24 Jun 2012
MASTERPIECE IN OUR MIDST
Colorful mansion built in 1887 faces an uncertain future
By Ann Jarmusch Special to U-T San Diego
12:01 a.m., June 24, 2012
By: Comstock & Trotsche • Date: 1887 • Materials: Wood, stained glass, brick, masonry • Size: Two stories plus tower
Location: 1925 K St., Sherman Heights • Online: villamontezuma.org and
The 18-room Villa Montezuma has had a series of owners over the years, many of whom have suffered financial problems. U-T file photos
A dragon’s head looks down to the street from a corner of the Villa Montezuma’s roof.
Sadly, one of the most fascinating and important houses in San Diego is vacant and subject to vandalism.
The Villa Montezuma, a Victorian mansion built in 1887 in Sherman Heights, was offered to the renowned concert pianist and author Jesse Shepard by developers William and John High to entice him to move to what was then a boomtown with rough edges.
Shepard held concerts and séances in the ornate, Queen Anne-style house with mismatched towers, a turret and elaborate stained-glass windows portraying great artists such as Shakespeare, Beethoven and Mozart.
Shepard sold the 18-room villa to one in a series of owners, many of whom subsequently suffered financial problems. In 1968, a group of preservationists bought the deteriorated house to save it. The city of San Diego acquired it three years later and, in 1972, engaged the San Diego Historical Society to operate it as a house museum. The society, now the San Diego History Center, abruptly closed the museum in 2006.
City-funded restoration work is slowly under way, but such an intricate structure needs constant upkeep. The Villa appears on the Save Our Heritage Organisation’s 2012 Most Endangered Resources List, which annually publicizes the top local historic sites threatened by demolition or development. SOHO manages or owns several historic properties and wants the city to allow it to reopen the house museum. The group Friends of the Villa Montezuma also is lobbying to operate the house.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the colorful Villa is “the most exotic and extravagant Queen Anne Victorian mansion in San Diego,” writes Erik Davis in his 2006 book “The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape.”
Neighbors and experts agree: The Villa Montezuma is an irreplaceable architectural and cultural masterpiece.
Ann Jarmusch, formerly U-T San Diego’s architecture critic, writes about art, architecture and historic preservation.