After checking in to the Cosmopolitan, we explored Old Town for a bit, going in and out of the various museums and shops this unique state park has to offer.
Old Town San Diego State Park is made up of a variety of authentic buildings from the 19th century and early 20th century, along with recreations of buildings that were on site at one point. Most buildings are small museums, while others are shops and restaurants, but overall the place is designed to give you a feel for the time period between 1821 and 1872.
The odd thing about Old Town is that it may not still be standing had it not been for a novel called Ramona. Near the end of the 19th century, Old Town was falling into ruin. An earthquake in 1862 destroyed many buildings, then a smallpox epidemic struck, and by 1867 a San Franciscan man by the name of Alonzo Horton arrived in San Diego and chose to develop in what was dubbed the “New Town” area of San Diego, which is present day downtown. In 1871 the Board of Supervisors demanded all county records be moved from Old Town to New Town, and the following year a fire destroyed seven buildings in Old Town, leaving it a crumbling relic of the past.
Then in 1884 a woman named Helen Hunt Jackson penned Ramona, a romantic tale set just after the Mexican-American War, and tells the story of a part Native American, part Scottish woman named Ramona who falls in love with a Native American man named Alessandro. The book was an instant hit, and soon the locations mentioned in it were swarmed by tourists. In the book, the couple is married in the home of Father Gaspara, which is described as being in “old San Diego” and “at the end of a long, low adobe building” that had “fallen into decay” with “its walls imperfectly whitewashed” and that the building had “now gone utterly to ruin.” This description fit the former Casa de Estudillo, which had been left in the hands of a caretaker beginning in 1887, a caretaker who wasn’t afraid to make a buck. So when tourists flocked to the rundown adobe, he sold bits off of the house to them! Seeing such a unique opportunity, wealthy sugar magnet and empire builder John D. Spreckels purchased the house in 1906, hiring Hazel Wood Waterman to remodel the house, and in 1910 it reopened as “Ramona’s Marriage Place” a full-fledged tourist attraction, complete with it being painted on the exterior of the old adobe home. Ramona’s Marriage Place welcomed tourists following the path of the star-crossed lovers, with many people even getting married there.
Thanks to Ramona, the area around “Ramona’s Marriage Place” began to have a second life, but in a more mythical, rather than historical, kind of way. After World War II, descendants of some of San Diego’s early settlers as well as historians set to change all that. In 1968 they were successful and the area became a state historic park, launching decades of restoration and recreations of buildings.
Today, few remember Ramona, and the role it played in saving Old Town, but within the Casa de Estudillo there are a few reminders of the tourism the book brought.
Old Town San Diego State Park is free to visit, including all of the museums within the park, but donations are gladly accepted. I recommend starting your visit around 10 in the morning, and begin at the Robinson Rose House.
Visit Casa de Estudillo aka “Ramona’s Marriage Place” in the heart of San Diego at Old Town State Historic Park at 4000 Mason Street in San Diego.
Brief History & Walking Tour Guide. San Diego: California State Parks & Boosters of Old Town. 2009. Print.
Plaques and brochures on site