diego, California - an alluring, scenic place that I'd definitely recommend visiting - and while there I saw some truly beautiful architecture. Most of it was modern, I'll admit, but it made me curious about some of the historic homes that were there.

When one thinks of the Gilded Age, the city San Diego, or even California in general, most likely doesn't come to mind, since most of the industrial boom and the wealth it created, resulting in the name The Gilded Age, occurred on the East Coast. However, San Diego does have some beautiful residences that were built during the time period. But unlike their North Eastern counterparts, the wealthy who lived in San Diego during the Gilded Age didn't choose to build chateaus and palaces that covered entire city blocks, but rather smaller, more intimate homes with tinier, albeit still very luxurious, entertaining rooms. Granted, they don't compare in lavishness and scale to, say, the Breakers in Newport, Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, or many of the other famed mansions of the period; however, they are, nevertheless, still gems in their own right.

I plan on making this a several-part series. For this part, I'll start with the incredible Villa Montezuma.

The Villa Montezuma was built in 1887 by the celebrated musician Jesse Shepard, who had spent the past two decades traveling across Europe and America entertaining royals (including the Prince of Wales and the Czar of Russia), dignitaries and the wealthy with his incredible rang of voice and his recently acquired and honed skills at conducting seances (he often "spoke" with Egyptian spirits, incorporating their conversations into his performances). Wherever he went, the smooth-talking entertainer charmed others with his performances. 

Jesse Shepard at the piano.

Save for the Villa, Jesse had had no previous connection to San Diego, a town that had very little to offer in the way of culture and the arts at the time, which, at first glance, makes it seem odd that he'd choose there, of all places, to erect his ornate palace. However, Jesse and his future home had a very specific purpose: they were both there with the specific intention of attracting attention to the city. According the biography of Jesse's companion, Lawrence W. Tonner, the home was financed by several wealthy residents within the city, most notably William E. High, a rancher, who donated the land the home stands upon in addition to providing the funds.

The Villa Montezuma as it appeared when it was first built.

In February of that year the San Diego Sun announced that “Jesse Shep­ard, formerly of Paris, France, will build a ten thousand dollar cottage on the corner of Nineteenth and K Streets. Messers Com­stock and Trotsche, architects, are prepar­ing the plans.” They completed the residence in June, for a reported cost of around $20,000, though it wasn't for another two month that Shepard occupied the home, with it being rented out to another of the wealthy members who had financed the home, Colonel and Mrs. Tom Fitch, in the meantime. 

Basement floor plan.

First floor plan.

Second floor plan.

When Jesse returned to the Villa in September, he immediately set out to decorate his new home. The interior of the residence was designed to dazzle and attract attention just as much as the exterior had been: Chinese vases, bric-a-brac, oriental carpets, paintings and tapestries and other items that Jesse had acquired during his travels across Europe and Asia. Looking at photos, the home has an incredible amount of clutter, which, of course, was in-style during the time period. 

You'll notice in the floor plans that there's a bedroom on the first floor, adjacent to the drawing room. It is the one-and-only bedroom in the home - it was, truly, Jesse Shepard's bachelor pad. 

The drawing room, displaying Jesse's large collection of bric-a-brac.

Stair hall.

Drawing room fireplace. 

Drawing room. 

Jesse Shepard actually lived in the home only a year, during which time he gave many musical performances and parties in the home. According to the San Diego History Center, his most spectacular one was on New Year's Eve:

"Each room of the house was decorated with a different kind of flower that harmonized with the room’s decor: there were orange blossoms, roses, lilies, holly, and ferns. After the guests had enjoyed refreshments, Shep­ard played and sang selections from the operas of Meyerbeer, Wagner, Mozart, and Verdi; and he concluded the performance with a composition of his own, the Grand Egyptian March. This was apparently an impressionistic composition, in which Shep­ard simulated the sounds of marching armies, trumpets, drums, tambourines, bat­tle clashes and cannon booms."

Music room fireplace. 

Music room.

In 1889, Shepard, after spending time in Europe publishing a collection of essay he'd written, decided to move to Paris full-time and returned to San Diego to make arrangements for his departure. This included selling the Villa Montezuma, though not before giving a fabulous farewell concert before he left which, interestingly, took place on the day he sold the residence. The new owner: David D. Dare, Vice President of the California Na­tional Bank.

Dare was a conman, who swindled his firm and his business partner and fled town before the police could catch him, selling the home before he left for $30,000 in 1890, compared to the $25,000 he paid Jesse for the place just a few months earlier, to H. P. Palmerston, who was unable to make payments on the home and was forced to foreclose. From here the house goes through a series of various owners, most of whom don't reside there for long, save for a couple, Frank and Georgia Lynch, who lived there from 1909 till their deaths in 1942.

Music room doors. The home, particularly the music room, has a large amount of stained glass.

Perhaps the most interesting owners of the home after Jesse Shepard were its last ones: Carl and Amelia Yaeger, who bought the home in 1950. Carl was a retired engineer, while Amelia was a real estate agent and former silent film star, who, apparently, was a real piece of work. Unable to accept her husband's death in 1958, she supposedly would stand on the sidewalk outside the home and ask those who passed by where he was. Eventually she came to accept his passing, and developed a habit for smoking.

In later years, the biggest threat Amelia faced was vandals and burglars. People would throw rocks through the windows, either in attempt to vandalize a beautiful property and scare her into moving, though Amelia remained determined to stay where she was, leaving the rocks on the floor where they fell to remind the few people she allowed inside that she wasn't going anywhere. On night she awoke to find two men standing over her bed, though they ran off when she screamed violently at them, and after that night she carried a 38-caliber Smith and Wesson, which she kept in the drawer of her bedside table and occasionally fired at suspicious people who stood on her lawn.

The Villa Montezuma is today owned by the City of San Diego, who had been restoring the property since taking over ownership of it in 1971 - Amelia tried to sell the home in 1968 for $12,000, though the sale was contested and eventually its purchased with the intention of creating a museum - a limited tours are available throughout the year. You can visit the website HERE.

Be on the lookout for others parts to my series on San Diego and the Gilded Age.

Library of Congress
San Diego History Center


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