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The little Spanish house that couldn’t

Posted: September 11th, 2015 | Feature, Featured, Homes & Garden, Lifestyle | No Comments

It was almost the first modern California Ranch House, then some narrow-minded bullies got in the way.

By Michael Good | HouseCalls

Among the popular myths San Diegans hold particularly dear is the one about America’s most popular architectural style — Spanish Colonial Revival — and the 1915 California-Panama Exposition got it started. We want to believe our beloved Balboa Park Spanish-style museums inspired a century of architects to build little red-tile-roofed, stucco-sided bungalows all across America.

This connection would be a little easier to make if there had been an actual residential structure, a Spanish-style model home, for example, built in Balboa Park for the 1915 Expo.

As it turns out, there was a model home built for the 1915 Exposition. The Model Bungalow was part of the Model Farm, a 5-acre citrus grove and demonstration farm in the middle of the park, complete with chicken coops and a vegetable patch. Today it seems a bit retro to plant a farm as a way to celebrate the Panama Canal, one of the seven engineering wonders of the modern world. You can imagine Washington’s reaction to San Diego’s gesture: How quaint. We spanned two great oceans with 50 miles of hydraulic gates and locks. You planted a zucchini.

But this wasn’t just any farm. It was a thoroughly modern operation with irrigation, electricity, hot and cold running water, and flush toilets. (In 1920, only 20 percent of American homes had a flush toilet.) For the average American, the Model Bungalow was a vision of the future. The buildings along the Prado presented a romanticized picture of city life free of horse manure, with wide promenades and transportation via clean electric carts. The Model Farm was much closer to home, literally. It embodied a more believable myth, where science and intellectual labor would result in a life free of backbreaking toil. No longer would the lady of the house have to go to the well with a bucket to pump her own water.

The Model Bungalow, surrounded by the Model Farm and caretakers cottage. (Courtesy of David Marshall Collection, Panama-California Exposition Digital Archive)

The Model Bungalow, surrounded by the Model Farm and caretakers cottage. (Courtesy of David Marshall Collection, Panama-California Exposition Digital Archive)

In 1915, not only did most Americans live on a farm, there was actually a back-to-the-farm movement. Everyone at the Expo was a farmer, used to be a farmer or was thinking about becoming a farmer. The Model Bungalow was centrally located, in the middle of the Expo, between the Prado and the Isthmus (the mile-long entertainment area). The case could be made that the Model Farm was the main attraction, what the Expo was really all about.

In fact, Sunset magazine said just that in the December 1914 issue. “The actual purpose of the Panama-California Exposition is to show that there is room in the Southwest for 700,000 new farms, and to show that by selective demonstration. In this day of unsatisfied land hunger and ever rising food prices, such a purpose is a service to the nation.”

Maybe. But it was surely a service to real estate developers such as Ed Fletcher, John D. Spreckels, John F. Forward, G.A. Davidson, Carl H. Heilbron, D.C. Collier and L.J. Wilde. They were among the 31 directors or trustees who signed the articles of incorporation for the Panama-California International Exposition. For these boosters, the Expo wasn’t about building a future home for San Diego’s cultural institutions. It was about business. Their business. D.C. Collier, who was developing suburbs in Ocean Beach and Mission Beach at the time, said the exposition would “ build up San Diego and adjoining territory.” G.A. Davidson, who was director of a local bank, said the Exposition was “meant to call the attention of the world to the possibility of millions of acres of land that have been peculiarly blessed by nature and that have awaited through the centuries the touch that will transform them into the paradises of the Western Hemisphere.”

This was a white-people-only paradise, however. The Alien Land Law of 1913 specifically prevented people of Japanese ancestry from purchasing rural land. Mexicans need not apply, either. As Matthew F. Bokovoy writes in “Inventing Agriculture in Southern California” (The Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1999), “Childlike” Mexicans were believed to be suited for only simple agricultural tasks, such as picking cotton (a job so simple even a child could do it). Intensive farming, on the other hand, required an educated man of science. According to the Official Guidebook of the Panama-California Exposition, a “settler in the West … on a small tract of five acres or even less can make a good living for himself and family and provide for an annual surplus.” Bokovoy sees something sinister amid all this boosterism. The Model Farm promoted the idea of the 20- to 30-acre farm, he says. But these farms failed. “Then, the land was purchased by developers in Mission Valley, Grossmont and Clairemont.”

The Model Farm and Bungalow were built by the same consortium that constructed the Southern Counties Building. They, unlike most of the Expo participants, had almost complete control over their building. The manager was C.L. Wilson. Wilson had several claims to fame. He was there when President McKinley was shot at the Buffalo Exposition in 1901 (he offered the mortally wounded President a shot of whiskey). He also broke new ground by planting a citrus orchard at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Wilson’s job was to plan and manage displays for fairs and expos. He was also credited in The San Diego Union as architect of the Southern Counties Building (and seemed to have a fixation on reworking the plans, according to reports). This means he would have had a hand in the Model Bungalow’s design. More tellingly, when a request was sent out for bids for the Southern Counties Building, prospective contractors were told to submit their bids to C.L. Wilson, at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Wilson didn’t work for any of the seven counties (Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego and Imperial). He worked for the L.A. Chamber of Commerce.

There’s no evidence that Wilson was an architect. Bertram Goodhue, the architect of record for the Expo, said that Carleton Winslow designed the Southern Counties Building (with input from him). Frank P. Allen, director of public works for the Expo, claimed he had designed the building. But Allen claimed he had designed everything.

The Model Bungalow under construction, with the California Tower rising in the background (Photograph by Stineman, San Diego Library Public Collections)

The Model Bungalow under construction, with the California Tower rising in the background
(Photograph by Stineman, San Diego Library Public Collections)

None of this answers the question of the Model Bungalow’s odd appearance, however. The buildings in the Expo were far more varied than a present-day visitor to the park would imagine. Supervising architect Bertram Goodhue had a Spanish vision, but it wasn’t always carried out. Mediterranean, Italian, Mission and Classical elements creeped in, sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. The Model Bungalow seems to be a particularly conflicted piece of architecture. Photographs reveal a Tudor-flavored front and a Mission-style back. In the rear, which is seldom shown in photographs, there are two wings, with Mission-style window openings. But the courtyard that is formed by the wings isn’t paved, and there is a cobblestone chimney protruding into the space. There is no front porch, no overhanging roof to provide shelter. It’s a bit of monstrosity, as if a Craftsman bungalow got grafted onto an early California Ranch House. Which is probably what happened.

The San Diego Public Library has a blueprint of the Model Bungalow, which Special Collection Supervisor Richard Crawford brought out for me on a recent Friday. It’s dated 1912, well before the Model Bungalow was completed. The title reads “Southern California Ranch Home Exhibit of the Southern California Panama Expositions Commission.” It’s signed C.M.W., which would be Carleton M. Winslow. The plans don’t include any exterior elevations, just the basic floor plan, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that it is a Spanish Colonial building — or more accurately a California Ranch House of the Mexican Territorial period. There is a large terrace in front of the house, and the area between the two wings at the rear of the house is filled in with tile pavers. The two wings project slightly to the front as well, flanking the front door, which opens into a wide, shallow entry hall. Beyond that is the large living room, which opens out to the terrace. The bedrooms are arranged in a line on the right wing, with a hall to provide access. The dining room and kitchen are in the other wing, with a library at the front separated by a hall. Had this 1912 design been built, it would have been one of the first examples of a 20th century California Ranch House (unless you count Hazel Waterman’s 1910 remodel of Casa de Estudillo in Old Town, which Winslow’s design resembles, and which provided the inspiration for Cliff May’s ranch houses of the 1930s).

So why wasn’t the Ranch Home built as designed? The history of Southern California agriculture suggests a possibility. According to Bokovoy, when U.S. citizens poured into California in 1850, they viewed the rancho system of the Mexicans as inefficient and wasteful of natural resources. The Yankees didn’t have any moral qualms about squatting on the Mexicans’ land, since they believed themselves to be morally superior. The Land Law of 1851 disenfranchised the Californios. Most lost their land, often for technical reasons, such as the inability to prove ownership. Many of the first settlers of California, like former Gov. Pio Pico, died landless and broke.

While the visitors to San Diego in 1915 romanticized that recent past, and turned Ramona’s Wedding Place (Casa de Estudillo) into a shrine to an idealized Old California, the agriculture experts and Chamber of Commerce boosters knew the reality, and wanted to divorce themselves from it, because it conflicted with their vision of a high-tech farming future. It’s likely that Winslow’s Ranch House plans went to LA and came back modified, likely by a chamber of Commerce draftsman, or even by C.L. Wilson himself. The result was a hodgepodge of design cues to disguise the Spanish origins and a new “English” façade to make it respectable. The pergola and sign were completed before the Model Bungalow (it can be seen in construction photos). That’s why the sign in front of the bungalow retains its original name: “Ranch Home.”

And what happened to the building itself? It was donated to the City of San Diego, along with the Southern Counties Building, which was destroyed in the 1920s (the Museum of Man now stands in its place). The zoo grew around the Model Bungalow, which apparently remained in its original location. In 1935, The San Diego Union reported that Superintendent of Parks John G. Morley, the Englishman who made Balboa Park look like it does today, was living in the house, surrounded by exotic animals, flowers and tourists. Somehow that seems fitting.

—Contact Michael Good at housecallssdun@gmail.com.

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