The Casa de Pico Motor Hotel

 

Sean K.T. Shiraishi, M.A.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

 

The Casa de Pico Motor Hotel, built and operated in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, exemplifies an important and significant part of Old Town San Diego’s history. It represents not the actual history of 19th-century California, but rather how 20th-century California romanticized life in its own past. To understand the background and origins of the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel as well as the influence particular individuals had upon it, is to gain the subtle realization that not only does the past influence how the present is perceived, but also that the present can and does influence how the past is interpreted.

 

Completed in 1824 and one of the earliest and largest adobe homes in Old San Diego, the original “Casa de Pico” was described as “constructed of wood and adobe, the structure had eight entrances. White plaster adorned the walls of the long, low, one-story structure…The Pico house contained two salas, three rooms facing Juan Street, and a kitchen and bathroom on the garden side.”

 

The Casa de Pico was built as the home of the mother of the last Mexican governor of California; the Governor’s name was Pio Pico; his mother’s name was María Estaquia Gutiérrez de Pico. A famous anecdote relayed by Pio Pico in his memoirs regarded the strict nature of his mother. The story went that she would not allow Pio to stay out after 8 o’clock at night. A restriction which he faithfully followed until he was 25 years old! What a truly formidable Californio woman! After Maria’s death in 1846, the Casa de Pico was put to many uses, even as a Masonic Lodge from 1857-60. As late as 1914, its ruins were still visible in Old Town. By the 1920s, there was nothing left of the old Casa de Pico.

 

By the 1920s, automobiles had become a growing part of the everyday lives of Southern Californians. As a result, designers, architects, and urban planners began to take the occurrence and popularity of auto travel and the phenomena of auto tourism into serious consideration.

 

Marston and his plans

George Marston, a local businessman and philanthropist, was also a strong believer in preserving San Diego’s past. To that end, in the 1920s, he exerted his will and his fortune in the establishment of Presidio Park - to preserve the location of the first Presidio in Alta California (what would later become the State of California). Marston in addition contracted with noted San Diego architect William Templeton Johnson to design the Junipero Serra Museum, constructed as a monument to the Presidio and the beginning of the European presence in San Diego.

 

Presidio Park and the Serra Museum were both completed and opened in 1929. Following this, Marston turned his attention to the creation of the Presidio Hills Golf Course as well as the restoration of the Casa de Carrillo, the El Campo Santo Cemetery and the Casa de Machado-Silvas adobe.

 

Requa and his designs

“In the late 1930s Marston conceived of a modern up-to-date tourist facility on the Plaza in Old Town that would reflect the popularly held beliefs in the community’s Spanish Colonial Roots.” To this end, celebrated San Diego Architect Richard Requa was hired to design the motel. In the 1920s, Requa had received recognition for his development of “Southern California Architecture,” based on a romanticized interpretation of Spanish architecture. Requa’s style emphasized integrating into a whole the structure with its surroundings. In 1934, he received the major commission of his career, as Director of Architecture for the 1935 Exposition in Balboa Park.

 

Perhaps meeting in 1929 during the construction of both the Serra Museum and the Sessions Building, Requa’s first design project in Old Town, Marston and Requa found common cause in promoting the historic value of Old Town San Diego as a tourist attraction. In early 1937, Requa presented a plan to the San Diego Planning Commission to develop an old Mexican style town around the plaza in Old San Diego. The idea was to include a series of small shops “in which the arts practiced in Old Mexico would be conducted.” Requa’s proposal also advocated placing architectural restrictions on building design in the area surrounding the Plaza and Old Town itself. Though nothing came of this plan, the Commission did implement Requa’s recommendations regarding architectural design and building restrictions.

 

In 1939, Marston conceived of a project that had the potential to further connect Old Town with Presidio Park and he called on Richard Requa to design it. Requa also was an advocate of the use of concrete block in construction and the Pico Motel would be an early example of its use. Marston’s daughter, Mary, in 1956 wrote a two-volume family chronicle in which she stated:

 

In the rejuvenation of Old Town father’s most important contributions were the building of the golf course, his assistance to the Cardwells in building the Pico Motel, and his help in making possible the Old San Diego Community Church.

 

Cardwells and construction

In partnership with George Marston, Frank K. and Eloise Cardwell, already successful motel operators in the Old Town area, acquired both land and loans of a considerable amount of capital from Marston in May 1939 and again in February 1940 in order to construct a new and modern motor hotel. Opening in 1940, the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel was so successful that the Cardwells were able to repay Marston’s loan in a very short time. Regarding the establishment of the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel, Mary Marston wrote:

 

The charming Casa de Pico was father’s conception of the type of modern architecture that is appropriate to the traditions of Old San Diego. Father chose Richard S. Requa as architect and Kenneth Cardwell as proprietor and eventual owner. The motel was such an immediate success that the money he had advanced came back to him quickly.

 

The Casa de Pico Motor Hotel, with rooms arranged around a central patio, represented a change from the more common auto courts of the day: small bungalows or cabins built around a central parking lot. In 1940 the Tourist Court Journal published a 4-page article on the structure just after the motel opened. Though Requa’s original drawings have not been located as of this date, the article did provide a floor-plan of the motor court. The article described it as a “tourist court which faithfully follows the traditions of the hacienda for the early Spanish Dons.”

 

All rooms in the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel opened onto wide porches fronting a large patio. This allowed guests to seclude themselves from the world outside the motel. All rooms came with garages that automobiles entered from the rear. Outside traffic noises were reduced considerably, allowing the motor court to remain “a quiet and safe retreat at all times.”

 

The rooms were furnished with guests comfort in mind. The bedrooms were carpeted with extra heavy padding. The beds were made longer than standard with box springs and mattresses each with 400 springs. The water heating system was designed to assure sufficient hot water to any guest at anytime. There were no kitchen facilities in the rooms. However, in case it became desirable in the future, means of adding kitchen facilities were provided in ten rooms. As an added bonus to the guests at the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel, the Presidio Hills Golf Course was made available to them. A driving range open at night proved very popular with motel guests.

 

The Tourist Court Journal article concluded with: “It can be said that Kenneth Cardwell’s Casa de Pico Motor Hotel is one of America’s smartest motor courts.”

 

40s & 50s

The El Pico Dining Room opened in 1942. This structure was built under the direction of Frank K. Cardwell. It was envisioned as dining facilities for guests staying at the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel. Catering not only to the ever-increasing number of automobile traveling tourists visiting Old Town, the El Pico Dining Room served defense workers from the nearby aircraft manufacturing plants as well. While construction and design elements are strongly suggestive of Richard Requa, it is thought that Cardwell simply mimicked Requa’s style in order that the dining hall complemented the adjacent motor hotel. The facility was renamed El Nopal in 1949.

 

James and Cora Cardwell, parents of Frank K. Cardwell, purchased the Casa de Bandini from the estate of the late Cave J. Couts, Jr., grandson of Juan Bandini, for $25,000. Couts, in the 1930s, turned the casa into a hotel and rooming house. In 1947 and 48, the Cardwells heavily remodeled the building; reopening it in 1950 as the Casa de Bandini Hotel. The City Directory for that year listed the Hotel as offering: “Exclusive Motor Hotel Accommodations.”

 

Taking a queue from the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel, and even the El Pico Dining Room, the Casa de Bandini Hotel was remodeled in the romantic Spanish Colonial style of architecture.

 

End of the motel, beginning of the park

In 1968, the Casa de Pico Motor Hotel was secured by the State of California as part of the property acquisitions to form Old Town San Diego State Historic Park; not without controversy.