Ramona, written by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1884, is one of the most popular American novels in history. The book has had more than 300 printings. It’s been made into a movie four times. Today, few remember it.
Those who walk through La Casa de Estudillo in San Diego’s historic Old Town, however, are seeing with their own eyes a remnant of Ramona’s fame. Without that novel, and past generations’ fondness for its main character, this handsome old building and possibly others around it would have been torn down and utterly obliterated.
The Casa de Estudillo was built in 1827. It was the property of José María Estudillo, an early settler of San Diego. Captain Estudillo was twice Commandant of the Presidio of San Diego. This large, many-roomed adobe was one of finest houses in all of Mexican California, and remains one of the oldest surviving examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in California.
Shortly after the publication of Ramona, the house, in the hands of a caretaker, enjoyed a burst of popularity with tourists when San Diego’s newspaper, the San Diego Union, declared that the Estudillo house was the title character’s wedding place. Helen Hunt Jackson never stated this was so; the novel described a similar location, but was fictional.
As decades went by the old adobe fell into disrepair and might have been razed. In 1906, John D. Spreckels, owner of the San Diego Electric Railway Company and the Union newspaper, purchased the house and preserved it, transforming it into a true tourist attraction. He altered the building to make it seem more compatible with the description of Ramona’s marriage place, while adding electricity and other conveniences.
The building eventually was given National Historic Landmark status. It’s exaggerated association with the novel caused it to be officially described as “Casa Estudillo/Ramona’s Marriage Place.”