House Calls: A brief history of the Burlingame neighborhood

Posted: January 9th, 2011 | Homes & Garden, Lifestyle, North Park | No Comments

By Michael Good | SDUN Columnist

No animals allowed: The house of Zoological Society founder Harry Wegeforth, where, despite the rumors, no lions were kept. (Michael Good/SDUN)

Joseph McFadden and George Buxton thought they were creating something completely unique when, in 1911, they laid the groundwork for the North Park neighborhood of Burlingame. Today, however, we recognize the 188-home neighborhood as the precursor of something wholly familiar—the modern housing tract.

McFadden & Buxton took a number of ideas that were wafting around the American zeitgeist at the turn of the century and blended them together to form Burlingame. Instead of the street grid that had served America for centuries, they went with curvaceous boulevards that followed the lay of the land. They got rid of the alley (with its unsavory associations), installed colorful rose sidewalks, set aside areas for shops and a playground (complete with a drinking fountain!) and designed the period equivalent of the modern freeway, a canyon road that would take automobile owners directly downtown. They called it The Tract of Character.

The organization they created to design, build, promote and sell the tract would also be recognizable today.

The Systems Firm employed some 30 specialists under McFadden & Buxton’s control, insuring a uniformity of vision for the project, much as you’d expect to find in a major development today. “This is the age of specializing, the jack-of-all-trades is obsolete,” McFadden & Buxton proclaimed in one of its many advertisements. The Systems Firm coordinated the efforts of builders, developers, architects, salesmen, insurers and public relations people. But uniformity in design wasn’t part of the program. McFadden & Buxton wanted every house in the project to be unique, sometimes wildly so. Of the nearly three-dozen houses built in the first two years, only a few can even be said to be of the same type, and no two are alike.

But McFadden & Buxton’s biggest innovation was in the realm of marketing, where the firm was really ahead of its time, as the late Donald Covington explained in his book, “Burlingame: the Tract of Character, 1912-1929,” which has recently been republished after being out of print for more than a decade.

“Those marketing schemes were masterpieces of showmanship that rivaled Hollywood hijinks,” Covington wrote.

This “hype,” as Covington calls it, worked—34 lots were sold on opening weekend, Jan. 13, 1912.

The people who bought those first houses were also unique. Dr. Harry Wegeforth, the physician who founded the San Diego Zoological Society, was married in his house on Laurel Street, with Hollywood royalty the Talmadge sisters in attendance. (Rumors of Wegeforth keeping zoo animals in the canyon behind his house are, unfortunately, not true.) Future mayor (and mortuary owner) Percival Benbough bought nine of the 10 houses on Kalmia Street and filled them with his family members. That one of the houses on the street has a rather sepulchral air is probably an accident.

Burlingame is unique in another way: The Burlingame Club, which has protected the neighborhood
from the bane of all Uptown neighborhoods: the six-unit apartment house. (It also prevented the road through Switzer Canyon from ever being built.) Burlingame was so isolated when it was first conceived that the women in the community formed a group that still survives today (it’s the oldest continuous women’s organization in San Diego). The Burlingame Club began as a social organization, morphed into a service organization during the lean years of the Depression, and today is also a preservation group, hosting the popular home tours. (Burlingame also has a homeowner’s association, which accepts men.) After a 25 year struggle, Burlingame was designated an historic district in 2009. Today, 123 houses are covered by the Mills Act, which might be a neighborhood record.

If you’re looking for inspiration for how to do a historically correct remodel, there are dozens of examples in Burlingame. If you’re shopping for contractors and tradesmen who understand old houses, you’ll find them working almost any day in Burlingame. Crash a Burlingame Homeowners Association meeting, and you’ll probably come away with a list of restoration specialists.

The main thing that makes Burlingame interesting to those who don’t live there, however, is the fact that people like Donald Covington have researched the heck out of it. Few neighborhoods have had so much interesting stuff gleaned about them. The Systems Firm documented its activities well, (all that hype was worth something after all), and over the years the Burlingame Club kept careful track of the tract.

Covington puts all that information into the form of a walking guide that provides insight not just into Burlingame, but also into any house built in San Diego between 1912 and 1929. If you’re stumped about what style your house is, you’ll probably find the answer in “Burlingame” book. Covington details the architectural styles and history of 29 houses. Among the styles you’ll find: Italianate, Japonesque,
Plateresque, Mission Revival, Mediterranean Revival, Prairie Style and Craftsman. The fact that your house isn’t in the book doesn’t mean you won’t find information there about it. Many of the same builders who worked in Burlingame worked elsewhere in San Diego, particularly the West end of North Park, where McFadden & Buxton also sold lots and built houses.

Burlingame’s history mirrors that of other San Diego neighborhoods of the era. There was a flurry of lot-selling and home building in 1912, and then the market collapsed. After the initial 34 houses were built, only 11 more were completed between 1913 and 1920. It wasn’t the fault of The Systems Firm. The economy took a dive in 1913-14. That was followed by the Mexican Revolution, which put a damper on international trade, the First World War, which the U.S. entered in 1917, and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed millions.

This dormant period was followed by a real estate boom in Burlingame, and in the rest of San Diego. Between 1920 and 1929, 135 houses were built. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, Burlingame
was pretty much built-out.

McFadden & Buxton didn’t make it that far. In fact, The System Firm only lasted two years. After that, the two men went their separate ways. Eventually, both left real estate altogether. The problem, ironically for the creators of “The Tract of Character,” was a matter of character.

“They were very different in personality,” Covington told me in 1998, shortly after his book was first published. “You know, I think they probably didn’t get along too well. One was more flamboyant, one more conservative. They were just too different.”

The same can’t be said of Burlingame, which 99 years later remains just different enough. And when it comes to older neighborhoods, different is a good thing. It may even be the key to survival.

Donald Covington’s “Burlingame: The Tract of Character, 1912-1929” is available at Vintage Religion, 3821 32nd St.

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