By Jim Miller
Coming up Broadway from downtown, it’s the one thing you can’t miss: the Quartermass/Wilde house, the Xanadu of Golden Hill. In the heart of a district of historic homes, this one serves as a monument to the elite status of Golden Hill in the beginning of the last century. One of the biggest of the remaining Victorian mansions in the city, it is also one of San Diego’s most spectacular historic structures.
With its marvelous rococo towers, Doric columns, and stunning domed cupola, the Quartermass/Wilde House looms atop the hill. This gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian mixes in elements of classical revival style as it sits above the street on stone retaining walls amidst a beautifully landscaped yard featuring a huge Star Pine. When one approaches the house from the intersection of Broadway and 24th, the stairway of the unique corner entrance beckons like Gatsby with the promise of unspeakable wonder.
Once inside, one is greeted by an ornately carved stairwell, walls covered with wood paneling and elaborate tapestries, stained glass windows on the landing, a wine cellar, and 8800 square feet of elegant domestic space. Built in 1897 by department store owner Ruben Quartermass, this mansion spoke the status that was the elite enclave of Golden Hill.
But while Quartermass built the house, it was its subsequent owner, Louis J. Wilde, who was its most important resident. It was Wilde who shamelessly lobbied to have the name of D Street changed to Broadway to enhance the value and image of his home and spent his time in San Diego relentlessly engaging in self-interested boosterism that frequently veered into unscrupulous dealings, as both a businessman and a politician.
Wilde embodied the capitalist ethos of his age. Coming to California during the booming 1880s he worked in Los Angeles until he could afford to buy real estate, but left when the bust ensued, returning to Minnesota, where he bought and sold farmland, became a banker, and eventually got rich speculating in the Texas oil fields.
Wilde then returned to California and moved to San Diego in 1903. His other business adventures included a scandalous investment scheme in Oregon where he was accused of embezzlement, and the notorious “Jazz Cat Gamble” he promoted while Mayor of San Diego in 1919. More specifically, San Diego’s huckster mayor got legions of gullible San Diegans to invest in a Community Oil Company that would quickly come up dry leaving Wilde’s fellow gamblers empty handed. He was consequently eviscerated by the local press and pilloried by many of his fellow elites who accused him of messing up everything he touched.
Despite this controversy, while in San Diego, Wilde was also known for founding banks, financing successful business ventures, building theatres and apartment buildings, funding the completion of the US Grant Hotel, and more. Thus he was well positioned to run for mayor when the impulse struck him in 1917. And it was that campaign, the contest between Wilde and George Marston, which would do much to shape the future of San Diego.
The infamous “Geraniums versus Smokestacks” campaign pitted Wilde against San Diego’s most articulate advocate of the “city beautiful” and a key figure in the development of Balboa Park—George Marston. Simply put, Marston advocated for a vision of San Diego that emphasized better city planning, preserving open space, and beautifying the boulevards. He was not anti-business, but he was an advocate for controlled growth. Marston enjoyed the support of many of the city’s elite and even the lukewarm backing of San Diego’s power broker extraordinaire, John D. Spreckels, who saw parts of Marston’s vision as being useful for promoting his growing interests in the tourism industry.
Nonetheless, the Wilde campaign ran a relentless assault on “Geranium George” who Wilde accused of wanting to preserve San Diego as an “Eden” for the upper class. In a stunningly bold and nakedly hypocritical rhetorical flourish, Wilde, the mansion-dwelling robber baron, ran as a kind of populist hero of the workingman exhorting laborers to: “Remember, that this is a fight to the last ditch for the wage earner, against big interests, high taxes, bond issues and expensive parks and flowers along millionaire row, against big expenditures for the pleasure of a few smug plutocrats.”
And it worked. Wilde won big as workingmen flocked to his cause along with a good segment of the business community who abandoned Marston for quick buck Wilde who promised to bring industry and riches to San Diego instead of flowers and effete snobbery. Thus the full-throated rejection of the city beautiful helped bring Wilde a successful political career until his second term ended in humiliating scandal and he left the town, scorning San Diego as a home to “old tight wads, pessimists,” and “vacillating, visionary dreamers” in favor of the “boosters and brains” in Los Angeles where he died a short time afterwards.
The irony is that, as Mike Davis points out in his section of Under the Perfect Sun, it was Marston’s program that persevered rather than Wilde’s so that:
[D]espite his electoral defeats, Marston’s vision of amenity based “clean growth,” with preference to retirees, tourists, and sailors rather than heavy industries and industrial unions, would provide an enduring template to which the city’s dominant business elites would repeatedly return until, in the 1980s, it simply became holy scripture. [In addition to this] the city’s labor movement, except for a brief left-wing interval in the New Deal years, would perennially put “growth” ahead of any other issue of principle. In effect, this would propel the San Diego Labor Council into serial marriages of desperation with the demagogic politicians and reactionary local capitalists.
Wilde’s ability to rally much of labor behind him with only a significant, but smaller segment of socialist workers supporting Marston was made possible by the brutal suppression of the Free Speech Fight and the accompanying blunting of the possibility of a more progressive labor movement a few years earlier in 1912.
Of course the irony here is that it was Marston who was supportive of civil liberties during this period while Spreckels (Marston’s unenthusiastic backer in 1917) was the King of the Vigilantes, tacitly supporting those who beat, tortured, and even murdered the Wobblies they nabbed off the streets near 5th and E just a short distance from Wilde’s mansion on the hill.
So, in effect, the moneyed interests who ruled early San Diego won either way. It didn’t really matter whether the Smokestacks or Geraniums were victorious because real power stayed in the same hands regardless of the outcome of the election. Indeed, it took nearly a hundred years until the city had a mayor who wasn’t seamlessly aligned with the city’s power elite. That mayor is Bob Filner and, predictably, San Diego’s traditional owners don’t like him one bit.
So the next time you pass the corner of 24th and Broadway, now a quiet home to professional offices, remember it once belonged to the man who beat “Geranium George” but fell from grace after the “Jazz Cat Gamble”—one of the most colorful of a long line of opportunistic plutocrats and their proxies who have ruled San Diego for most of the last century. And that stunning mansion on the hill, like much of our beautiful city, is a pretty landmark that most of us could never afford to own.
Note: This is part one of an episodic history of the neighborhood.