By Sandee Wilhoit | Gaslamp Landmarks
On March 27, 1871, Alonzo Horton sold Lot D, Block 61 to Miss Henrietta Nesmith for the exorbitant sum of $1,900 in U.S. gold coin. This was considered an unusually high amount for such a lot at the time. Horton also sold property to her father, Thomas Nesmith, on the same day. Henrietta deeded her property to her father in 1873, and Lot D was to become the subject of many transactions between members of the Nesmith family, which continued well into the late 1940s.
Nesmith, who arrived in San Diego in 1870, was a leader in early San Diego society, along with his wife, Marie Antoinette. He succeeded Alonzo Horton as president of the Bank of San Diego and was a member of the Board of Directors until 1883. He was also a trustee of the San Diego Publishing Company, president of the Citizen’s Railroad Committee and a senior officer of the Episcopal Church.
Even before Nesmith owned Lot D, he had assumed management of the property. In December of 1871, he leased the property to Heyman Solomon of Old Town for two years. The San Diego Union reported that Mr. Solomon, who had previously been the proprietor of a restaurant in Old Town, would be opening a new restaurant on Lot D, as soon as a building in construction was completed.
Mr. Solomon also furnished meals for the prisoners at the county jail. He had been a member of the Grand Jury, Vice-President of the Citizen’s Railroad Committee and compiled an extensive list of all Hebrews living in San Diego County. Two weeks before his lease was up, this busy man negotiated with Alonzo Horton to lease the kitchens and dining room of the Horton House Hotel in order to take charge of the culinary department of the establishment. He managed it for a year and then decided to reopen his old location for private parties and dinners. He ultimately left the area in 1882. Several other businesses followed Heyman with the most notable being the San Diego Candy Factory and Dr. Robert Jones Gregg, who was active in Republican politics and a member of the Board of Education.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck Mr. Nesmith as he lost both his beautiful Southern belle wife and his eldest son, who was a merchant in Mexico. His surviving children were his ravishingly beautiful daughter, Henrietta, and his twin sons, Loring and Otto.
In June of 1878, Henrietta married Lt. Adolphus Washington Greely and moved to Washington, D.C., where her groom was in the Signal Service. Lt. Greely went on to be an Arctic explorer, and eventually reached the farthest point north than anyone before him. Two relief expeditions were sent to bring him home, but they both failed. Finally, a third expedition was successful. All but seven in the original exploratory expedition died in the frigid Arctic. He was later promoted to major general and ultimately to general. In 1906, he was sent to San Francisco to conduct relief operations after the 1906 earthquake.
Nesmith devoted his ensuing years to business. He had added another smaller building to Lot D, but during the business boom of the 1880s, decided to abandon those buildings and build the present-day Nesmith-Greely Building. The name honors Henrietta and her husband.
On Feb. 6, 1888, the San Diego Union printed a lengthy description of the proposed structure. It was to be a four-story brick building with basement, featuring cast iron pillars supporting large rounded pressed brick piers. The front was to feature an unusually large Leavy French plate glass surface. The 12-foot wide entrance would lead to a highly ornamented oak staircase and elevator lit by a large lightwell (skylight). The lightwell would cast light on three stories. The building would house two stores on the first floor, with the upper floors devoted to 60 office and lodging rooms.
Total cost for the building was projected to be approximately $30,000. To finance the building, architects, and materials, Nesmith took out a loan for $50,000, using all his real estate as security for the loan. The architects were Comstock and Trotsche, prominent for designing many buildings in San Diego. Among them are Pierce-Morse Building, Villa Montezuma, the Coronado Boat House, B Street, Middletown and Sherman Heights schools, the Court House, the Coronado School, the Grand Hotel and numerous others.
Famous tenants of the Nesmith-Greely Building included Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman attorney to be admitted to the California Bar. She practiced real estate law and held classes for other aspiring female attorneys in Rooms 38 and 39. An additional prominent attorney-tenant was Daniel Cleveland, a San Diego resident for 60 of his 90 years, who was known for his humanitarian and civic accomplishments.
Yet another attorney, William Darby, was a tenant until 1894 when he committed suicide, only one month after being elected District Attorney. The San Diego Union listed the cause as an “aberration of drink.”
The Stepman Brothers, who were draymen, had their offices in the Nesmith-Greely Building. They later replaced their drays (wagons used for heavy deliveries) and horses with trucks and became the Pioneer Truck Company.
Another interesting tenant was Ferdinand Grah, who emigrated from Soligen, Germany, and established the Grah Safe and Lock Company. His son, Rudolph, was born in a castle in Soligen, and after playing in the dungeon, began collecting an array of interesting and historic keys, which he later displayed in a key shop at 816 Market Street.
In late 1888, Mr. Nesmith traveled to Washington D.C. to visit his daughter and her husband. During his journey by train, he wrote his will, as he was aware that his health was failing. It was his desire to honor both San Diego and his hometown, Derry, New Hampshire. He felt that his net worth was approximately $200,000, and with carefully invested annuities and compound interest, he eventually would have enough funds to pay for numerous gifts to both cities. For San Diego, he stipulated that funds be used to build a public library, Nesmith Library, Nesmith Art School and Nesmith Lyceum (College). He also bequeathed large sums to St. Paul’s Church, the San Diego Benevolent Association and a fund to build low-cost housing. Last but not least, he provided for a fireproof building to house San Diego history. To Derry, he left funds for Nesmith University, Nesmith Park, Nesmith Benevolent Society, four churches, a female academy and monuments to the Nesmith family. Also, any town in the country that would change its name to Nesmith would receive a college.
Mr. Nesmith passed away in Washington, DC. leaving his family as executors of his 10-page will. However, he failed to take into consideration his $50,000 loan and numerous other debts. When his affairs were settled, the family was left with the Nesmith-Greely Building, plus $3.64. Mr. Nesmith’s dreams of the immortality of the Nesmith name were, after all, just pipe dreams. His body was returned to San Diego, where his obituaries lauded him as a San Diego pioneer and civic leader.
The Nesmith-Greely Building now houses apartments and the street level storefront is for lease.
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.