To those traveling through gritty National City, Heritage Square can be a surprising discovery. Venture into the picturesque block, just south of the intersection of East 9th Street and A Avenue, and you feel like you’ve stepped back 150 years.
National City has a fascinating history. Originally used by the Spanish to graze horses, the land in the early 1800s, after Mexican independence, was called Rancho de la Nación. In 1868, a San Francisco builder named Frank Kimball bought the rancho with an ambitious dream. He intended to turn National City into the western terminus of the Santa Fe Railway.
You might remember my photographic tour of the National City depot, built in 1882 by the Santa Fe Railroad. It became the first terminus of transcontinental rail travel in the San Diego area. You can see that fascinating blog post here.
To accomodate executives of the Santa Fe Railroad and booming times caused by the arrival of rail, in 1887 Frank Kimball built Brick Row, a structure in the style of Philadelphia row house. It was designed by San Diego architect R. C. Ball. Over 240,000 bricks were used for the ten units.
Kimball’s full ambitions weren’t realized, however, when the Santa Fe Railroad soon turned their sights on Los Angeles, making that city their major center of operations in Southern California.
An early resident of the “Kimball Block” was legendary marshall Wyatt Earp, who came to Southern California after being indicted in Arizona for shooting the men who’d killed his brother. He is best known locally for opening three gambling halls in San Diego. In 1889, Wyatt Earp stayed in Brick Row when he traveled down to Tijuana, Mexico. There he famously refereed a prize fight during a fiesta that also featured cockfights, bullfights and a lassoing contest.
In the early 1970s, National City’s planning directer, Malcolm C. Greschler, interested in preserving the deteriorating Brick Row, came up with the idea of creating Heritage Square, which would be a historical tourist attraction similar to San Diego’s Old Town. In 1973 Frank Kimball’s house was moved to Heritage Square.
The 1869 Kimball House has its own unique history. It was the first house built in National City. Not only did it have a bathtub, but it had hot running water, which made it the first modern house in the entire county. President Benjamin Harrison visited it in 1891 during his tour of the western United States. At the time, it was the longest journey ever made by a President while in office. President Harrison’s 9,232 mile trip by railroad took one month and three days!
In 1976 two more historical houses were moved to Heritage Square: the 1887 Stick-style Rice-Proctor House and the 1879 Steele-Blossom House, which is depicted on National City’s official logo.
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