Dead center in the old red-light district

Posted: August 3rd, 2018 | Featured, Gaslamp Landmarks | No Comments

By Sandee Wilhoit | Gaslamp Landmarks

Victorian architecture highlights San Diego’s economic boom of the 1880s

John Nelson Young arrived in San Diego in 1869 aboard the steamship Orizaba from San Francisco. He immediately started a furniture and undertaking business with his brothers in a small wooden building on “H” Street (now Market Street) near Fifth Avenue. The furniture store was known as the Pioneer Furniture Store. He additionally set up a manufacturing establishment at the address and continued with his undertaking business in the same structure.

Young initially leased the building from a Mary Gray for one year for $40 monthly, but by 1874, he had partnered up with Mary’s husband, John Gray, and they both owned an undivided half interest in the property. They advertised themselves as furniture dealers, upholsterers and general undertakers.

Upon his arrival, John Young also promptly set out to make a name for himself in this newly burgeoning seaport. By 1870, he had become a member of the newly established Hook and Ladder Company, and by 1872, Young held office as the public administrator and judge of the Third Ward. In the ensuing years, the Board of Supervisors commissioned him to bury the indigent dead, and by 1883, he was appointed as Superintendent of Cemetery Grounds and County Coroner. Eventually, Young became director of the Chamber of Commerce and served on the Board of Public Works.

The four-story structure, now known as the Marin Hotel building, is a classic example of the showy Victorian architecture built during San Diego’s boom years of the 1880s. (Photo by Sandee Wilhoit)

Besides his interests in the city, Young also had investments in the county. He owned and operated several gold mines in Julian. One of his more prominent mines, the Lincoln Company, on “Gold Hill,” yielded $50-$100 of ore per ton during the first few months of operation.

In 1879, Young contemplated the erection of a new brick building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and F Street to better house his growing business interests. This building later became known as Young’s Block. He also owned a wooden structure on Fifth Avenue near H Street. By 1883, however, Young decided to move to Oakland for business and sold all of his interest in the undertaking business and all his furniture stock to John Gray. He changed his mind a month later, and was back in business with his former partner, John Gray! In 1885, he turned over the building on Fifth Avenue to Gray and moved into the Young Block. At this time, E.W. Tebbutt joined the partnership. All three men were prominent members of the I.O.O.F., (Independent Order of Odd Fellows), a Masonic organization. As Gray and Tebbutt also had solid business reputations, they successfully carried on the business as Gray and Company. By 1888, a brick structure replaced the wooden structure on the Fifth Avenue property.

The four-story structure, now known as the Marin Hotel building, is a classic example of the showy Victorian architecture built during San Diego’s boom years of the 1880s. It incorporates an elaborate roofline capped by pinnacles and incorporating lentils as support and decoration, and additional decorative relief work above the first story with dentils as decorative embellishments. The large glass-paned windows feature heavily detailed cornices and were designed for maximum light and ventilation. A dark wooden staircase with bannisters of matching wood leading to the upper floors is located on the right-hand side of the building. On the left-hand side, a wooden staircase leads up to a balcony, which projects over the ground floor. Stone steps on the outside lead to the basement. The interior of the brick walls was covered in wood and the floors were made of wood paneling. A wooden trap door on the first floor opened onto a platform anchored by ropes used to raise and lower caskets to the basement or mortuary. When the building opened, the first floor featured fine handmade furniture and coffins; the second and third floors were offices for lawyers, doctors, etc. and the top floor was the residence of Tebbutt and his wife, Clara Jane.

Now beautifully restored to its original splendor, the historic structure has housed a series of restaurants. (Photo by Sandee Wilhoit)

The partnership, with Tebbutt as mortician, was doing a very prosperous business. The building on H Street (now known as the Sun Cafe building) became the funeral rooms or funeral parlor. Many advertisements noted that “bodies looked as natural as life.”

However, an unfortunate event involving Mr. Tebbutt occurred on June 5, 1894. Mr. Tebbutt had been in failing health due to the untimely death of Clara Jane, of a severe sunstroke several years earlier, and a recent fall — which left him in considerable pain. Consequently, he placed a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson in his mouth and committed suicide. The San Diego Union reported that the bullet exited behind his left ear and lodged in the wall 15 feet away. They cited the reason for the suicide as “despondency on account of ill health.” In his will, he bequeathed his share of the property and business to his partners, John Young and John Gray. Four days after his death, the business became the San Diego Furniture and Carpet Company with John Young as president and John Gray as treasurer and manager.

In 1894, John Young’s wife also died, after which his own health deteriorated. He passed away in 1896 after a long illness.

In 1895, after 17 years at 552 Fifth Ave., John Gray moved his business to the corner of Sixth Avenue and D Street. This building, known as the Kline block, previously housed the Metcalf Furniture Company. Gray’s business continued to flourish at the new location. The structure on Fifth Avenue was sold to Conrad M. Gerichten, one of the wealthiest property owners in San Diego.

Gerichten maintained ownership of the property until 1901. From 1901 until 1905, Martin German became owner, and operated the location as a jewelry business. He had already established his reputation as one of the main jewelers in San Diego, and ran an elegant store also dealing in gold and silverware, stationary and art supplies.

From 1905-1914, Rudolph Damarus and his wife, Amelia, became owners. They were both prominent San Diegan community figures, as she had been a resident all her life and came from three generations of native San Diegans. Her husband was a restauranteur.

In 1915, the building became the Aerie Hotel under the ownership of John Daneri. It remained a hotel well into the 1940s, although it progressed through a series of owners.

In 1943, the property was purchased as an investment by prominent San Diegan, Howard B. Turentine. Mr. Turentine was Deputy City Attorney, president of the San Diego County Bar Association, and eventually a Superior Court judge. In April of 1970, Judge Turentine was nominated by President Richard M. Nixon for United States District Court Judge.

The hotel in the meantime had become the Marin Hotel, and was now in the center of San Diego’s red-light district. The upper rooms were rented out for shady activities. In the early 1970s, however, the Rescue Mission took over the building.

In 1976, Deloris Vandermuelen bought the property and closed down the hotel. She planned on restoring the building as a part of the newly formed Gaslamp District. Her plans were to utilize the upper floors as rooms to let and the ground floor as a business.

Now beautifully restored to its original splendor, the historic structure has housed a series of restaurants. The current tenants operate the ground floor as Little Havana, a Cuban-themed restaurant, and the basement as a speakeasy. The upstairs are apartments, with a resident psychic occupying one of the units.

—Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at

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