Early Development of University Heights
history of University Heights begins during San Diego's first period
of large–scale urbanization. After completion of the Santa
Fe transcontinental railroad in 1885, San Diego's population increased
by approximately 2,000 new residents each month.
speculative real estate developments were initiated to accommodate
the increased demand for housing -- one of them was University Heights.
In 1887, a large windswept tract of land overlooking Mission Valley
was subdivided by the College Hill Land Association, a syndicate
of businessmen owning land in the proposed subdivision.
by Daniel Choate, who was also developing City Heights to the southeast,
the syndicate promised prospective buyers that a branch college
of what would eventually become the University of Southern California
would be located in University Heights. The proposed San Diego College
of Arts was to be the drawing point of the subdivision.
August 6,1888, Subdivision map #558 was filed with the San Diego
County Recorder, delineating the University Heights subdivision.
Trapezoidal in shape, the subdivision stretched along the south
rim of Mission Valley, from the present-day boundary of Freeway
163 on the west, to the divisional boundary between city pueblo
land and ex-Mission San Diego land (today's Boundary Street). The
southern boundary was along Fillmore Avenue (today's University
to literature published by the syndicate, an endowment fund of $2
million would be created to help establish the college. Part of
the cost of each lot sold in the subdivision would go into a college
building fund, guaranteeing the development and maintenance of the
construction of the college never advanced beyond the planning stage,
as the real estate boom suddenly burst in 1889. Prospective buyers
figured out that, besides sunshine and land, San Diego had no other
readily marketable commodities to exploit. There was no oil, coal,
lumber, or most importantly, an adequate supply of potable water.
Grand State Normal School Built in University Heights
second attempt to bring an institution of higher learning to the
area was initiated in 1898. The site of the aborted San Diego College
of the Arts was donated to the State of California to build a “Normal
School,'' a state-sponsored teacher-training college.
Neoclassic Revival college building, designed by local architects
William S. Hebbard and Irving Gill, was completed and opened in
1899. The State Normal School was the forerunner of the present
San Diego State University.
Normal School operated in this location for over thirty years. In
1925, the Normal School was granted college status and, in 1931,
was relocated to its present site on Montezuma Mesa. The old Normal
School was converted into Horace Mann Junior High School but was
demolished in the 1950s to make way for a parking lot at the Education
Center between Campus Avenue and Normal Street.
Cars Come to University Heights
some distance from downtown San Diego, University Heights was an
early “streetcar suburb,” a residential area whose development was
closely tied to direct access to downtown San Diego's commercial
and business center by cable, then electric-powered, trolleys.
like the more famous San Francisco cable cars, the San Diego Cable
Railway traveled south along Fourth Street through University Heights
all the way to L Street in downtown San Diego. Here, connections
could be made with several steam-powered interurban railroads and
the Coronado Ferry. A steam-powered powerhouse and car barn was
located at Fourth and Spruce.
cable railway's tracks entered University Heights at Fourth Street
and Fillmore Avenue (today's corner of Fourth and University in
Hillcrest), where it traveled eastward until jogging northeast along
University Boulevard (today's Normal Street) to Carolina Street
(today's Park Boulevard).
Bluffs Attracts Visitors to University Heights
the end of North Avenue, the northern-most terminus of the cable
car line, the San Diego Cable Railway developed a five-acre park
with an attractive pavilion designed by prominent local architect
William S. Hebbard. The park, known as The Bluffs, was developed
by the railway company to attract passengers to the sparsely populated
due to a series of financial setbacks, the cable railway was forced
to shut down after just thirteen months of operation. It fell into
receivership until 1895, when it was bought by George B. Kerper.
Kerper reorganized the company into the Citizens Traction Company,
and electrified the line.
restored The Bluffs and renamed it Mission Cliff Park. With a merry-go-round,
a playground, and a shooting gallery, the park became the place
to go on Sunday afternoons. Dancing parties were held in the pavilion,
where Japanese lanterns hung from the rafters. The first outdoor
San Diego production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It was
performed at the park in 1897. Theatrical and vaudeville companies
also performed here. And, despite much opposition from the San Diego
City Council, a liquor license was granted and a German Beer Garden
also proposed to construct a cog railway down to the canyon floor
below the park, where it would connect with an electric-powered
trolley to take sightseers to the ruins of Mission San Diego de
Alcala. However, his dreams never materialized because in 1898,
during the height of a nationwide depression, Kerper's company went
only prospective purchaser was John and Adolph Spreckels' San Diego
Electric Railway Company. In 1898, the Citizens Traction Company
was sold to E.S. Babcock, as acting agent for the Spreckels' interests.
The San Diego Electric Railway Company kept five trolleys and widened
the right-of- way from Fifth Street and University Avenue, where
it was connected to an already existing Spreckels-owned trolley
line, up to the park.
Cliff Gardens: Jewel of University Heights
its purchase by the San Diego Electric Railway Company in 1898,
the park was again renovated and renamed Mission Cliff Gardens.
John D. Spreckels wished to showcase the area as a botanical garden
rather than an amusement park.
proceeded to have the Camera Obscura removed, as well as the other
attractions, and to concentrate on the pavilion and the grounds,
which encompassed some 20 acres. In 1904, Spreckels chose Scottish-born
landscape gardener John Davidson as the park's superintendent and
asked him to redesign the park into a botanical wonder.
found that the soil beneath the park left much to be desired, consisting
of hard adobe clay and scores of cobblestones. Undaunted, he proceeded
to incorporate the cobblestones into the park's landscape. He and
his workers used them to line pathways, tier terraced gardens, and
as a construction material for a series of walls throughout the
of these walls still survive–one surrounds the former lily
pond at North Court and Mission Cliff Drive and the other is the
impressive cobblestone wall along the north side of Adams Avenue
from Park Boulevard to Mission Cliff Drive.
Feathers in University Heights
in 1904, John D. Spreckels invited Harvey Bentley to relocate his
ostrich farm from Coronado.
an additional fee, visitors to the gardens could gaze upon a dozen
or more ostriches around the farm. Fearless visitors could even
ride the huge birds. Ostrich feathers were in great demand at the
time for ladies hats, boas, and stoles and sold for $350 a pound.
the street from the Ostrich Farm was William Hilton's San Diego
Silk Mill (l735 Adams Avenue). Silk production was a thriving industry
by the turn of the century. The Chamber of Commerce helped to establish
a unique cottage industry in San Diego. Housewives would raise silk
worms in their back yards, similar to the Chinchilla craze of the
Water Supply Spurs Growth
Heights did not really start to develop until 1907, when the San
Diego Electric Railway was extended east on Adams Avenue. Prior
to 1907, the trolley line ended at the Trolley Barn at Park and
during this time, a lawsuit finally ended between Spreckels and
one of his ex-partners, Elisha Babcock. The dispute was over the
ownership and operation of the Southern California Mountain and
Water Supply Company, which they had developed in the 1890s. The
suit was settled in favor of Spreckels, who then supplied the city
of San Diego with water.
of an abundant supply of water, the city experienced a $6 million
increase in new construction and improvements, including a major
building program along Broadway in downtown San Diego. All of this
building and commercial activity brought investors and new residents
into the area. By 1907, San Diego's population had gone from 17,000
to over 32,000.
Trolley Line Brings Development to University Heights
the potential for growth fueled by the extension of the trolley
line, the University Heights Syndicate (George Hawley, president;
D.C. Collier, vice president; and Carl O. Reinbold, secretary) formed
in 1902 to reorganize the development of University Heights.
Syndicate planned to develop housing along the new trolley line
on Adams Avenue east of Mission Cliff Gardens, as well as on a large
tract of unincorporated land to the east to be called Normal Heights.
The company's first subdivision along the new trolley line extension
was Valle Vista Terrace, a tract of luxury homes on Panorama Drive
which provided magnificent views of Mission Valley and glimpses
of the ocean. Both Hawley's and Reinbold's homes can be found on
addition to the flurry of building activity after 1906, another
water-related event occurred in 1912, which produced still another
building boom, including a number of the large apartment blocks
in University Heights. At this time, the city purchased most of
the reservoirs and water distribution system of the Southern California
Mountain Water Company from Spreckels. This gave the city a municipally-owned
and operated water supply system “from mountain to meter.”
a result of this profit windfall, Spreckels invested in a much larger-scaled
building program downtown, which further stimulated local growth.
By 1913, over $10 million worth of building and improvements were
underway in the city.
Adams Avenue Trolley Barn
1913, a massive trolley car barn was built on property adjoining
the ostrich farm. The cavernous reinforced brick building was used
to store and perform minor service to several hundred trolleys.
Trolleys would exit and enter it through a series of switches off
of Florida Street.
the trolleys ceased running in 1949, the car barn was sold to the
San Diego Paper Box Company, which manufactured corrugated cardboard
boxes. Inside the old car barn were found 70 abandoned brand new
trolley cars with their upholstery still unused. In 1979, the building
was sold and demolished to make way for a condominium project.
the land remained undeveloped until l991 when, through community
efforts, the area was transformed into the present 8 1/2-acre Trolley
International Exposition Brings Many to San Diego
advertise San Diego's remarkable growth and its potential for investment
as the first West Coast port of call for the almost completed Panama
Canal, G. Aubrey Davidson, president of the San Diego Chamber of
Commerce, proposed an exposition in Balboa Park. In 1910, the Panama-California
Exposition Company was incorporated with D.C. Collier as its general
director, and Davidson and Spreckels on the board of directors.
the announcement of the proposed Exposition, San Diego experienced
a large-scale increase in home, hotel, and apartment construction.
A number of structures in University Heights were built during that
time. These developments are especially pronounced at the intersection
of Adams Avenue and Park Boulevard. Here, passengers would transfer
from the #1 trolley line on Park Boulevard to the Adams Avenue shuttle
trolley line. Installed in 1907, the Adams Avenue shuttle finally
provided through service from Kensington Park to downtown San Diego.
of Mission Cliff Gardens Declines
to the popularity of Balboa Park after the 1915 Panama-California
International Exposition, and the development of Mission Beach by
Spreckels in the 1920s, the popularity of Mission Cliff Gardens
declined. The final blow was the death of Spreckels in 1926. Mission
Cliff Gardens was closed in 1930 and relegated as a “Physical Non-Operating
was allowed to live in the Pavilion, but as the electric railway
company cut down on water expenses, most of the flowers and small
plants died. The only plants remaining now are the tall Canary Island
Palms north of the intersection of Park and Adams.
Davidson's death in 1935, the gardens deteriorated. In 1942, the
property was developed by the Spreckels interests to provide critically
needed wartime housing. Parts of the cobblestone wall were breached
at either end to facilitate automobile traffic.
Efforts in University Heights
vestiges of Mission Cliff Gardens survive and have been historically
designated through the efforts of the University Heights Historical
- The former
entrance to Mission Cliff Gardens on Adams Avenue at the end of
North Avenue, including the redwood gate, and some of the palm
- The cobblestone
wall that lined Adams Avenue from Park Boulevard to its dead end.
- The cobblestone
wall surrounding the former lily pond on Mission Cliff Drive at
North Court, built by John Davidson and his workers. The former
pavilion designed by William Hebbard stood just north of the pond.
- The former
entrance to the Ostrich Farm at Park and Adams, including the
redwood gate and the cobblestone piers.
- The cobblestone
remains of a drinking fountain, which was once part of an ornate
waiting station for the Number 11 trolley.
addition to the properties landmarked by the University Heights
Historical Society, many private property owners in University Heights
have succeeded in having their homes historically-designated. This
not only provides them with the opportunity for significant property
tax benefits but preserves just a little bit of our history for
generations to come.
For More Information
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