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Casa de Estudillo c.1858
Jose Estudillo c.1870
Ramona's Marriage Place c.1887
The Casa de Estudillo is an original adobe home built in 1827 by Jose Maria Estudillo and his son Jose Antonio. As early settlers of San Diego, this home was considered one of the finest houses in Mexican California and is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Besides being one of the oldest surviving examples of Spanish architecture in California, the house gained much prominence with Helen Hunt Jackson's wildly popular 1884 novel "Ramona" which painted a romanticized portrait of Californio life shortly after the American acquisition of California – and generating nationwide interest in the region.
After Jose Antonio died and the family moved to Los Angeles, they left the house in the hands of a caretaker. The unexpected popularity of the book combined with the opening of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railways stopping nearby meant that hordes of tourists made their way to see the locations that were assumed to be location of the love-lorn couple in the novel.
In 1887, a front page article in the San Diego Union declared the Estudillo home to be "Ramona's Marriage Place", saying: "To sleepy Old Town, the house is known as the Estudillo, but the outside world knows it as the marriage place of Ramona. This was despite the author never having visited the house and dying in 1885 without ever having disclosed what the actual locations in the novel really were . . . and henceforth causing a great deal of speculation.
According to the novel, Ramona was married in a "long, low adobe building which had served no mean purpose in the old Presidio days, but had now fallen in decay; and all its rooms, except those occupied by the Father, had been long uninhabited". Despite the novel being a work of fiction, visitors flocked to the building thinking it was the actual location of Ramona's marriage. To be clear, the Union did not simply invent this story . . . a tourist had already scratched the name "Alessandro" (Ramona's husband in the novel) into one of the walls. In an effort to capitalize on the attendant publicity, the caretaker hung a sign saying "Ramona's Marriage Place" prominently in the front of the building and began selling off pieces of the house as souvenirs.
In 1906, the dilapidated building was purchased by prominent citizen John D. Spreckels. His vision was that the house would anchor a number of tourist attractions connecting his railway to the development of San Diego into a popular locale, generating revenue for his company. He hired an architect to renovate the house as it was described in the novel rather than in its authentic originality. Upon its completion in 1910, it was marketed as Ramona-related tourist attraction and remained popular as such for years to come, drawing 1,632 visitors on one day alone in 1940.
The Journal of San Diego History goes so far as to say that without the novel's influence and popularity of the house, it is possible that the historic buildings that make up Old Town could have been razed. In fact, for a time, the Estudillos' relationship to the house was nearly forgotten. Several caretakers continued to take care of the house when it was eventually sold to a local businessman Legler Benbough, who donated it to the State of California in 1968. The State Park set about restoring it to its pre-Ramona state, and now stands as a beautiful tribute to days long gone. Now open daily, it serves as a premiere museum and is furnished as it would likely have been during its early days.