By Katherine Hon | Past Matters
From grand mansions to humble bungalows, each home in San Diego’s early streetcar suburbs tells a story. The ending may be sad, with the original structure’s charming architecture remodeled beyond recognition or with the home demolished. But the ending may be happy, with the house preserved and treasured by owners who appreciate its irreplaceable materials and unique style.
Whatever the ending, historians enjoy discovering the beginning, especially if there are photographs involved. So when Bob Stemen called to share information about homes his grandfather, Frank Forrest Stemen, had built in City Heights in the 1920s, I welcomed the opportunity to look at family pictures of the homes and at journals written through the years by Frank Stemen’s wife and daughter.
The 1920 Census places 47-year-old Frank Stemen in Indiana on a farm with his brothers and his wife Katherine and children Ike, Carl (Bob’s father), Quinn, Janet and Dale. But in 1921, the family had moved to 3641 Central Ave. in East San Diego, which was a separate city from 1912 until 1923. The whole family participated in the building of their first home, as documented by a photograph with the following written on the back: “3641 Central, 1921. Taken June 18th in the a.m. Quinn & Dale plastering. Mrs. Murphy watering her lawn. I have come to prepare a place for you that where I am there you may be also. Meade [Frank’s brother] & I are talking about some day getting this 25-ft lot & planting fruit — figs, apricots, oranges, lemons etc.” The tent that was their living quarters while they completed the house can be seen at far right.
Over the next decade, Stemen built at least a dozen other homes, living in several of them as was common practice at the time. His innovative designs reflect an eclectic mix of revival style. The hollow tile building materials he used are clearly visible in the photo showing the multiple gabled house at 4243 Landis St. under construction. His most fanciful designs included castle turrets, and happily, these homes still stand at 4203 and 4294 Landis St. Stemen and his wife lived in 4294 Landis St. from 1927 until 1931. Other homes he built include 4209 and 4223 Landis, which are next to the castle at 4203 Landis, and three homes across the street at 4202, 4212 and 4220 Landis.
Nothing influences the individual character of a house more than the character of the individual who built it. What inspired Stemen to adopt a medieval castle theme for some of his homes? Perhaps he was inspired by the street name Castle Avenue, which was the former name of Landis Street from Boundary Street to approximately Euclid Avenue when East San Diego was a separate city.
In 1926, after East San Diego was annexed, much of the street was renamed Landis, and Castle Avenue became a short cul-de-sac extending east of Euclid Avenue. The street name harkens back to the original name of City Heights — Steiner, Klauber, Choate & Castle’s Addition. Of this consortium, Frederick Levy Castle was a San Francisco merchant who operated Castle Brothers tea importers and wholesale grocers as early as the 1860s. The 1,000 acres acquired by Castle and San Diego merchants Samuel Steiner and Abraham Klauber in the 1870s extended from Boundary Street east and University Avenue south to Chollas Creek. Daniel Choate, who came to San Diego in 1869 at the urging of Alonzo Horton, assisted with subdividing the land owned by Steiner, Klauber and Castle in 1887, but the real estate market went bust in 1888 and did not recover until the early 1900s. Castle, who died in 1893, did not live to see the growth of City Heights into a bustling mid-city community, nor did his fellow merchants. But descendents of Choate and Klauber became well-known for their many contributions to San Diego’s history. And thanks to Frank Stemen, there actually are a few castles in City Heights.
– Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at info@northparkhistory. org or 619-294-8990.