By Michael Good | House Calls
San Diego premier Spanish Colonial neighborhood is ready for its close-up in a new picture book
For such a quiet, respectable community, Kensington has had its fair share of mystery and intrigue over the years.
Neighborhood lore has it that someone on Marlborough Drive forgot to mow his lawn back in 1952, and apparently more than one of those speakeasy doors you can still find in the middle of Kensington’s classic, solid Spanish entry portals actually was used to receive a liquor delivery, back in the Prohibition days. Whew! And then there was a trashcan mix-up a couple years back. A Mr. Jones rolled home a Mr. Smith’s much-better-maintained trashcan — supposedly by mistake. It was a real mess. A stink was raised. You get the idea.
And then there’s the question of the name — what’s up with that? An English name for a Spanish neighborhood. It just seems … unseemly.
As it turns out, Kensington’s story actually begins in Spain, not England. The neighborhood we now know as Kensington was originally part of Rancho de la Mission San Diego Alcala —meaning that San Diego’s best-known Spanish Colonial neighborhood did, originally, have a Spanish Colonial name.
Back in the day, the land belonged to the Native Americans — of course. Then the Catholic Church grabbed it, in 1769, followed by the Mexican government, in 1824. The Mexicans handed off the acreage now known as Kensington to a loyal soldier, Santiago Arguello, who managed to hold on to it despite the U.S. government appropriating the entire territory, in 1848.
In 1881, Arguello’s heirs sold two tracts of 160 acres each on the south rim of Mission Valley — overlooking the rubble of what once was once the mission — to an ill-fated El Cajon farmer named Edmund Hall.
Shortly after buying the property, Hall dropped the reins, so to speak, while driving his carriage. His horses bolted, the carriage overturned in a pond, and Hall drowned.
That is how Kensington passed into the hands of Hall’s mother and two sisters. One version of the Kensington origin story holds that Hall’s sister Abbie was an Anglophile. She liked England and, inspired by the town where she grew up in Massachusetts, which had some English-sounding street names, decided to name the property Kensington, and the streets Abbey Road, Piccadilly Circus, and so on.
It’s a pretty story, but it’s probably not true. What we do know is that Abbie’s husband was a real estate guy, and her brother-in-law was a real estate attorney who happened to know G. Aubrey Davidson, a local bank president. Davidson (and a consortium of associates) bought the property from Abbie in 1909.
The year is significant, because 1909 was when the San Diego Chamber of Commerce decided to put on a world exposition in San Diego. Davidson was also the president of the chamber, and eventually became the president of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The expo was ostensibly a way to draw the world’s attention to the fact that San Diego would be the first port of call once the Panama Canal opened in 1915.
But the expo was also a real estate promotion, and the people planning it were also the people developing the housing tracts in Point Loma (D.C. Collier), Del Mar (Ed Fletcher), Rancho Santa Fe (AT&SF Railway) and Kensington (Davidson and friends). These guys were serious, well-financed and taking on some huge risks — they weren’t about to leave something as important as the name of their project up to the sister of a guy who couldn’t control his carriage (or swim).
“There are a few different stories about how Kensington got its name,” said Kiley Wallace, who together with his wife Alexandra and neighborhood historian Margaret McCann just published a picture book on the neighborhood, “San Diego’s Kensington.”
“A lot of people think it has an English origin. But there’s no real definitive proof of that.”
In other words no English investors, no English promotional themes, no jousting, no mead drinking, and only a little Tudor architecture.
“There’s an old interview from the 1960s with George Forbes,” Alexandra Wallace said. Forbes was the Santa Monica real estate salesman who purchased the land that became Kensington Heights, and then hired Pasadena’s Davis-Baker Co. to build the houses. He’s pictured with Davis and Baker on the cover of the book. “And Forbes said in that interview that an engineer he was working with came up with the idea to name it Kensington and give it the English street names.”
There’s only one problem with this version of the Kensington story: When Kensington Park opened in November 1910, Forbes was only 20 years old, living in Kansas and working as an auto cashier. The more-likely story is that in 1926, he (or the engineer) got the idea to name the subdivision Kensington Heights and the streets Hempstead, Hilldale, etc.
Forbes’s predecessor was a guy named William Douglas, and Douglas was not afraid of a little hyperbole. He came up with some doozies, as recorded in the book. For example: “That Kensington Park is now, at this present time, the most beautiful residence section in San Diego is absolutely without question.” Whatever you might have felt about the landscaping, in those early years Kensington lacked some of the basics — such as a connection to the city’s sewer system. To say it was the finest by any measure took … a bucket.
Much like McFadden and Buxton, the developers of Burlingame, another San Diego subdivision with an English name, Douglas and company seemed determined to emphasize the “character” of the clientele, which was code, at the time for, “Hey folks, only white people need apply!” Kensington, like many “quality” developments of the 1910s and 1920s, had codes, covenants and restrictions that denied entry to anyone not of the “Caucasian” race, which meant no blacks, Asians, Native Americans or Mexicans.
Today, in exclusive neighborhoods, the main barrier to entry is price. Not so in early-20th-century San Diego: “For Kensington is exclusive as to ‘class,’ not to ‘cost,’” one ad claimed. “No one shall ever ask, ‘Does that unkempt child and frowsy woman live in Kensington?’”
If you’re trying to get across the point that some people are just plain born “frowsy.” If you want to get the word out that people of Northern European heritage are going to feel incredibly welcome in your development, it doesn’t hurt to have an English name. Which may be the real reason why it’s called Kensington and not Alhambra.
Over the years a few people who were not “of the Caucasian Race” did manage to move into the area. A few prominent Mexicans called Kensington home in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including Mexican businessmen Enrique and Alberto Aldrete, and Mexican presidents Abelardo L. Rodriguez and Pascual Ortiz Rubio (who were friends and business associates of the Aldretes).
It’s a bit of a mystery why these four families moved to Kensington in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Although it’s not hard to guess why Ortiz might have wanted out of Mexico. Gen. Pasqual Ortiz Rubio was wounded in an assassination attempt on the day of his inauguration in 1930. He was understandably gun shy thereafter. In 1932, Ortiz decided to call it a presidency, and moved to San Diego where he bought the home of Alberto Aldrete, on what is now East Alder Drive.
“He came to San Diego to get away,” Alexandra Wallace said. “The rumor is that his guards would stand in front of the house and march down Alder Drive.”
Architectural writer Ann Jarmusch has an even more colorful version of the story, which she included in an article in San Diego Magazine on the former president’s house: “His armed bodyguards, wearing sombreros and bandoliers, patrolled the neighborhood sidewalks and the steep canyon on this 1-acre property,” she wrote. (Hey, they’re looking for rabbits!)
Enrique Aldrete’s house, and the houses of the two presidentes, is included in the book, which has a plethora of never-before-published historic photos. McCann and the Wallaces certainly know the neighborhood. McCann has been president of Heart of Kensington, the neighborhood preservation group, and Alexandra and Kiley have researched dozens of houses in the Kensington/Talmadge area. Given their experience, it’s surprising they found anything new, or surprising, for that matter, in the hundreds of contributions they received from homeowners, schools, churches and preservationists.
Asked what surprised her in this treasure trove, Alexandra has to think for a moment. “Victor Buono. Maggie and I went to Ben Franklin Elementary. They have a lot of old photos of school activities and school clubs. We found a picture from the late ’40s and it showed him with a group of children in an acting production. He looked exactly the same! And he was 10 years old!”
Buono was one of San Diego’s greatest Shakespearean actors, a product of the University of San Diego and The Old Globe. Hollywood relegated him to psychologically tortured villain roles, however. He was King Tut on “Batman,” Count Carlos Manzeppi on “Wild Wild West,” Big Sam Hollis on “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and Edwin Flagg in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” He was so good that after they killed him off on a series, they would bring him back as another character. And if a series from the ’60s was revived in the ’70s, they revived him as well.
Buono was playing grown men when he was still a child and old men when he was still a teenager (he played Bette Davis’s father when he was 26 and she was 56), so it’s no surprise he burned out early, dying of a heart attack at age 43.
But for a few short years, all of Kensington was his stage. The family moved from Golden Hill to Alder Drive when Buono was small — well, relatively small. If only El Presidente’s bandolero-wearing gunmen were still patrolling Alder Drive in the late 1940s, when 10-year-old Victor Buono was rehearsing for his future in Hollywood. That would have shaken up quiet Kensington, and given people, even historians, something to talk about.
“San Diego’s Kensington” can be purchased online, at Paras News at 30th Street and University Avenue in North Park, and bookstores operated by Save Our Heritage Organisation.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.