By Leo Wilson | Bankers Hill
There is a vacant lot on the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and Quince Street.
Up until about 20 years ago, it was the site of a house once occupied by one of the most prominent families in American history — the widow and son of United States President Ulysses S. Grant.
President Grant was the nation’s most prominent Civil War general who served as president between March 4, 1869 and March 4, 1877.
He died in 1885, shortly after writing his famous memoirs. Grant’s funeral procession was 7 miles long and included tens of thousands of soldiers who had fought under his command in the Union Army. It was estimated that more than 1 million people lined New York City streets to view the process and pay their respects to the late president.
In the early 1890s, President Grant’s sons, Ulysses Grant Jr. and Jesse Root Grant, moved to San Diego. They both quickly became leaders in the city’s civic and business community.
Ulysses Grant Jr. initially opened a law practice in San Diego but became better known for his business and real estate activities. He is most remembered for building the iconic US Grant Hotel in Downtown in honor of his father.
The hotel opened in 1910 and remains a city landmark; presidents and world leaders have been among its guests. Ulysses Grant Jr. would eventually spend the last years of his life residing in the U.S. Grant Hotel. (He had previously lived in an elegant mansion built on the site of the El Cortez Hotel.)
Jesse Root Grant built a two-story house in 1894 on the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and Quince Street at 535 Quince St. in Bankers Hill. It was designed by noted San Diego architect William Sterling Hebbard.
Julia Dent Grant — Jesse’s mother and former first lady — often resided in this house during the winter months when she was in San Diego. The property became known as the “Julia Dent Grant” house.
Jesse Root Grant’s wife and children also lived in the house. One of Jesse Root Grant’s daughters, Nellie, married Naval Officer William P. Cronan, who served as governor of Guam. In 1907, Cronan prevented a gun powder explosion on the USS Connecticut by placing his hand in the gun’s breech block, preventing a major explosion — and losing two fingers in the process. For this and other heroic actions he became known as “the most popular man in the Navy.”
In 1923, Cronan and his wife built a residence next to the Julia Dent Grant house at 2950 Sixth Ave., where they lived until Cronan’s death on March 18, 1929. It became known as the “William & Nellie Cronan” house.
Jesse Root Grant managed the U.S. Grant Hotel for a time. However, he is most remembered for his involvement with establishing the gambling industry across the border in Tijuana. One newspaper article stated Jesse Root Grant had obtained a “concession from the Mexican governor of Tia Juana [sic] hot springs [for] gambling and lottery.” It was stated it would become the “finest gambling house in the world.”
Both the Grant and Cronan houses were located across the street from what was then known as City Park, and later renamed Balboa Park. As a civic leader, Ulysses Grant Jr. played a key role in the creation of the park, including making the first major financial contribution for its development.
Baron Long, a Los Angeles hotel owner and business tycoon, purchased the U.S. Grant Hotel in 1919. Nearly a decade later, Long opened the Agua Caliente resort in Tijuana, taking a leading role in the gambling enterprise begun by Jesse Root Grant in Mexico.
The Agua Caliente resort was a popular destination for American visitors during Prohibition, who could hop on a trolley car and travel over the border to drink and gamble. Writer Ring Lardner described Tijuana in 1926: “For the benefit of those that has not been there, I will state that Tijuana is a city of about 50 buildings of which three ain’t saloons.”
For those who did not want to travel over the border, the “speak-easy” in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel was legendary. (On a personal note, my grandfather was brought by Baron Long to San Diego, and eventually became manager and a general partner of the U.S. Grant Hotel. I recall him telling me how polite and dignified Ulysses Grant Jr. was, and how the hotel staff held him in awe.)
Jesse Root Grant increasingly spent his time away from San Diego and his family; he had political ambitions and unsuccessfully attempted to gain support to run for president in 1908. In 1913, he became involved in a highly publicized divorce action with his wife who was still in San Diego, in which she prevailed. He eventually died in Los Altos in 1934.
The end of the Grant legacy in Bankers Hill took place on Sept. 23, 1999 at the city’s Historic Resources Board (HRB). A developer wanted to tear down the Julia Dent Grant house and replace it with a new building. If the HRB determined the Grant house was historic, the house would be preserved. The city’s HRB staff recommended the house be designated historic, based on three separate reasons: 1. It was the home of a historic person; 2. Its historic architecture; 3. It was the work of a master architect, Hebbard.
At the HRB hearing, two members of the Grant family — as well as 11 other local residents and preservationists — testified in favor of the historic designation the Julia Dent Grant home. The HRB voted by a 6-4 majority in favor of designation. However, under the HRB rules a supra-majority of eight votes — out of the 10 members voting — was required for designation.
So the Julia Dent Grant house was not designated, and was subsequently demolished in 2000. The proposed new building was never built, and a promise to incorporate two columns from the original Julia Dent Grant house as features into the new building was not kept. One of Bankers Hill’s most important historic buildings was demolished to make room for a vacant lot.
A particularly jarring aspect of the 1999 HRB hearing were the attempts by those opposing designation to denigrate the role of President Grant in U.S. history. A preservationist present at the meeting referred to it as “obnoxious.” Another person present recalled that President Grant was referred to as a “drunk,” who was “involved in graft and corruption” and a “failure as president.” By denigrating him, the opponents of designation seemed to be arguing there was no reason to preserve his tainted legacy.
Despite his faults, modern historians have a heightened opinion of President Grant. A lot of the venom against him in the past was the result of individuals who opposed Reconstruction. Grant was the post-Civil War president who most actively sought to protect the rights of former slaves. Grant also fiercely suppressed the Ku Klux Klan.
In the early 20th century, the “Lost Cause” confederacy nostalgia movement did its best to besmirch Grant’s reputation. However, despite his shortcomings, Grant remained one of the most popular men in America during his life, especially among Union Army veterans. President Lincoln was reputed to have responded to complaints about General Grant’s drinking by saying, if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.
Sadly, the William & Nellie Grant Cronan house soon suffered the same fate as the Julia Dent Grant house; it was demolished in 2009. Again the city’s HRB staff initially recommended it be historically designated because of its Spanish Revival architecture.
However, a historic report prepared by the potential developer claimed the house lacked historic integrity because of a new parapet and modifications to the windows. The report glossed over the occupants of the house, stating that even if William Cronan was found to be a historic figure, he was only “associated briefly” with the house, from 1922 to 1929. There was no mention of his wife being a member of the Grant family.
In place of the William and Nellie Cronan house now stands another vacant lot.
— Leo Wilson is an administrator for Metro San Diego CDC and is a Bankers Hill resident.