Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Thomas Whaley's Versatile Home: A San Diego Landmark

Thomas Whaley's Versatile Home: A San Diego Landmark

The Whaley House in Old Town, San Diego, California is an early example of a multi-use structure. Over the course of the past 150 years, the building has been used as the Whaley family residence, the San Diego County courthouse, San Diego’s first commercial theater, a general store, and since 1960 a museum. Although its use varied, the home retains much of its original fabric and integrity, sitting along Historic Route 101, which at one time stretched from Washington State down the west coast to San Diego.


Thomas Whaley, who built the home, was born on October 5, 1823 in New York City. At the age of 26 in 1849, industrious Whaley left New York and arrived in San Francisco via ship during the California gold rush to engage in business. He set up a store with business partner George Wardle and sold hardware and woodwork, including mining equipment, from his family's New York business, Whaley & Pye. In 1851, Whaley moved to San Diego after an arson-fire destroyed his business. He spent the next two years in San Diego setting up various business ventures so that he could raise the capital to return to New York to marry Anna Eloise Delaunay. Thomas and Anna married on August 14, 1853. Four months later, the newlywed couple arrived back in California to start their life together. On August 22, 1857 the Whaleys moved into their newly-built Greek Revival home, the site of a former temporary gallows where a man known as James Robinson, or "Yankee Jim," was hanged for attempted grand larceny in 1852.

Being a shrewd businessman and always seeking opportunity, Whaley purchased the property in 1855 because no one else was interested in a site where a hanging had occurred. On this property he constructed a single-story granary, built with bricks from his Conde Street brickyard. Adjacent to the granary, he designed what was considered one of the finest homes in San Diego, featuring mahogany and rosewood furniture, Brussels carpets, and damask drapes. Construction costs reached $10,000, a sizable number for that time. The southeast exterior wall of the home is covered with plaster and scored to resemble stone. It is believed that the entire home was to be covered with plaster and scored, but the project was never finished. Originally being built as a general store, the home had five sets of double doors across the front, excluding the granary. Today, only one set of double doors in the front remain and are flanked by windows on each side.

The parlor at the Whaley House.
In 1858, after another fire destroyed his general store in San Diego, he moved his wife and three children to San Francisco. During his stay in San Francisco, Thomas worked as a U.S. Army Commissary storekeeper. The family returned to San Diego, with five children now, after an earthquake in 1868. At this time, he partnered with Philip Crosthwaite to open a general store in his home.

In October of that year, an upstairs bedroom was converted into a theater after Thomas Whaley rented the room out to the Tanner Troupe, a local theatre troupe traveling through San Diego at the time. The first night's performance gathered a standing-room only crowd of 150! Unfortunately, Thomas Tanner, the operator of the theater, died seventeen days later, and his troupe disbanded by the end of January 1869. This former bedroom briefly became San Diego's first commercial theater.

Shortly after the theater vacated, the County of San Diego rented the theater and former granary for use as meeting space and a courthouse, which remained until 1871. The Whaley's remained in the home until 1885, when one of their adult daughters, Violet, who had been married just three years prior, took her own life after battling depression. The suicide prompted Thomas to built a new home in the New Town section of San Diego on State Street. After dabbling in real estate, he retired in 1888 and passed away two years later at the age of 67.

The Court Room, originally the granary, at the Whaley House.
The house in Old Town was rented out for many years. In 1909, Thomas's oldest son Francis restored the building. Tourism was booming in San Diego and Francis seized the opportunity to turn the home into a tourist attraction, promoting the history of the building and entertaining visitors with his guitar. After siblings Anna and Francis passed away in 1913 and 1914, respectively, at the house, it was occupied by their sister Lillian, who resided there until her death in 1953.

In 1956, the home was slated to be demolished for a gas station. An outcry from local residents convinced the County of San Diego to purchase the property, restore it, and open it as a museum. The restored home was dedicated as a historic house museum on May 25, 1960, managed by the San Diego Historical Shrine Foundation. Since 2000, it has been maintained by Save Our Heritage Organisation. The home reflects the period 1868 to 1871, when the building served as Whaley's primary residence, commercial theater, county courthouse, and general store.

In addition to being an important part of San Diego's early history, the home also has a longtime history of the paranormal. Because of numerous deaths in the home and strange noises and sights claimed by visitors, the home was dubbed the most haunted house in America in 2005 by Life magazine and the Travel Channel's America's Most Haunted. Even Regis Philbin, who once toured the house, had an unexplained experience. One of the earliest instances of a possible haunting date back to the 1850s, after Thomas Whaley and his family moved in. It was reported that the Whaley family heard loud, heavy footsteps moving in the house. Whaley concluded that they were from the spirit of Yankee Jim. The home continues to receive attention from paranormal groups and has been featured many times in television shows, including the SyFy Channel's Ghost Hunters. The site caters to those interested in the paranormal and history with special guided tours in the evening. Whether or not you believe, you cannot discount that numerous deaths occurred in the house and on the property.

The Whaley and Crosthwaite General Store.
While you visit the Whaley House, there are also a number of moved historic structures worth noting:

The Verna House, located to the right of the Whaley House, houses the site's gift shop. The home was built sometime between 1869 and 1887. It was located at 319 W. Ash Street in downtown San Diego. The home was moved to its current location, next to the Whaley House, to save it from demolition in 1965.

Two false front store buildings, built circa 1870, were moved to the complex in 1964 from downtown San Diego to save them from demolition. In total, only four of these structures exist in all of City of San Diego. Today they have been adapted into a cafe.

At the rear of the property is the circa 1850 Derby-Pendleton House. This adobe and wood-frame home was prefabricated in Maine and and brought by ship in 1850. It is named for George Horatio Derby, humorist for the San Diego Herald and the author of Phoenixiana and the Squibob Papers, and the first San Diego County Clerk and Recorder George Allen Pendleton, who each lived at the home. In 1962, the home was relocated for the construction of Interstate 5.


Additional photos of my trip to the Whaley House on Pinterest

For More Information
Whaley House - Save Our Heritage Organisation


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