By Sandee Wilhoit
Through rain and sleet and storms, and even through floods — yes, two of them — the Davis-Horton House, the oldest standing structure in Downtown San Diego, has managed to survive.
The little yellow house on the corner of Fourth and Island avenues has a long and storied history. It was originally pre-cut in Portland, Maine in 1850. Along with nine other houses, it was loaded on a ship, the Cybele, and sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Its original purpose was to serve as housing for the 49ers, the miners who were flooding northern California in search of gold. Gold had recently been discovered in the Sutter’s Mill area, and fortune hunters were coming in droves from all over the country hoping to seek their fortune. One room in such a house could rent for as much as $1,000 per week! However, by the time the Cybele reached San Francisco, the Gold Rush was slowing down considerably, and the houses were no longer in demand. The houses and even the ships were for sale at a highly reduced rate.
William Heath Davis, a wealthy merchant and ship’s captain, saw an opportunity and seized it. Although based in San Francisco, he had previously done some surveying in the San Diego area, and had always felt that our current downtown, with its beautiful natural harbor, would make an excellent town and seaport. Davis purchased the Cybele with its cargo of houses, and had it sail south back to San Diego. He knew if a town was to be built, housing had to be a first priority. This was followed by the construction of a 60-foot-long pier at the foot of Market Street. Davis’s new town was centered in what is now Pantoja Park in the Marina district, and the Davis-Horton House was originally located on what is now State and Market streets. Its first inhabitants were Army officers stationed with the Army of the Pacific. Two prominent occupants were General Nathaniel Lyon and General John Bankhead MacGruder. When the Civil War began, many of the soldiers were sent back East to shore up Union troops, while others left to return to the southern states and to support the Confederacy. General Lyon was the first Union general to be killed in the war, while General MacGruder served with distinction for the South. After the war, MacGruder returned to the area and became a rancher in the National City area.
The next notable person to inhabit the house was our Founding Father, Alonzo Horton. Davis had lost $700,000 in a warehouse fire and was forced to give up his dream of a new city by the bay. However, he urged his acquaintance, Mr. Horton, to visit San Diego, as Davis felt the area had promise. Horton agreed, and after a brief visit, he had a public land auction called and purchased 960 acres for $265, or roughly twenty-seven and a half cents per acre. He promptly began to lay out a city and sell lots. Needing a place to live, he purchased one of Davis’s little houses, and in a most cavalier gesture titled it in his wife’s name. The house was then moved from its original site at State and Market streets to 227 11th St., where it remained until it was moved in 1980 to its current location. The Davis-Horton House is the only house in which Alonzo Horton lived that is still standing. Horton had five mansions built during his years in San Diego; they have all been razed.
Upon the Hortons’ departure, the house served as a boarding house for a brief period of time. The next tenant of note was Anna Scheper, a German immigrant, who purchased the house for $1,500. Ms. Scheper operated the first “County Hospital” in the dwelling. She was paid a dollar per day per patient by the county to care for indigent citizens. Consequently, she housed patients in every room with the exception of the parlor and the kitchen! Nurse Scheper maintained the hospital for eight and a half years and was credited with providing excellent care to those under her supervision.
In 1898, the house was purchased by a German immigrant couple, Henry and Lina Lohman, who had been renting the house. As they were older and childless, they took in a 5-year-old boy, who was begging in the neighborhood. The little boy, named George Deyo, had been deserted by his mother, father and grandmother. When the Lohmans passed away in 1936, quite close together, they left the property to George.
George never married, but while strolling along Fifth Avenue, he noticed a young man around 10 or 11 years old, who was also begging. This scruffy looking fellow was trying to secure funds to attend a new craze — the movies! George took a liking to the boy, Edward Lanuza, and asked Edward’s grandmother, who was raising him, if he might take Edward into his home and raise him. Edward’s grandmother was more than happy to oblige George!
Edward grew up, married a young woman named Esther Gonzales, and brought her to live with he and George. The Lanuzas had four children and continued to live in the Davis-Horton House with George. The house still did not have electricity and was not electrified until it was opened as a museum in 1984.
When George passed in 1977, he left the house to Esther Lanuza, as he felt that Edward had a gambling problem and might sell the property to bankroll his games.
In 1979, Esther sold the land where the house stood to Robert Oswald, and in accordance with George Deyo’s wishes, deeded the house to the city. It was moved in 1980 to its current, permanent location. It now operates as a nonprofit and the home of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation.
Before the last move, a basement gallery was constructed with the two-story house placed over it. The gallery has served as a gift shop, and most recently as offices and as a venue for historic presentations and exhibits.
Through three locations, numerous tenants, several purposes and a slew of owners, this house has survived and is visited by thousands yearly. However, this little jewel in the heart of the Gaslamp now needs help to mitigate the effects of two floods suffered in less than one year. Fortunately, none of the antiques were damaged, but the basement suffered severely. It is in the process of being reconstructed internally, waterproofed and made Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant. To this end, a special fund has been set up to assist in this massive endeavor, and to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the historic Davis-Horton House.
To contribute, please visit our website or come visit the museum Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. or noon-4 p.m. on Sundays.
—Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.