PB Mystery House

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When I was a kid in the 1950s I remember going with my Dad to watch a model railroad exhibit in Pacific Beach. I was too young to remember exactly where it was, but I seemed to recall that it was in the basement of a large old-fashioned house painted in vivid colors on the top of a hill. We never went to see the model trains again but we did occasionally drive past what seemed like a large haunted house on the slope above the road which I somehow associated with the model railroad layout. I do remember where that house was, even though the surrounding area was transformed into a Navy housing project around 1960 and the road at the bottom of the slope was widened and extended and renamed Soledad Mountain Road. The house itself disappeared during this redevelopment but signs of its previous existence, crumbling walls and other ruins on the side of the hill, remained and can still be seen near the corner of Felspar Street.

My Dad didn’t remember anything about this (he’s 94 and has lived on the other side of the country for the last 40 years) so I decided to do some research on my own. The San Diego History Center library in Balboa Park has a huge collection of historical photos, including aerial photos of Pacific Beach in the 1940s and 1950s featuring the Bayview Terrace public housing project.  Bayview Terrace was built in 1941 to accommodate wartime aircraft workers and covered pretty much all of Pacific Beach east of Olney Street.  The aerial photos show a network of streets lined with small temporary ‘demountable’ houses and, where the haunted house/model railroad exhibit had stood, an unusual building with dormer windows in the attic, turret-like bay windows protruding from the south side and what looked like an observation deck or widows walk on the roof. The photos showed the building to be at the top of a slope with what appears to be a driveway with concrete curbs leading down to the road and a retaining wall at the bottom.

The streets which currently surround the property, Soledad Mountain Road, Felspar and Blom Streets, did not exist while the house was standing. A map from 1952 shows the road on the east side of the property, now Soledad Mountain Road, was then called Calle Breve. The 1952 City Directory included only one address on Calle Breve and it was the Bayview Terrace Housing Project Child Care Center, which is still there on the northwest corner of Soledad Mountain and Garnet, so that wasn’t what I was looking for. The road on the west was called Calle Tinto in 1952; there were dozens of addresses on Calle Tinto but none of them stood out; certainly none of them was occupied by a model railroad club.

Calle Breve, Calle Tinto and the other streets of Bayview Terrace had only existed since 1941.  Prior to that time, addresses would have referenced streets described on local subdivision maps. County parcel maps still reference the site, on the west side of Soledad Mountain Road at Felspar Street, as Blocks 173 and 174 of Pacific Beach, according to Map 791, at the extreme southeast corner of Pueblo Lot 1789 and the eastern edge of the Pacific Beach subdivision. According to Map 791, Block 173 was on the east side of Randall Street between Diamond and Emerald. Block 174 was south of Emerald.  The top of the hill where the house had been was in the northwest corner of Block 173, or the southeast corner of Diamond and Randall Streets.  City Directories in the years before 1941 did not show any addresses on Diamond or Randall streets in this vicinity, however.

The Pacific Beach Company had subdivided the area between the ocean and bay and the foothills and Rose Creek and sold parcels to the public starting in 1887, and amid the hundreds of deeds granted by the Pacific Beach Company from 1887 to 1898 (when the PB Company was dissolved) was one from September 1888 granting John D. Hoff and George Hazzard Blocks 173 and 174 (as well as some property immediately to the east in Pueblo Lot 1788) with the only consideration being that they build a corrugated iron asbestos mill on the site starting within 30 days, to be completed within 3 months, and to operate for 3 years.

The asbestos mill was built and for several years made heat-resistant boiler coatings and paint from asbestos mined near Elsinore and transported to the site by rail (the railroad ran along the north side of what was then called Grand, now Garnet Avenue). An important customer for their products was the Stonewall Mine in the Cuyamaca mining district. Apparently the asbestos mill in Pacific Beach was not a success, however, and in 1892 Hoff and Hazzard sold the property to A. B. Cairnes, although Hoff’s deed to Cairnes stipulated that he could continue to operate the asbestos mill (although he didn’t, and the mill was soon removed).  Alexander B. Cairnes was the first chief engineer (Fire Chief) when San Diego established a professional fire department in 1889. He also was an inventor; he held a patent for the first extension fire-ladder. He retired from the Fire Department on his 65th birthday in 1905.

County Lot Books, also found in the History Center library, documented the ownership and assessed valuation of improvements of every lot in the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beginning in 1893 the Lot Books showed that Blocks 173 and 174 of Pacific Beach were owned by A. B. Cairnes but there were no significant improvements listed until 1908, when improvements in lots 1 – 4 of Block 173 were assessed at $625, a value consistent with a large house (Lots 1 – 4 are the northwest corner of block 173, the southwest corner of Diamond and Randall on the old maps). The San Diego Union had reported in September 1906 that among the building permits issued by the board of public works was ‘A. B. Cairnes, cottage, Pacific Beach, Seventeenth and Albatross avenue.  $2000.’  (17th street had actually been renamed Randall in 1900 and Albatross was presumably a misprint for Alabama Avenue, which became Diamond in 1900).  By November, Cairnes was said to be pushing work on his home, a ‘large, two-story structure, with a stone base and stone terraces surround it, which being situated on a knoll, give it somewhat the appearance of a castle’.

Chief Cairnes soon took up residence in his new home; City Directories showed Cairnes Alexander B.  as ‘rancher, Pacific Beach’ (1906 – 1909),  ‘treas Mohawk Petroleum & Gas Co’ (1911), and as ‘n s Feldspar av nr Quincy’ (1913, 1914). The north side of Felspar near Quincy location would have been about a block away from the actual location of the house, both south and west, but perhaps there was a road or driveway between these locations.

In 1918 and 1919 the City Directory entry for Cairnes gave his address as 2504 Grand av, Pacific Beach. Although the house and Block 173 were some distance from Grand (later Balboa and now Garnet), Cairnes’ property in Block 174 to the south and Pueblo Lot 1788 to the east would have given him access to Grand. The 2504 Grand  address is also in the same block as Kate Sessions’ nursery (2590 Grand), although Miss Sessions did not acquire her property there until 1924.

Cairnes lived at this home for the remainder of his life, during which he still occasionally made news. He ‘rendered yeoman service’ in fighting a fire (naturally) at Ye Olde Mission Inn, formerly the club house of the Pacific Beach Race Track, in 1908. The Mission Inn was just across Rose Creek from his home and he was among the volunteers using a garden hose and bucket brigade to prevent the fire from spreading (although the Mission Inn burned to the ground in a second fire later the same year).

Chief Cairnes died in 1919 and by 1923 the property was owned by Ernest Lagar and C. Agnes Thompson.  The 1924 City Directory showed the Pacific Beach Auto Camp (R. H. Thompson) at 2504 Grand.   In 1925 Mr. Lagar acquired Mrs. Thompson’s interest at an auction at the courthouse door and from 1928 to 1939 Ernest and Mary Lagar lived there. Mary, widowed, continued to live there in 1940 and 1941.

In 1941 the entire area was bought up by the Public Housing Agency for the construction of housing for the defense workers who were flooding into San Diego as industry, particularly Consolidated Aircraft, began mobilizing for war.  Mary A. Lagar (and Ernest Lagar estate) was included in a long list of ‘defendants’ in a proceeding by which the US Government condemned and acquired several tracts, including Blocks 173 and 174, which was included in Tract III. These tracts became the Bayview Terrace housing project. All of the existing structures within the Bayview Terrace tracts were razed and replaced with demountable housing units with the exception of the Cairnes home.

So, there really was a building on the site with a well-established history and an unusual appearance, but what about a model railroad? For years (until 1991) there was a model railroad layout at the Del Mar Fairgrounds called the Pacific Beach Model Railroad Club. Currently, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park (right next door to the History Center Library) has a Pacific Beach Model Railroad Club Room. The Model Railroad museum also has a library, so I checked there one day to see if they knew anything about the Pacific Beach club and why it was called that and where it might have met in the 1950s. They didn’t, but they did take my email address and promised to check with some old-timers.

Later the same day I got an email from a woman who said she had joined the club in 1954 when she married one of the founders and that the club met in Kate Sessions Park, in the basement of the Kate Sessions Mansion which was on top of the hill. She went on to say that the Navy bought the land the house sat on for the Navy housing project and it was torn down so they had to leave and that’s when they went to Del Mar. When they had to leave Del Mar they couldn’t find another place for their layout so they disbanded but donated their remaining money to the San Diego club, which now honors them with the room at the museum.

This information that the club met in the basement of a mansion on top of a hill and that it was torn down for a Navy housing project corresponded with my memory, but other details of this account couldn’t be entirely accurate. In the first place, Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach has always been city property and there never were any houses on it, much less a mansion. Secondly, although Kate Sessions did live in a house near but outside of Kate Sessions Park, and at the time it may have been considered a mansion, it is still standing and Navy housing was never built anywhere near it. Also, I’m pretty sure I would have remembered going to that Kate Sessions home even as a kid; for one thing my Dad’s boss and another colleague, and several of my own friends, lived in the same neighborhood, and also this Kate Sessions mansion doesn’t look anything like what I remembered of the model railroad exhibit.

Still, this sounded like a confirmation to me. Although it hadn’t actually been Kate Sessions’ mansion and wasn’t actually in Kate Sessions Park, the Cairnes house was mansion-like and in the same area as Kate Sessions’ historic nursery, which was marked by a prominent historic monument, so the description was close enough.

Further evidence came from the archives of the San Diego Union, which are now accessible online. On most Tuesdays from 1953 to 1956 the Union’s ‘What’s Doing in San Diego’ column included the notice ‘7:30 – 10 p.m. – Model railroad operation exhibition, Bayview Terrace Community Building’.  It appeared that the former Cairnes residence in the midst of the Bayview Terrace housing project had been spared so that it could function as the Bayview Terrace Community Building, and for a few years in the mid-1950s it hosted weekly model railroad exhibitions, one of which I had apparently attended.  On March 13, 1956, there was also a notice that the Bayview Model Railroad Club had applied for a lease on Tierra del Fuego island.  The lease application for Tierra del Fuego must have been turned down and the club relocated instead to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.  Final confirmation came in a report from the Union archives that a landmark Pacific Beach home thought to have been built by A. B. Cairnes, San Diego’s first fire chief, had burned down on October 20, 1957. The Union article mentioned that a model railroad club had used the basement until earlier that year.

What still remains on the site is a retaining wall along the road at the bottom of the hill and some remains of the driveway that used to run up the hill to the house. The wall is on the west side of Soledad Mountain Road north of Felspar Street (of course you can also see these ruins today with Street View). The side of the wall facing downhill and open to view is covered with a purple or mauve plaster and grooved to resemble rectangular blocks, although much of it is now cracked and crumbled and reveals the the wall was also made from cobblestones. There is a hint that the top of the wall was painted yellow (vividly colored?).  Of course, parts of the wall are now spray-painted with graffiti.  At the one inside corner of the wall is a cobblestone structure that looks like it may have been a hearth or incinerator (people burned their trash in the old days; even we had an incinerator in the 1950s). There were a few pieces of hardware cloth screen that could have been some sort of spark arrester for the incinerator.

In the winter the hillside is often covered with tall green grass but in the summer when the grass dries out and is beaten down you can also see what appear to be the curbs outlining the driveway which ran up the hill. Actually this driveway occupies the space reserved for an alley between the two sides of Block 173, and may have been city property.  A concrete post laying on its side looks like it would have once fit on the end of one of these curbs; a gatepost, like the aerial photos from the 1940s seem to show.

In the 1970s, the Navy returned a few parcels of land along Soledad Mountain Road that had not been incorporated into their housing project to the city to be dedicated as parkland. One parcel north of the Cairnes home site has been developed as a dog park.  The site of the Cairnes home/Bayview Terrace Community Building/Model Railroad, its ruins relatively undisturbed for over 50 years, has also inadvertently become a sort of historic park, preserving this piece of Pacific Beach history.

 

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4 thoughts on “PB Mystery House”

  1. THanks so much for your increadable reaserch and writing of these fascinating history and stories of PB! I grew up in Clairemont/Linda Vista area late 50’s and earlier 60’s and we would routinely would travel down to Mission Bay as kids and have great times!

  2. I lived on Calle Tinto from about 1943 thru about 1952 . I went to Cub Scout meetings at the “mystery house” and watched the model trains, in the basement, if I remember correctly.

  3. This is really cool. I grew up in Navy Housing on Blom Street in the 60’s and 70’s and we used to climb our back fence and head down to play around the chunks of concrete. We always wondered what it was, an now I know.

  4. I USED to say this was the most-asked Pacific Beach history question to which I had no answer. Congratulations. You’ve solved another mystery.

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