By Ronald V. May
After the 1909 announcement by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce to develop the Panama California Exposition in San Diego in 1915, a virtual land rush exploded as real estate speculators poured money into housing projects. Heir to a large plot of land surrounding the Victorian Villa Orizaba on hills overlooking San Diego Bay and Point Loma to the south, Harry L. Miller recruited a real estate development team to erect the first two of four “model homes” in the “Inspiration Heights” subdivision of what is now Mission Hills in 1911. Miller created a real estate marketing strategy to attract tourist lot buyers in anticipation of the exposition.
Miller and venture capitalist Henry H. Nelson planned to erect four “model homes” along the graded road facing the south boundary of the Mission Hills. By grading out Sunset Boulevard, landscaping the south lots in lawn and lining Sunset Boulevard with palm trees, laying cement sidewalks, curbs and gutters, Miller and Nelson sought to draw lot buyers from their competition.
Miller recruited his real estate development team through realtor John Rice in 1911, who sold the first two lots to Nelson. A partner with designer and builder Martin V. Melhorn and carpenter John J. Wahrenberger, of the Bay City Construction Company in 1911, Rice connected Nelson with the company to erect the first two model homes to market Inspiration Heights.
Melhorn worked with Wahrenberger two create a pair of two-story, high quality houses that captured the essence of the California Arts & Crafts Movement, so much in fashion at the time. The first house to be completed, located at 1955 Sunset Blvd., exhibited the Bay City Construction Company signature cobblestone chimney, battered porch piers and balustrade. Wahrenberger crafted a low-pitched front gable supported by knee brackets, horizontal wood siding, wide casement and double hung windows topped by narrow transom ventilators. The next house on the west lacked the cobblestone features, but complimented the wood carpentry.
Advertisements by Rice in the San Diego Union advertised Inspiration Heights as located at the “end of the Mission Hills car line.” The San Diego Union also published the “Dick to Dick letters,” written as if between two relatives on the merits of moving to San Diego and investing in land. The letters purported a man could arrive with less than $100 in his pocket and earn $15,000 in no time at all. Miller also advertised Inspiration Heights’s lots in Out West magazine in 1912.
By the time Nelson turned to the other two lots east of Alameda Drive and Sunset Boulevard in 1913, a number of prominent houses were under construction in the neighborhood. A. W. Mowlam won the contract for the last two model homes. The Miller family continued to market Inspiration Heights lots until the last one sold in the 1940s. Descendants of Harry L. Miller now live elsewhere in San Diego, but keep an eye on the old neighborhood.
The story of the Henry H. Nelson Speculation House at 1955 Sunset Blvd. and many other creations by Melhorn, Wahrenberger and other distinguished builders will be the focus of the Mission Hills Heritage Annual Lecture to be held at the Francis Parker School on Randolph Street on Jan. 21, 2012. The public is welcome to attend.