Home > Donald H. Harrison, historic places, Mexico, United States of America > San Diego’s Historic Places: Casa de Estudillo

San Diego’s Historic Places: Casa de Estudillo

Casa de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO–The Casa de Estudillo in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is a re-creation of a hacienda owned by Jose Antonio Estudillo, one of the most influential men to live in San Diego under Spanish, Mexican and American rule.

Jose Antonio was the son of Captain Jose Maria Estudillo, who had served as the Spanish commandante of the San Diego Presidio  before  revolution resulted in independence for Mexico in 1821. Unlike his father, Jose Antonio was born in California, which along with Texas and other states of today’s American Southwest, became part of Mexico.

He built the 12-room home on the southeast side of San Diego’s central plaza between 1827 and 1829, several years after his marriage to Maria Victoria Dominguez, whose father, Jose Cristobal Dominguez, had served as a sergeant under Jose Antonio’s father’s command during the Spanish colonial days.

Various Mexican governors of California granted tracts of land to Jose Antonio, including two ranchos in modern Riverside County (Rancho Temecula and Rancho San Jacinto Viejo)  and one in southern San Diego County. (Rancho Janal).  He also was appointed by the Mexican government as administrator of Mission San Luis Rey in San Diego County.

According to Victor Walsh, the state park historian who profiled the Estudillo family and its casa in Old Town for The Journal of San Diego History, Jose Antonio was among the instigators of the successful petition to have San Diego declared a pueblo, and thus empowered to choose its own leadership rather than to be under military jurisdiction.  Jose Antonio moved up in office for the new pueblo, serving as a treasurer, tax collector, justice of the peace, and as mayor (alcalde) before Americans won control of the city in 1846 during the Mexican-American War.   Estudillo had no trouble making peace with the Americans, not only becoming a loyal U.S. citizen but serving the newly Americanized town of San Diego as its treasurer, tax collector and county assessor.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is intended to interpret the half-century in San Diego’s history between 1822 (when San Diegans learned that they were Mexican citizens and not Spanish subjects) and 1872, the year fire burned down much of the town, resulting in the ascendancy of Horton’s Addition (today’s downtown) as the commercial and governmental center of San Diego.

Lydia Cipriana, a costumed docent, tells tourists a quick and easy way to distinguish between the buildings of the pre-1846 Mexican period and the subsequent American period: “If they’re of adobe, they’re Mexican, and if they’re of wood, they’re American,” she explained.

The Estudillo house is of adobe, and about all that is left of the original casa are some–but not all– of the adobe walls. However, the re-constructed casa–coupled with the efforts of guides, and printed materials–conveys a sense of what life might have been like during the Mexican and early American periods in San Diego history.

As visitors walk counter-clockwise around the U-shaped hacienda from the main entrance of the casa, they pass the living room (or sala), master bedroom, study, children’s room, bedroom and a workroom, before crossing the garden of the inner courtyard, to see the kitchen (with a bee-hive shaped horno, or oven, outside), another bedroom, dining room, storage area, guest room, priest’s room and chapel.

Why a chapel? Originally, there was a mission church at the nearby Presidio, and when that moved about five miles inland, it was replaced by a chapel within the Spanish fort.  However, it fell into disuse some years after Mexican independence, and pending construction of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (now in Old Town), the Casa de Estudillo was used as a temporary place for services.

The Estudillos also permitted their home to be used as a temporary schoolhouse until a permanent one could be constructed.

After the family moved away, however, leaving the house in control of none-too-conscientious caretaker, the home began to deteriorate, eventually crumbling in places.  It would have become a derelict property but for its eventual purchase to sugar family heir and tourism promoter John Spreckels.

Spreckels hired designer Hazel Wood Waterman, daughter of former California Gov. Robert Whitney Waterman, to renovate the home, which she did lovingly if not always authentically.  Like many Californians, Waterman had a romantacized notion of California’s past, likening its wealthier residents to Spanish dons rather than to ranchers living on the frontier of the Spanish and Mexican empire.   Some of the furniture she chose probably was more elaborate than any that graced the Estudillo home, and the conversion of the central courtyard into a garden, according to historian Walsh, was likely a fantasy.  For the Estudillo’s the central courtyard would have been an area where much of the work of the house would have been done– including the laundry.

If Waterman took liberties with the past, even more were taken when Spreckels promoted the property as “Ramona’s Marriage Place,” after the beautiful half-Spanish, half-Indian heroine of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel, Ramona, whose Indian heritage was hidden from her, but who nevertheless fell in love and eloped with Alessandro, a noble, but oppressed Indian.

Although it was a novel, many people believed it was true–especially because Jackson had traveled extensively in California and had described its locales with considerable accuracy.  The Casa de Estudillo could very well have been the model for the place where Ramona and Alessandro tied the knot before fleeing to an unhappy life and end in the mountains.

Spreckels ran his streetcars from San Diego through Mission Hills to “Ramona’s Marriage Place,” and rooms depicting Spanish nobility subsequently were replaced with commercial outlets selling Mexican, Spanish and Indian trinkets.

In 1968, the State of California created Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, and efforts were made almost immediately to restore the Casa de Estudillo to a previous grandeur. Guide Lydia Cipriana emphasizes, nothing except the walls of the casa is original — all the furnishings are best guesses about what a family such as the Estudillos may have purchased for their home.  Built around its internal courtyard, with its “back” turned away from Old Town’s central plaza, the Casa de Estudillo invokes a time when families preferred to live their lives privately, away from the eyes of their neighbors.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

  1. Brian
    July 31, 2010 at 9:27 am

    To be fair you should mention that Rancho Camulos is considered by many to be the inspiration for HHJ’s “Ramona”

  2. Bruce Coons
    May 20, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Hi Don,

    In the novel “Ramona” the adobe chapel is the marriage place of Ramona and Alasandro, the Estudillo house is the home of the “Father Gaspara” who was modeled after Father Ubach.

    Best wishes,


    • May 20, 2010 at 7:34 pm

      Bruce Coons is the highly respected executive of the Save Our Heritage Organization, and I thank him for the clarification.

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