E.W. Scripps mansion bathroom, 1900. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections,Ohio University Libraries.
We came in through the bathroom window one late afternoon in 1972. Seven of us, all sixteen years old that year, climbed up into the thick branches of a shrub against the east wall of the abandoned E.W. Scripps mansion, swung over the sill of an opaque glass window and dropped down onto the black and white octagonal tile floor of a large bathroom. In the center was an ornate barber’s chair. We gathered around it in astonishment then everyone had to try it out. ‘May I give you a shave my good man?’ We peeked into cupboards, opened drawers and twisted squeaky faucet handles on the porcelain sink. The air was cool and still, smelling faintly of old soap. One door led from the bathroom to a large empty room hushed with heavy velvet drapes pulled across the windows, the other to a long, wide, dark corridor. We gathered around the barber’s chair to consult. The light from the window was already fading, and our mothers would expect us home for dinner. We thought we had better explore while we had the chance.
You would definitely need a good barber to maintain such an elegant mustache and beard. Wealthy newspaper publishing entrepreneur Edward Wyllis Scripps as he looked in 1890 when he retired at the age of 36 to build his family home on a mesa overlooking the ocean in San Diego, CA. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
How we came to notice this window and enter E.W .Scripps mansion came about in the following way: in 1970 I was part of a group of teens who had all moved with our families to Scripps Miramar Ranch, a new housing development on the site of the former E.W. Scripps property on the northern edge of San Diego. My family in particular had relocated from Orange County because the aerospace industry which had boomed for so long was now going bust. By the late 1960’s my father had become so alarmed at the escalating layoffs that he had started taking night classes at Chapman College in information systems analysis to reeducate for a new career. When he finally landed an administration job at San Diego State University, a period of great stress and anxiety for our whole family came to an end.
We began driving down from Orange County on weekends to explore neighborhoods in San Diego and soon my parents decided to buy a new tract home in the first phase of a new housing development at Scripps Ranch. I liked it because the rolling hills and open fields reminded me a little of the landscape I had explored so happily in Orange County. I was also intrigued with the vast eucalyptus forest E.W. Scripps had planted seventy years ago. Thinking of living among the graceful, airy trees with their slender trunks somehow made the wrench of moving from a familiar place less painful.
Above: an early 1970’s photograph from my father’s collection showing the understory of the eucalyptus forest.
The soil of the area was stony and dry, but a network of smooth, well-worn paths curved over hills and down narrow, wooded canyons making it possible to travel around by foot or bicycle. In warm weather I went everywhere barefoot and remember how these paths felt. I believe they were part of the early 1900’s landscape and perhaps represented horse trails used by the family and employees to access different areas of the vast ranch.
Above: another early 1970’s photograph from my father’s collection showing the hilly terrain and how the new tract houses of the Scripps Ranch development were set into the eucalyptus trees.
In the early 1970’s, Scripps Ranch was fairly isolated from surrounding communities. Our nearest neighbor was the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station covering a vast expanse of windswept land to the south and west of Interstate 15. About twenty minutes further south was the nearest junior high and high school in an area of San Diego called Clairemont Mesa. Our group of teenagers had all become acquainted on the long bus rides back and forth to school and had started meeting after we got home in the afternoons. A popular place to congregate was the sloping parking lot in front of the only store in Scripps Ranch, a small convenience mart in a portable building with an excellent supply of all the junk food most of us were not encouraged to eat to home: Hostess Twinkies, Hostess Ding Dongs, Hostess Cherry Pies and Coca-Cola in glass bottles. From the back of the store it was a short walk west to the old Scripps mansion, an imposing white stucco building with square towers, looking a bit like a cross between a castle and a hacienda. One afternoon we wandered over to look at it.
Molly McClain’s excellent article, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment” begins with the context behind the decision Edward Wyllis Scripps and his sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, made to buy land in California and start building a new home in 1891. It is available online in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of The Journal of San Diego History, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in finding out more about the Scripps family. She explains that they decided to name the home ‘Miramar,’ Spanish for ‘view of the sea.’ E.W. envisioned a structure partly designed to reflect the style of Miramare Castle, home of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria on the Gulf of Trieste in Italy, and partly to reflect classic Spanish architecture with living areas organized around a central courtyard.
Above: E.W. Scripps mansion and grounds in 1906 showing the southwest tower on the left side of the house. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
Above: 1930 aerial of E.W. Scripps mansion and grounds, showing the sides of the house organized around the central courtyard. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
Negley Cochran in his book E.W. Scripps comments: “It was semi-arid mesa land, stony, treeless and bare, no water, no roads, buildings, or improvements— just a tough job for Scripps to tackle” (p. 104). Apparently E.W. loved the challenge and threw himself into the work of developing the property— building roads, creating reservoirs in the canyons to store water, constructing an extensive irrigation system and planting not only thousands of eucalyptus trees but also groves of citrus and olives across the extended ranch, over 2,100 acres in all (pp.104-106).
By the time our family arrived in 1970 the axial Beaux-Arts main drive that headed east toward the top right side of the photo above had disappeared, a casualty of a new regrading plan for streets and tract home lots. The mansion itself; however, remained open for docent led tours (I recall going on one with my mother), and the beautifully landscaped grounds that surrounded the house remained intact. The little convenience store where our group met was located just past the middle far right edge of the 1930 aerial view of the mansion above.
Above: The E.W. Scripps mansion courtyard as it looked when the mansion was open for tours from a 1969 issue of San Diego Magazine. Courtesy of California History Room, California State Library.
1910 photograph showing the east wing of the mansion courtyard, flat topped roof and tower. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
The photograph above shows several interesting features E.W. Scripps included in the design of the house. Since the Pacific Ocean was just twelve miles away and visible on the horizon, Molly McClain mentions in “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment” that the flat roof was used by E.W. as a place to promenade (p. 12). Negley Cochran comments in E.W. Scripps that another design feature was a large central courtyard originally planned with auto access in mind. This allowed guests and family members to arrive and depart conveniently (p. 104). Arched windows surrounding the courtyard brought light into an interior corridor with suites of rooms opening off the inner walls.
The photograph above was taken sometime between 1907 and 1910 and shows E.W.’s daughter Nackey standing inside one part of the corridor that surrounded the courtyard/auto court. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
I recall from taking a tour of the mansion that one of the towers was the ground floor location of the living room with high ceilings, an imposing fireplace and windows with views south and west. The house was elegantly furnished with oriental rugs and stately but comfortable furniture.
E.W. Scripps office circa 1960’s as it still looked when I toured the mansion in 1970. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
The somewhat bare slopes surrounding the house evident in the 1930’s aerial photograph had changed over the years. By 1970 the grounds were rich with luxurious plantings, groves of pines and stands of mature eucalyptus trees.
This is a present day photograph of Hendrix Pond, a reservoir about a quarter of a mile west of the mansion. According to a September 2002 entry in the Scripps Ranch Civic Association Newsletter, the pond dates from the E.W. Scripps period. Courtesy of Epic One Real Estate.
On one of our first explorations of the mansion grounds in 1970, our group discovered a large pond below the house surrounded by eucalyptus trees, edged with reeds and looking almost exactly as it does now in the photograph above. Conveniently tied up at a small dock was a large wooden raft. We immediately got enthusiastic about Huck Finn possibilities and hatched the idea of a moonlight raft party. My father almost had a coronary when I asked if I could go and said, “absolutely not!” But my mother said, “Let her go.” So I did go, more than a bit apprehensive when it finally came down to actually drifting out in the dark on a body of murky unknown water in the exclusive company of pushing, shoving, giggling teenagers. Perhaps whoever was providing oversight to the estate heard about our unsupervised adventure because when we returned to the site another time, the raft was gone.
This 11-2-12 image from Google Earth shows the location of Hendrix Pond and its relationship to the former mansion site just east of the tennis courts. My recollection was that in 1970 the southern section of Avairy Drive ended at the driveway of the clubhouse and pool complex. It was possible to travel from the clubhouse to the homes of friends who lived north of Atrium Drive via a wide path through the eucalyptus and pine trees. Another path led to the pond.
At some point during the next few years, the tours ended, the mansion closed and a temporary chain link fence went up around the perimeter. My mother told me that ‘they’ (I’m not sure at this point who was involved in the decision making process) were trying to find a buyer for the house and grounds. The goal was to preserve the mansion as an important historical landmark; unfortunately, the costs of upkeep were already prohibitive and there didn’t seem to be any reserve fund to keep it up indefinitely. Various options were being explored in the hopes that something could be worked out.
I, for one, certainly hoped something could be worked out. Perhaps because I had spent several years in Villa Park Elementary School’s 1890’s era Mission Revival building (see Strawberry Fields Forever post), I could appreciate the home’s grand scale and gracious proportions. Beyond that, the mansion was also beautiful and romantic— the courtyard, in particular, with its lush plantings, fountain, stately bird of paradise plants and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ staircase curving up to the roof was a place I returned to again and again.
And so it was partly because we never tired of its allure that we wandered over from the little store to the mansion one late afternoon in 1972. We slipped through a gap in the chain link barricade and climbed up on a large pile of bulldozed dirt just inside the fence to look around. One of the males in the group declared himself king of the mountain and began unceremoniously shoving the rest of us off. Then someone else, either propelled from the hill in a humiliating grand arc or just running to escape the reigning tyrant fell into the shrubs against the wall under one of the mansion’s windows, happened to look up and noticed that it was slightly ajar. The game of abandoned house crashing promised to provide a much more level playing field so within a few minutes we were hiding in the shrubs under the window making an impromptu plan to go inside. No one seemed to be around to observe us, so we climbed in the window.
The rest of our afternoon mansion exploration adventure takes on a surreal quality once we made the decision to leave the bathroom and move down the closest interior corridor. As if we had become actors in a scratchy black and white film, I see us clinging to each other and moving cautiously through darkness punctuated by thin slits of light at the edges of heavy drapes. Rooms off the corridor were spacious, carpeted, shadowy, empty. One bedroom had a bay window behind the curtains, the seat cushion in the light filled alcove bleached to a pale gold by sun damage and covered by fine white dust. There were interconnecting doors between the rooms leading to more bathrooms with more shiny tiled floors. Finally we came to the great, hollow living room and walked under the heavy mantle and into the massive fireplace; the bricks were cold and smelled like the stale smoke of a thousand fires. We slipped down another corridor and came to a dining room with side pantries filled with cupboards and doors we opened and closed—all disappointingly bare.
Early 1890’s photograph of the E.W. Scripps mansion dining room. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
There was a big empty kitchen with more empty cupboards and more empty drawers. There was a door opening onto to a tower stairway that we decided we better not climb. We left then, retracing our steps down the dark corridors, climbing back out the bathroom window (careful to shut it again) and running our separate ways home in the twilight to home and dinner. At some point a security guard appeared and began to patrol the mansion and grounds. It seemed too risky to try to go inside again.
In 1973, the decision was made to destroy the mansion and turn the land to other uses for the new development. I’m not sure at this point in my research who made this call, but I do remember being extremely upset about the news. The house was built of thick adobe bricks and a crew was brought in to do the work of dismantling the structure by hand. Several of the teens in our group applied and were hired on as temporary help. While this seemed traitorous on one hand, on the other I could understand the financial incentives. We were all driving by then and trying to manage cars, gas and insurance on a shoestring. I remember repeatedly standing at the east side of one of the first tennis courts built as part of the new Scripps Ranch clubhouse and watching the walls come down over a several week period. The huge adobe bricks were stacked on pallets to be sold and everything in the house from beams to lighting fixtures was also stripped out and sold. By the time the walls were almost down to the ground, I simply couldn’t bear to watch any more.
This 11-2-12 image from Google Earth shows the location of the former mansion. In 1973, only the two tennis courts closest to Aviary Drive existed. The E.W. Scripps house took up the approximate space that is now covered by the two east side tennis courts, the top of the parking lot beyond the courts and what looks to be the roofs of apartment buildings to the north of the parking lot. Our group enjoyed using the original pool and clubhouse to no end (most teenagers would), but the destruction of such an important historic treasure was absolutely not worth any plans to expand the recreation complex.
Time passed. I went to college, detached from home and family and finally moved away from San Diego returning only to visit my parents who ended up buying a home in Ocean Beach to live out their retirement years. I never found out why the mansion had to be torn down, and I never returned to Scripps Ranch. Eventually I moved to northern California.
Many years later I started writing my first novel. Every story benefits from a compelling setting, so one of mine became a fictionalized version of the Poverty Ridge neighborhood in Sacramento. This was an interesting residential area I had fallen in love with partly because of one particular home that had caught my attention—an elegant two story with creamy rose stucco walls and a clay tile roof. I had parked on the street near it one day, purely by chance and on other business in the area. I remember pausing to look at it closely. Somehow it seemed familiar. There was a heavy wood front door and a little glimmer of leaded glass in recessed windows. It reminded me of the only residence Julia Morgan designed in Sacramento—the Mediterranean Revival Goethe mansion on ‘T’ Street. Even the landscaping was similar (imagine the photo of that house below without the Italian cypress and round topiary trees by the front door).
This 2012 photograph shows the Sacramento mansion designed by Julia Morgan and now called the Julia Morgan House. The house was a 1920’s era wedding gift to Charles Goethe and Mary Louise Glide from the bride’s parents. Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.
Later I couldn’t get the Poverty Ridge house out of my mind, and I wondered about my fascination with it. I spent some time searching for information although clues proved elusive. In any case, I decided to create a fictionalized version of the house in my novel. As I began to develop that idea, I started to realized the Poverty Ridge house was probably important to me because it represented a link back to the Scripps mansion. That beautiful and mysterious place was gone forever, but maybe some sense of it could live on… at least in my imagination.
One of the very unexpected and really enjoyable aspects of writing my novel has been discovering new information loops that keep curling out from my original premise. Three months ago, I doubt a thought about the E.W. Scripps house had crossed my mind for twenty years. Now I find myself pulling out those memories like faded photos from a box and also wanting to know more. Are there construction drawings for the house? Are there images that show the mansion and grounds between 1930-1973? Are there any maps of the ranch? Why was the ranch sold for development in the late 1960’s? Who managed the house and land after it was sold to the developer? Why wasn’t the family able to save the house?
The E.W. Scripps Papers, 1868-1926, are a fantastic resource and available online through the Robert E. and Jean R. Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections at Ohio University. Many of E.W. Scripps philosophical ‘disquisitions’ are also available for viewing as part of this collection, and it is interesting to read his wide-ranging thoughts on everything from politics to the nature of man. Wonderful photographs are also included in this collection. Some of my favorites are:
The photograph above was taken sometime between 1907 and 1910 shows E.W. Scripps (left) and a companion with fish caught in one of the Miramar Ranch reservoirs. Notice the rake. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
The photograph above shows E.W.’s wife, Nackie Holtsinger Scripps (1866-1930), with her horse in the mansion courtyard between 1907 and 1910. She was an excellent rider and frequently made the trip to the beach by horseback. Notice the vines now added around the courtyard windows. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
Photograph of the Miramar Ranch garage taken sometime between 1907 and 1910. I don’t recall seeing this building in the early 1970’s so perhaps it had already been taken down. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
Above: E.W. Scripps at the beach near what is now the city of La Jolla circa 1918-1919. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
La Jolla beach. Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.
Growing up in San Diego during the 1970’s was a wonderful experience and very much centered on the coast. From just the little research I have done on the Scripps family so far, it is evident they loved the San Diego beaches just as we did. We drove the same route, now paved, over the mesa to the coast as they did. We swam at La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores as they did. We picnicked at Torrey Pines as they did. We watched the sun set over the ocean as they did.
I had not realized that E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen helped found the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and that Ellen Browning Scripps had donated land and support for the present day Torrey Pines State Beach, but it makes sense.
Most of all I can connect with the love E.W. Scripps had for the house and landscape he created at Miramar.
“In digging, plowing, ditching, building—engaged in these pursuits I am always happy.”
The Astonishing Mr. Scripps: the Turbulent Life of America’s Penny Press Lord by Vance Trimble. (p. 175)