Old Town San Diego State Historic Park presents the opportunity to experience the history of early San Diego by providing a connection to the past. California Department of Parks and Recreation established Old Town State Historic Park, with more than two- dozen buildings depicting life from the early Mexican-American period of 1821-1872. Five original adobe structures mix with reconstructed sites and newer buildings done in the same style.
Even today, life moves more slowly in this part of San Diego, where the hustle and bustle is balanced with history and fiestas. Visitors are offered a glimpse into yesteryear, as converging cultures transformed San Diego from a Mexican pueblo to an American settlement. Five original adobe buildings are part of the historic park, which includes museums, unique retail shops, and several restaurants. The core of restored original historic buildings from the interpretive period are complemented by reconstructed sites, along with early twentieth century buildings designed in the same mode.
Old Town San Diego is considered the “birthplace” of California. San Diego is the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in California. Home to the Kumeyaay people since 10,000 BC, the area was claimed for Spain in the mid-sixteenth century by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. Settlement didn’t begin in earnest until 1769, when Father Junípero Serra established the first mission at the top of what is now Presidio Hill, and Gaspar de Portolà, Spain’s appointed governor of Alta California, built the first military outpost.
Make your first stop at the Visitor Center in the Robinson-Rose House, erected in 1853, demolished around 1900 and rebuilt in 1989. James Robinson came to San Diego from Texas in the Spring of 1850 and developed a successful law practice. He built this two-story structure in 1853 to serve not only as his family residence but also as the home of the San Diego Herald, the San Diego and Gila Railroad office, as well as other private offices. Robinson died in 1857 and his widow Sarah Robinson sold the building to Louis Rose, who probably purchased it as a family residence. Fire destroyed the roof in 1874 and the building fell into ruins by the turn of the century. The reconstructed building now serves as Old Town State Historic Park’s visitor center and has on display a model of Old Town as it looked in 1872, created by Joseph Toigo.
Pick up maps and brochures, find the camel in the diorama, and sign up for a guided walking tour of the park.
Across the plaza is La Casa de Estudillo, a grand adobe home that served as the social and political center of fledgling San Diego. Built between 1827 and 1830 for José Maria Estudillo, commander of the Presidio fort, it remained in the Estudillo family for roughly 60 years. The house and courtyard functioned as a school, chapel and place of refuge for women and children during the U.S. invasion of 1846. Local legend held that it was a setting in Helen Hunt Jackson’s fictionalized book, “Ramona.”
La Casa De Estudillo is a U shaped, thirteen room mansion, with three to five ft. thick, whitewashed adobe brick walls, built on a large river cobble foundation. The present, reconstructed roof is made from rough-cut log rafters (heavy wood beams), which are covered by cane mats (thatched roofing) and fired tiles. There is a charming courtyard garden & fountain in the middle of the U shaped La Casa De Estudillo building, which was built around this courtyard.
Stepping inside the La Casa De Estudillo is like traveling back in time, as the visitor sees how the people lived in this era.
The Cosmopolitan has watched San Diego unfold around it for nearly 200 years. From a state-of-the-art adobe home built in 1827 by a young, revolutionary Don Juan Bandini to a modern two-story hotel, restaurant and stagecoach office in 1869 to an olive cannery in 1900 and a popular Mexican restaurant in the latter half of the 20th century, the Cosmopolitan has seen San Diego grow. Now, returned to its 1870s glory, it has a story to tell.
The Cosmopolitan Restaurant features American regional cuisine served by Executive Chef Amy DiBiase and is dedicated to the melding of modern tastes with traditional ingredients and foods of the 1870s.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant is located on the corner of Calhoun and Mason streets in Old Town and there is ample free parking along Juan Street. For more information about Old Town’s Cosmopolitan Hotel, visit www.oldtowncosmopolitan.com
Other highlights of the park include La Casa de Bandini, which later became the Cosmopolitan Hotel, a blacksmith and woodworking shop, the first offices of the San Diego Union newspaper, and the first courthouse.
La Casa de Machado y Stewart is full of artifacts that reflect ordinary life of the period. Some of the other historic buildings include the Mason Street School (California’s first public schoolhouse), La Casa de Machado y Silvas, the San Diego Union Printing Office (site of the city’s oldest surviving newspaper office), and the first brick courthouse. The Seeley Stables Museum, with newly rehabilitated exhibits on overland transportation, houses one of the finest wagon and carriage collections.
McCoy House Museum
State Park archaeologists excavated in Old Town San Diego in 1995 to recover information needed to reconstruct a large residence built in 1869 by James McCoy, a well-to-do Irish immigrant who served as San Diego’s sheriff and state senator. Prior to 1851 the property belonged to Maria Eugenia Silvas, descendant of a Spanish Colonial soldier who came to Alta California in the 1770s.
The McCoy House, standing on the north end of Old Town. James McCoy, who lived from 1821 to 1895, like many early San Diego residents, was an ambitious man, working diverse jobs, filling many roles. At the age of 21 he sailed from Ireland to America seeking opportunity. He became a soldier, then a stagehand, then San Diego county assessor, then county sheriff in 1861. He acquired substantial real estate holdings and finally won election to the state senate in 1871.
Anyone who is a history buff must visit the McCoy House Museum. You’ll be transported back in time and see how life was exciting, difficult, and altogether different many, many years ago in San Diego.
The park is located on San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street in San Diego, and is conveniently adjacent to the Old Town Transit Center, with Coaster, Trolley, and MTS Bus service. Parking and entrance to the park are FREE.
Visitor Center & Museums- 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daily (free admission)