University Heights celebrates 125th anniversary with a variety of planned festivities
By Dave Fidlin | SDUN Reporter
In its earliest days, it was an area known for a 20-acre botanical garden, burgeoning housing stock, a new streetcar line, a teacher training college and, of course, ostriches.
University Heights has roots going back to 1888, and a celebratory 125th gala is planned Aug. 10 to pay homage to the neighborhood’s rich, vibrant history, as well as the progress that has taken place in the past 125 years.
Considered one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods, University Heights’ beginnings are traced back to a decision by the College Hill Land Association to subdivide land that bordered City Park in an effort to develop the University of Southern California College of Fine Arts, a project that eventually was stalled because of a recession at the time.
Members of the University Heights Community Association (UHCA) have been vigorously researching the neighborhood’s deep past in recent months as planning for the upcoming celebration picked up steam.
The UHCA is holding its celebration at the historic Trolley Barn Park. A variety of special events are planned, including lawn games, a scavenger hunt, tours and live music. Visitors will also have an opportunity to view a replica trolley from 1935.
Several dignitaries, including Council President Todd Gloria, will be on hand to pay tribute to the important chapter in University Heights’ history.
The milestone 125th celebration might not have happened if Carol Neidenberg, vice-president of the UHCA, had not received historical designation for her home a few years ago.
“I was looking through some papers when that occurred,” said Neidenberg, who became a resident of University Heights about the time of the neighborhood’s centennial celebration, 25 years ago. “I found a document with information on the subdivision of land in 1888, and as I did the math, I realized we were approaching our 125th anniversary. I thought to myself, ‘Gee, this is probably important.’”
Information gleaned by Neidenberg and other UHCA members showed parcels of land within University Heights were sold at modest prices – in accordance with the times – and a portion of sales were to have gone toward a college-building fund.
Although plans for the USC College of Fine Arts campus were put off by the recession, proceeds eventually went toward the construction of the San Diego State Normal School, a teacher-training college, in 1897.
Located near the intersections of Normal Street and Park and El Cajon boulevards, the 1910 Teachers Training Annex #1 is the sole building left from the Normal School, the “forerunner to present day San Diego State University,” Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) states.
Now owned by the San Diego Unified School District, the building served as the original Alice Birney Elementary School until 1951. A National Register site, it is currently used as storage for school records. It has been on SOHO’s Most Endangered List of Historic Resources for two years.
During the neighborhood’s formative time, University Heights grew with the creation of the Mission Cliff botanical garden site and the 1904 relocation of the Harvey Bentley Ostrich Farm.
With the raging success of the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” Neidenberg said she believes visitors will find the ostrich history particularly interesting since the bird’s feathers were used to highlight fashion worn by women in that era.
“Many people today don’t know that ostrich feathers were made to make those fabulous hats,” Neidenberg said.
University Heights musician John Ciccolella is among the UHCA members involved in planning the 125th celebration. For more than a year, Ciccolella said he and other organizers have been gathering monthly to determine what festivities would be offered.
“There’s going to be something there for everyone to enjoy,” said Ciccolella, who will be among the musicians performing throughout the day. “Music and art will be an important part of what will be taking place that day, but history will as well.”
Neidenberg said all of the planning has been a labor of love and is designed to give residents, business owners and people who frequently visit the community an opportunity to appreciate University Heights’ past, present and future.
“Over the years, Hillcrest, North Park and Mission Hills had nibbled away at portions of University Heights,” Neidenberg said. “But there’s always been resilience in this community. It’s still vibrant, and it’s a place worth looking at.”
For more information on the celebration, which takes place Aug. 10 from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. at Trolley Barn Park, visit uhsd.org. For the complete event flyer, supplied by the UHCA, download this pdf of the above image.