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Villa Montezuma re-opens one more time

Queen Anne home invites spookiness – including Edgar Allan Poe

The exterior needs repainting.
The exterior needs repainting.

Villa Montezuma Museum has been dead for a while. No tours, no events, no living souls walking the enchanted hallways. That changed on a recent weekend, when the Palace of the Arts (so called by its original owner) re-opened its doors. Just in time for Halloween — and, by coincidence, on the exact anniversary of its grand debut to San Diego press and dignitaries on September 25, 1887.

Villa Montezuma, built in 1887 on 20th and K to draw wealthy homebuilders to the new neighborhood

Jesse Shepard, famous pianist and spiritualist, designed Villa Montezuma for entertaining. Guests were treated to musical séances, piano concerts, and artful conversation in the finely furnished rooms. Shepard’s talent was channeling famous composers in his performances, under the stained glass portraits of Mozart and Beethoven that still preside over the Villa’s music room.

But building the house wasn’t Shepard’s idea: spiritualist real estate developers financed it to anchor the up-and-coming neighborhood of Sherman’s Addition (now Sherman Heights) and encourage wealthy residents to build there. With a choice piece of real estate that provided great views of the harbor, they convinced Shepard to lend his reputation to newly booming San Diego. Shepard designed his home with redwood framing, carved walnut-panelled walls, Douglas fir floors, and hand-crafted Lincrusta-Walton ceilings. Shepard’s Palace of the Arts, on the corner of 20th and K, became a destination.

The music room was designed for piano performances and musical seances.

But by 1889 the San Diego boom had gone bust. Shepard had gone to Paris to publish his first book. The home changed hands several times over the next few decades, until in 1942 it served as a rooming house for World War II defense workers. The ornate rooms were filled with bunk beds. Workers tramped in and out 24 hours a day, sleeping in shifts. The house fell deeper into disrepair with so much use, while the outside decayed with gravity, wind, and weather.

Villa Montezuma's original owner spared no expense in the home's design.

For 20 years Mrs. Amelia Jaeger owned the house, but it became too much for her. The aging Villa finally found its benefactors in 1968, when several members of the San Diego Historical Society bought it for $25,000 — the same sum spent to build it in 1887. They convinced the city to take ownership if the historical society did the restoration. It was partially restored and opened as a museum in 1972. Every year Friends of Villa Montezuma (FOVM – volunteers from the historical society) hosted Dia de los Muertos, Victorian Christmas, Valentine’s Day Tea, wedding and parties, and regular walking tours of Sherman Heights. Local elementary school kids painted a mural in the basement, which served as a community center.

Over the years, a fire, a failing foundation, and lack of funds plagued the Villa. In 2006 the San Diego Historical Society closed the museum, and it stayed that way through the 2008 recession.

Louise Torio, who lives just a few blocks away on 20th Street, worked to incorporate the Friends into the nonprofit FOVM to take over care of the house. They secured an $880,000 community development block grant to fix the roof, foundation, and chimneys. That work finished in 2015 and the museum celebrated a “soft” opening, despite the need for further repairs. For five years quarterly free tours were part of the grant. Torio said these events regularly drew over 300 people walking the halls of Villa Montezuma. But in March 2020 the pandemic came along, and the museum was shuttered again.

Write Out Loud will stage PoeFest in the Villa’s enchanted rooms.

Now, as the state of California and the city re-open for business, the city has given the volunteers permission to re-open the museum. The most recent re-opening brings arts and culture —and spirits — back to the Palace of the Arts. A temporary exhibit upstairs shows how Victorians dealt with death: family photographs of the deceased, mourning jewelry, and art crafted from the hair of dead loved ones.

On Halloween weekend, Write Out Loud will stage PoeFest in the Villa’s enchanted rooms. Meet the butler, chambermaid, and housekeeper at the door for a visit to each of the home’s three levels, where guests (13 per group) will participate in a séance, peek into Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, and encounter Edgar Allan Poe’s tales.

Weekend tours have started up again (now $15 donation per adult) to raise funds for ongoing restoration. There’s a leak in the roof, and plenty of odds and ends to repair. The exterior needs repainting. “But it’s still a spectacular Queen Anne home,” said Torio, on the National Register of Historic Places, and it endures as an anchor for the neighborhood.

This year Torio and volunteers will construct ofrendas, one at the Villa and one for Jesse Shepard at the Sherman Heights Community Center down the block for the neighborhood’s Dia de los Muertos celebration. Join Friends of Villa Montezuma for the no-cost “Permanent Victorians” historic walking tour of Mount Hope Cemetery on Saturday, October 23, at 10:00 a.m.

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The exterior needs repainting.
The exterior needs repainting.

Villa Montezuma Museum has been dead for a while. No tours, no events, no living souls walking the enchanted hallways. That changed on a recent weekend, when the Palace of the Arts (so called by its original owner) re-opened its doors. Just in time for Halloween — and, by coincidence, on the exact anniversary of its grand debut to San Diego press and dignitaries on September 25, 1887.

Villa Montezuma, built in 1887 on 20th and K to draw wealthy homebuilders to the new neighborhood

Jesse Shepard, famous pianist and spiritualist, designed Villa Montezuma for entertaining. Guests were treated to musical séances, piano concerts, and artful conversation in the finely furnished rooms. Shepard’s talent was channeling famous composers in his performances, under the stained glass portraits of Mozart and Beethoven that still preside over the Villa’s music room.

But building the house wasn’t Shepard’s idea: spiritualist real estate developers financed it to anchor the up-and-coming neighborhood of Sherman’s Addition (now Sherman Heights) and encourage wealthy residents to build there. With a choice piece of real estate that provided great views of the harbor, they convinced Shepard to lend his reputation to newly booming San Diego. Shepard designed his home with redwood framing, carved walnut-panelled walls, Douglas fir floors, and hand-crafted Lincrusta-Walton ceilings. Shepard’s Palace of the Arts, on the corner of 20th and K, became a destination.

The music room was designed for piano performances and musical seances.

But by 1889 the San Diego boom had gone bust. Shepard had gone to Paris to publish his first book. The home changed hands several times over the next few decades, until in 1942 it served as a rooming house for World War II defense workers. The ornate rooms were filled with bunk beds. Workers tramped in and out 24 hours a day, sleeping in shifts. The house fell deeper into disrepair with so much use, while the outside decayed with gravity, wind, and weather.

Villa Montezuma's original owner spared no expense in the home's design.

For 20 years Mrs. Amelia Jaeger owned the house, but it became too much for her. The aging Villa finally found its benefactors in 1968, when several members of the San Diego Historical Society bought it for $25,000 — the same sum spent to build it in 1887. They convinced the city to take ownership if the historical society did the restoration. It was partially restored and opened as a museum in 1972. Every year Friends of Villa Montezuma (FOVM – volunteers from the historical society) hosted Dia de los Muertos, Victorian Christmas, Valentine’s Day Tea, wedding and parties, and regular walking tours of Sherman Heights. Local elementary school kids painted a mural in the basement, which served as a community center.

Over the years, a fire, a failing foundation, and lack of funds plagued the Villa. In 2006 the San Diego Historical Society closed the museum, and it stayed that way through the 2008 recession.

Louise Torio, who lives just a few blocks away on 20th Street, worked to incorporate the Friends into the nonprofit FOVM to take over care of the house. They secured an $880,000 community development block grant to fix the roof, foundation, and chimneys. That work finished in 2015 and the museum celebrated a “soft” opening, despite the need for further repairs. For five years quarterly free tours were part of the grant. Torio said these events regularly drew over 300 people walking the halls of Villa Montezuma. But in March 2020 the pandemic came along, and the museum was shuttered again.

Write Out Loud will stage PoeFest in the Villa’s enchanted rooms.

Now, as the state of California and the city re-open for business, the city has given the volunteers permission to re-open the museum. The most recent re-opening brings arts and culture —and spirits — back to the Palace of the Arts. A temporary exhibit upstairs shows how Victorians dealt with death: family photographs of the deceased, mourning jewelry, and art crafted from the hair of dead loved ones.

On Halloween weekend, Write Out Loud will stage PoeFest in the Villa’s enchanted rooms. Meet the butler, chambermaid, and housekeeper at the door for a visit to each of the home’s three levels, where guests (13 per group) will participate in a séance, peek into Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, and encounter Edgar Allan Poe’s tales.

Weekend tours have started up again (now $15 donation per adult) to raise funds for ongoing restoration. There’s a leak in the roof, and plenty of odds and ends to repair. The exterior needs repainting. “But it’s still a spectacular Queen Anne home,” said Torio, on the National Register of Historic Places, and it endures as an anchor for the neighborhood.

This year Torio and volunteers will construct ofrendas, one at the Villa and one for Jesse Shepard at the Sherman Heights Community Center down the block for the neighborhood’s Dia de los Muertos celebration. Join Friends of Villa Montezuma for the no-cost “Permanent Victorians” historic walking tour of Mount Hope Cemetery on Saturday, October 23, at 10:00 a.m.

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