By Sandee Wilhoit
It has been said that you don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it. This may be true about Downtown’s oldest standing structure, the Davis-Horton house, the only home in which San Diego’s Founding Father, Alonzo Horton, lived that is still standing. Mr. Horton’s five mansions have all been razed. His original dwelling place is still here and is serving an integral purpose as a living history museum, tourist attraction and community resource. However, this cultural and historic jewel is in grave danger of permanently shutting its doors due to losses suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic closing. The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation (GQHF), which cares and operates the House as a museum, has been unable to hold their largest fundraiser, Gaslamp’s iconic ShamROCK Block Party, for the past two years.
The history of this house is long and storied. The home was originally built in Portland, Maine in 1850. It was then deconstructed, loaded on a ship, the Cybele, along with nine others and additional timber, and began its journey around Cape Horn towards San Francisco. It was to serve as housing for the many miners who had flooded to northern California in the hopes of making their fortune in the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush had its heyday in 1848-49, so by the time the little houses had completed their long and arduous journey, it was too little, too late. The Gold Rush was winding down and the need for housing had dwindled markedly.
William Heath Davis, a local sea captain, merchant and businessman saw an opportunity! He had previously visited San Diego, a fueling station for the military and sleepy little pueblo. He surmised that with its beautiful natural harbor, San Diego would make a perfect shipping port and trading hub. He promptly bought the ten little houses — and the boat they came in on — and sent them down to San Diego. If one is going to start a town, you need affordable housing! In its first inception, the house was the home of officers stationed here as part of the Army of the Pacific.
Unfortunately, Mr. Davis ran out of money, and his boomtown became a bust. Then, in 1867, Fate smiled on our fair city. Alonzo Horton, also from San Francisco, had heard of San Diego’s temperate climate, arrived at the foot of what is now Market street, and declared that San Diego was “heaven on earth” and the perfect place to build a city. He quickly paid George Pendleton, the County Clerk, $10 to call a public auction, and purchased 960 acres for $265, or roughly twenty-seven and a half cents an acre. Thus, was born San Diego, America’s Finest City! As the army had left, the little house initially located on State and Market, was available. Horton purchased the little home for his wife, Sarah Babe Horton, while he set about building the first of his mansions on State and G. He also began selling lots to populate his Newtown.
After the Hortons moved out, the house was purchased by Anna Scheper, a single mother and German immigrant. The house, by then, had been moved to 227 11th Street. Ms. Scheper opened the house as the first county hospital for the poor and indigent. She was paid a dollar per day per patient by the City. Although not a trained nurse, but a dedicated and compassionate one, Anna ran the hospital efficiently and successfully for nearly thirteen years.
The next notable inhabitants of the home were Henry and Lina Lohman and their adopted son George Deyo, a deserted child they took in and raised as their own. As the Lohmans were also German immigrants, they were sympathetic to the German cause during WWI, and allowed Karl Offer, a German officer and spy, to use their attic for a lockout post until he was arrested and jailed. Miraculously, the Lohmans escaped involvement, and upon their death, willed the home to George. George, in turn, took in a local boy, Edward Lanuza, and raised him in his home. Edward ultimately married, and he and his wife, Esther, raised their four children in the house with George.
It was George who first brought the structure to the attention of historical preservationists. The Davis House, the only survivor of the original 10 houses, was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. When George passed in 1977, he left the house to Esther Lanuza, who later donated the house to the City to become a museum.
When the restoration began in 1980, the house was moved to 410 Island Avenue, its current location, and because of the move, lost its national designation. However, the entire Gaslamp is now registered as a national historical district and the house is on the California registry. During the restoration, electricity was installed for the first time and 17 layers of wallpaper were removed, giving insights to the layers of history imbedded within the walls of this historic gem. Each room represents and era in the home and has been lovingly restored and furnished with period antiques.
The Davis-Horton House now serves as a museum and the home of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. Since 1981 the GQHF has played a vital part in preserving and protecting the history of the Gaslamp Quarter. Each year the museum welcomes thousands of visitors to the historic Gaslamp district, providing free programs for Title 1 schools and serving the community through lectures, historical reenactments with the Gaslamp Players, the annual free Fallback Festival for the children of San Diego, free open house events such as OH! San Diego, and is the cultural resource and historical archive of Gaslamp history. The Bum statue of San Diego’s town dog, a gift from our sister city Edinburgh, Scotland, graces the city pocket park surrounding the museum, and is a popular photo opportunity for both locals and visitors. An identical statue is located in Edinburgh, making this an especially popular destination for Scottish tourists.
The building is vital to the Historic Heart of San Diego. It is the historic heart of San Diego. We must all fight to keep it viable and save this invaluable historic resource from being lost.
Please help us with any donation of any amount at www.bit.ly/3xIGSeY. If we do not reach our goal, we will be forced to close permanently in June. Help us save San Diego’s history! Find out more on how to help: www.Gaslampfoundation.org/savethegaslampmuseum.
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian and lead tour guide for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Davis-Horton House
410 Island Avenue
Architectural Style: New England Saltbox