By Michael Good
A look at a Mission Hills house formerly owned by local judge
[Editor’s Note: This column offers a glimpse into the history of the “Marsh House,” one of the locations in the upcoming Mission Hills Heritage home tour. To learn more about additional houses featured at the event, see pages 12 and 13.]
For Teresa Merrick, there was just something about the big, white house on the corner. She still gets enthusiastic just thinking about it.
“It was just a really beautiful house,” Merrick said, referring to her first impression of what is now the family home. “Someone had paid attention to designing it. We just liked how old it was. It was high up. And you get a really good breeze from the bay.”
You can sample that breeze and experience seven other south Mission Hills treasures when Mission Hills Heritage (MHH) stages its annual home tour, Saturday, Sept. 22.
That breeze is especially strong up on the roof, which is accessible through a staircase in the upstairs bedroom closet.
“It’s almost like a secret passage,” Merrick said. The staircase is steep and narrow — not something you’d want to go up and down every day, At the top of the stairs is a sort of trap door, leading you outside on the tar-covered, flat roof without a railing. The view of the bay and the California Tower is pleasant, provided you’re a mountain climber or a roofer.
“We go up there every Fourth of July,” Merrick said, who has two intrepid kids and a husband. “We can see five fireworks displays.”
The house was built for Spencer Marsh, who, by all accounts, was as sober as a judge. Because he was a judge. And a temperance advocate. He probably didn’t spend a lot of time up on the roof.
So if not for the fireworks, what, exactly, was the secret stairway and hatch for?
“It was a form of air conditioning,” Merrick said. “When you open it up, the heat rises.”
Even with the hatch closed, the house gets a pretty decent breeze.
“Every side has windows,” she continued. “As long as there is any breeze at all, you’re able to capture it. It was built pre-air conditioning. It has the most marvelous air conditioning naturally.”
As you might expect from a house built 104 years ago, the place has a few quirks. There are seats built into the west-facing living room windows — but they are 3 feet off the ground, so you can’t sit on them. There are shallow storage boxes beneath, but their specific purpose is unknown.
In addition to these interior window boxes with cubbies, there’s an odd shallow cupboard in the downstairs bedroom. And an unfinished basement that assumes you are about 3 feet tall, and don’t mind being surrounded by dirt. But unfinished basements — where the stills were kept during Prohibition — are one of Mission Hills’s hidden secrets.
Then there’s the architecture itself.
“Two stories, like a wedding cake,” Merrick explained. “Two boxes on top of each other.”
It could be Prairie. It could be International style. Teresa thinks it’s a bit “Irving Gill-esque,” and she might have a point. If you squint, it looks a bit like the Hugo Klauber house collided with the Russell C. Allen Residence. It’s a marriage of styles — befitting a wedding cake.
Finally, there’s Spencer Marsh himself, who seems a bit quirky, even by today’s standards. Marsh ran for statewide office in Wisconsin on a single issue: street railways, which he thought needed regulating; he claimed the pricing structure was illogical and unfair. Once in office, he latched onto another issue: Temperance. Marsh crafted a law that would make it much easier for prohibitionists to outlaw drinking, one county at a time. And he did this in Wisconsin, a state famous for its breweries. His measure went down in defeat, and Marsh ended up being a one-term state senator, leading to his move to Southern California.
In San Diego, Marsh was a middle-aged man in a big hurry. He went from lawyer, to assistant district attorney, to district attorney, to acting judge, then elected judge.
As a judge, he ruled that women should be able to serve on juries, just like men, provided they owned property. He made history with the severity of his sentences, giving a drunk driver a three-year sentence in San Quentin — for a first offense. He was a Grand Master in the Masons. He was on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When registering to vote, he answered the question of his party affiliation with a single word: “No.”
In the summer of 1930, after 13 years on the bench, Judge Marsh announced he was taking a two-month vacation. While visiting his family in Wisconsin, he experienced some sort of nervous breakdown. On Oct. 23 Marsh wrote his clerk, asking him to inform the governor that he resigned.
“Although I am feeling greatly improved, I still think it advisable for me to resign the judgeship so I may have a few months more for rest and recreation,” Judge Marsh wrote in the letter to his clerk. “I find it requires a considerable length of time to recover from a nervous attack.”
“Judge Marsh attributes his broken health to overwork,” according to an Evening Tribune article published on Oct. 23, 1930. The article continued that he planned “to resume light practice of law” when he returned.
Apparently, the practicing wasn’t light enough, and two years later Marsh died “after an illness of only a few weeks,” as the Evening Tribune reported on Oct. 12, 1932.
Teresa Merrick imagines the front bedroom of her house could have been Marsh’s office. It had a separate entrance, which has since been covered up. And then there’s that quirky cabinet, high up on the bedroom wall. Could it have been a cubby for storing legal papers? Court documents? His favorite gavel?
Or maybe it was the perfect place to store a bottle and a couple of glasses for a special occasion. Or an attack of nerves.
The Mission Hills home tour is Saturday, Sept. 22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are available online at the MHH website or in person on the day of the event.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.