It was left abandoned and unfurnished, a victim of old age and minor vandalism.
But, beginning this week, this 138-year-old, last-of-its-kind house will undergo the final phase of an extensive restoration begun in 1984 that should leave it in tip-top shape from basement to shingles.
It's the William Heath Davis House, and experts say the two-story, yellow structure--the oldest wooden home in San Diego--is lucky to be alive.
"The fact that it survived is a miracle," said preservationist Mary Joralmon, who was responsible for refurbishing the prefabricated New England "salt box"-style house shipped in 1850 from Maine.
Named for its original owner, the house sits at Island and 4th avenues, near the center of the Gaslamp Quarter. Surrounded by an elegant black steel fence, the house is bordered by a pocket park--complete with old-fashioned wooden benches, trees and cobblestones laid in a circular pattern--that is sometimes used for receptions and special events.
The home is the sole survivor of about half a dozen such buildings brought to downtown San Diego by way of Cape Horn. Ordered by William Heath Davis, the houses were part of a plan to develop 160 acres near the waterfront about 1850, almost 17 years before Alonzo E. Horton, San Diego's first large-scale commercial developer, began building in the area encompassed by the present-day downtown.
But unlike Horton, who was a success after buying 930 acres of land at less than 30 cents per acre, Davis suffered a severe financial setback in a fire in San Francisco, where he had extensive holdings, just a few years after he began his enterprise here. He returned to his Bay Area home to live out his life in financial straits. Davis, son of a sea captain, died in 1909 at age 80 and never lived in the home.
Joralmon thinks the relic that bears Davis' name survived because it has been inhabited almost continuously, except for a few years before restoration.
It has been used as a military barracks, a hospital and private home to many--including Alonzo Horton.
Today, the 2,700-square-foot, city-owned house serves not one but three uses and has become a focal point in the resurging Gaslamp Quarter.
The basement, which houses a large model of the neighborhood, is a community meeting room used by the Gaslamp Quarter Council and the Gaslamp Quarter Foundation.
The first floor has been transformed into a museum, which opened Dec. 4, 1984, and contains period artifacts and original furniture tracked down by Joralmon, who re-created the decor of a "moderate" home with a different time period highlighted in each of the four rooms.
On the top floor are offices used by the Gaslamp Quarter Council, which was formed to revitalize the 16 1/2-block area, designated a nationally registered historic district in 1980.
The house not only has had a multitude of inhabitants and uses, but it has also sat at three locations.
At first, during its use by the federal government as barracks for military officers, it was at State and Market streets.
In 1873, the house was moved--not an uncommon occurrence in that era because of simplicity of construction and lack of overhead electrical wires--to 11th Avenue between K and L streets. There, it was used until 1881 as a county hospital, and the government paid the home's owner $1 per person per night to house patients.
In 1902, the Lohman family moved into the house, which was equipped with gas lights, a stove and later a refrigerator. George Deyo, the Lohmans' adopted son, lived in the house in its original condition until his death in 1977, when the house was donated to the city as he had requested, and the land was sold.
Victim of Some Vandalism
While the house sat empty, it suffered minor vandalism and there were signs that it had been used by transients for shelter.
Finally, in March, 1983, the dilapidated yellow house arrived at its third and current resting place.
In refurbishing the home in 1984, Joralmon said, workers had to remove as many as 12 layers of wallpaper in some rooms, samples of which are displayed in the reception area. Joralmon managed to track down some of the home's original furniture and paintings, including one portrait of a portly and bearded Davis at age 28 and another of one of his 13 children.
Other items in the museum were donated by the San Diego Historical Society, volunteers and visitors who found period items in attics and basements.
Joralmon said it is difficult to find items to place in the house because it was not a grandiose home where owners tended to take greater care of possessions. But people respond well to the house on tours, she said, because they tend to identify with the modest furnishings similar to ones they recall from a grandparent's home.
People are particularly surprised to learn that the house was originally prefabricated and shipped from Maine, said Catherine Nichol
son, who until recently served as a part-time tour guide for the museum. Nicholson said the house was probably imported because the lumber supply was sparse in the San Diego area at the time and few people were skilled enough to build such a house. Also, it was a tradition in Hawaii, Davis' place of birth, to bring in prefabricated houses from New England.
The museum, which attracts about 60 people a week, is open weekdays and Saturdays, when there are scheduled tours. During the next two weeks, however, the museum will be closed while construction crews return to put the finishing touches on the exhaustive restoration by repairing termite and dry-rot damage.
The rehabilitation project, including moving, was partly funded by the city, with the balance raised from private donors.