Between 1887 and 1889, Jesse Shepard gave musicales at his Villa Montezuma. He had an international reputation as a singer/pianist. Others called him a charlatan. To bring instant culture to the pioneer town, San Diegans built Shepard a gaudy Victorian mansion at 20th and K Streets. Here he performed and, some said, conducted musical séances. What follows is an imagined evening at the villa — Tuesday, February 14, 1888 — based on eyewitness accounts.
Horse-drawn carriages and buggies arrive at 1925 K Street around 8:00 p.m. The villa stands on a hillside. Backlit by city lights below, the whimsically unsymmetrical building sports two towers with conical domes, two chimneys, and a cross-gable roof. Sculpted serpents twist around metal finials. The waterspout’s a dragon’s head. As if startled by their arrival, or determined to ward off demons, a winged, reptilian gargoyle spews invisible flames at the guests, all dressed for a night at the opera.
They are familiar with the Villa’s free-lance, Queen Anne style. Even bigger mansions have sprung up from here to Florence Heights. The mammoth structures proclaim bulging bank accounts in carpenter’s gothic.
Someone said that in Classical architecture, the whole is greater than the parts. In the Queen Anne, the parts are greater than the whole. And each part competes for attention.
People who have seen it say the villa isn’t just another Victorian extravagance. In fact, when they describe it, and Shepard’s mystical concerts, adjectives blur their words.
The carriages park on both sides of 20th. The dirt street runs north-south and was graded last summer. After taking in the view — the city like a floor of stars — guests search for the main entrance.
It’s not where they thought. Instead of a grand portico and wide steps rippling down to the street, the door’s around the corner to the right. You must walk past the three-story, northeast tower, erect as a soldier at attention, and up concrete steps. Compared to the ornate edifice, the humble porch looks like a servant’s entrance, or an afterthought.
We knock on the Dutch door. Maybe four feet wide, it has a glazed upper panel and dull brass hinges. The sky-blue ceiling’s a letdown. Every porch in town has that color.
The door swings open silently; waves of bright warmth flare out to greet us. Two men and a woman stand in the soft glow of a five-foot-tall brass lamp with a jeweled shade. A man, mid-20s, says he’s Lawrence Tonner. He presents the man next to him, also wearing black pants, elegantly cut waistcoat, and a white shirt with a U-shaped front. The sides of his winged collar curl like breaking waves over his black cravat.
“Mr. Jesse Shepard,” the young man announces as if for royalty. Shepard looks like Tonner in 15 years. Both are tall, well over six feet, with large physiques, black hair, waxed mustaches, but no beard, and melancholy, inward-looking eyes.
“You are most welcome,” Shepard says in a Bostonian accent. He has a courtly grace, open but reserved. When he gently shakes your hand, his fingers engulf yours. So, it’s true: they say that stretched out together, one of his hands can touch piano keys an octave and a half apart. The only other known pianist with such a reach was Franz Liszt, who died 11 years ago. People used to check if he had an “eleventh” finger.
Shepard introduces the woman on his right: Kate Field, the guest of honor. She’s the 50-year-old renowned writer/lecturer and champion of women’s causes — and, some say, the lover of British novelist Anthony Trollope.
She’s touring California for the first time, to “become acquainted,” she says. When she arrived here February 7, the San Diego Bee asked her impressions thus far. She said she didn’t like hearing boastful Californians belittle the East Coast. “Don’t grow conceited and think because you are a wonderful child that your parents can teach you nothing,” she told the reporter. “California will be more sympathetic when she allows the rest of the world to possess a few attractions. It is a miserable bird that fouls its own nest.”
Field’s outfit also raises eyebrows: white brocaded satin, pale blue trim, a flowing train, and a low neckline. Her dark hair swirls into a bun. She nods, smiles; her eyes are wide awake.
“Mr. Shepard will perform at 10:00 p.m.,” says Tonner. “Feel free to roam about.”
Shepard adds politely, “We’re so glad you’ve come.”
It’s only after the greeting that we notice the bold staircase rising from our right and climbing overhead, the bannister carved in diagonal rectangles. In fact, everywhere we turn looks sculpted, from the dark walnut wainscoting, to the redwood upper paneling, to the deep brown, interlocking patterns on the ceiling: circles and diamonds within connected squares.
Come to think of it, the round entryway window has a tiny circle within a square. Isn’t that an alchemical symbol for the Philosopher’s Stone?
The bas relief ceiling design rises from a bed of silver-gray Lincrusta-Walton, pressed canvas covered with linseed oil. In the flickering gas- and candlelight, the finish shimmers like moonlight on San Diego Bay.
Hallway doors cast pools of color on the ornate Smyrna rug. From the reception room to our left, pale pink spills through gold and light blue portieres. The drapes and fabrics, even the clusters of candles, are pink.
Straight ahead: the drawing room beckons like an open treasure chest. One of the guests, Thomas L. Fitch, the noted orator, joins us and opines: “the effects of universal culture are everywhere; it becomes apparent that nothing is copied here.”
Also known as Colonel Tom, the former Nevada congressman is a lawyer and one of San Diego’s most avid boosters. A rotund man around age 50, strands of white hair combed over a bald spot, Fitch defended Brigham Young against criminal litigation in 1871, and the Earps and Doc Holiday after the O.K. Corral ten years later. Now he edits the Bee and pens rabid advertising copy for Howard & Lyons, the real estate company. (Of his unabashed boosterism, folks say, “No boom really starts until Fitch shows up.”)
Part 2: An evening at Villa Montezuma; Coda