1926, The Formative Year of Kensington Heights
San Diego's Kensington neighborhood is known today for its appeal as a historic residential area with single-family homes, distinct in their California style. This reputation can be attributed to the efforts of real estate developers, especially the Davis-Baker Company of Pasadena, California. In 1926, Davis-Baker opened a project called "Kensington Heights," using an aggressive marketing plan to sell property in a declining real estate market.1 Their promotional efforts and aesthetic demands for a specific architectural style made Kensington Heights appealing to buyers. At the same time, Davis-Baker created a visual identity for the neighborhood which became emblematic of the other housing developments with Kensington in their name.
The neighborhood we think of today as Kensington is a collection of five original subdivisions: Kensington Park, Kensington Park Annex, Kensington Park Extension, Kensington Talmadge, and Kensington Heights. Kensington Heights was the last of the parcels to be developed, and consisted of 115 acres overlooking Mission Valley. As it did then, this general area today makes an ideal residential location; it sits high on a dry mesa surrounded by chaparral-wooded canyons, overlooks a broad rambling valley, and is cooled by breezes blown in over the ocean from the west.
The Kensington location was first considered for development in 1909 as a potential site to build luxury homes for retired executives of the Santa Fe Railway Company.2 The land was part of the ex-mission rancho owned by Santiago Arguello. In 1885, this part of the ex-mission lands was surveyed and sold for the first time. The property changed hands over the years and eventually a parcel of 157 acres became the property of the Kensington Park Land Company on April 8, 1910.3 The Kensington Park Land Company divided and sold tracts of land to developers whose business was the creation of individual properties designed to accommodate residences and businesses.
All the Kensington tracts were handled in the same general way by land development companies. A tract was surveyed and divided into lots, initial improvements such as streets and sidewalks were added, and the new subdivision was formally opened for business. Lots were then sold and new owners built their homes however they pleased. The Kensington Heights project was different from the beginning because Davis-Baker planned to build houses before selling the lots, and require houses built by others to conform to certain aesthetic standards. They did this so that the neighborhood would have a specific character and style, setting it apart from the surrounding developments.
Kensington Park Land development projects were choice real estate parcels which enticed investors from other parts of California, especially the Los Angeles area. George Forbes was a typical investor; he was an experienced businessman and real estate speculator who had purchased some of the Kensington land with a mind toward realizing large profits.4
A real problem for Forbes was San Diego's declining real estate market. In 1926, the San Diego market was at the end of a speculative boom. There had been tremendous population growth matched by a high volume of residential building ever since 1920. The Kensington area already contained four subdivisions, and was an unlikely prospect for developers to open yet another new project.
During the real estate boom, developers had little incentive to do anything more than divide the property and sell lots as quickly as possible. Developers simply placed a few advertisements in the San Diego Union and eager investors presented themselves to purchase vacant lots. An advertisement for Kensington Annex was typical of the time, describing the atmosphere of San Diego as "sublime."5 Presumably, favorable location and climate alone were enough to make the new properties desirable to buyers. Developers also used gimmicks such as associating their project with movie and radio personalities,6 to lure potential buyers to the new housing sites. Rapid real-estate development had produced neighborhoods lacking unity in architectural style and consistency of land use, with commercial and residential districts overlapping in a haphazard sprawl.7
George Forbes hired the Davis-Baker Company to develop his land. He knew of their previous successes with land developments and realized he needed a competitive edge to make a profit, considering the many other development projects in San Diego. He reasoned that although San Diego might face a housing glut, the community could use a carefully restricted, high grade residential area complemented by a planned commercial zone. Forbes knew that such a planned neighborhood would be a prominent contrast to the other, hastily-completed, projects in the area. Forbes promoted his partnership with the Davis-Baker Company saying,
It is our policy to develop subdivisions in which we are interested. We are not content to merely subdivide and sell a tract--we plan to bring it up to a high state of improvement before we consider the job complete.8
The Kensington Heights subdivision was a business venture designed for success by providing an improved product in an established market. Davis-Baker had already created a grand image for themselves through their past projects in the Los Angeles area. They used this image as a primary promotional tool as they descended on San Diego as real estate professionals from the North.
As of 1925, the Davis-Baker Company had established their reputation with twenty-five subdivisions in the Pasadena area. Although the company did not have experience in San Diego, the Kensington Heights project would not be an "experiment."9 Davis-Baker understood the process of creating successful subdivisions, and applied their knowledge consistently to develop a desirable project and attract qualified buyers. Representatives of the company came to San Diego early in 1926 to begin promoting Kensington Heights.10 San Diegans would come to know the names Davis-Baker and Kensington Heights even before ground-breaking.
To introduce themselves to the San Diego market, Davis-Baker worked with local businessmen, merchants and other local professionals. One such association was with Richard Requa, an architect known to San Diego businessmen and housewives alike; he had designed the developments of Ojai and Rancho Santa Fe, and wrote a popular column for the San Diego Union about architecture and interior design. Through this association, Davis-Baker created an ideal situation for themselves by which they could run their advertisements for Kensington Heights alongside Requa's articles about home design and interior decorating. They also formed what they called the "Architectural Committee" to oversee the building design for all homes in Kensington Heights, demonstrating to the public the exclusivity of the development.11 The committee of one consisted of Richard Requa.12
The entire promotional campaign for Kensington Heights was centered around Davis-Baker's concept of a subdivision with the look and feel of neighborhoods in Pasadena. The company understood from their previous experience which elements of location, architecture and landscape appealed to the type of buyer they wanted to attract. One brochure stated, "Kensington Heights will never be spectacular or elaborate. It will always be a district unto itself of luxuriously modest homes of refinement."13
Davis-Baker crafted advertisements for the project using specific details of plans for the subdivision. The promotional campaign emphasized the tangible advantages of Kensington Heights such as the exclusivity of this mesa-top property, the high quality style required for houses built there, the large lot sizes, and the attractiveness of the landscape design.14 Their campaign provided a qualitative contrast to advertisements for other Kensington developments that promoted such nebulous concepts as "Prosperity is largely a mental attitude."15 Davis-Baker also employed romantic ideals in their advertisements, but they anchored their claims with factual descriptions of the place. For example, one advertisement stated:
Kensington Heights is San Diego's ideal home district: climatically, architecturally, artistically, and even historically. Three years ago it was a mere barley field; today over 125 families have already selected it for permanent residence.16
Davis-Baker applied their promotional messages consistently with advertisements appearing regularly in the Sunday edition of the San Diego Union over a period of several months.
The advertising campaign for Kensington Heights began on January 3, 1926. The first advertisement invited the public to drive over this "diamond in the rough," admire the view of Mission Valley, and "feel the spell of one of California’s most glorious scenes."17 The advertisement included a map to the subdivision that started at the Spreckels building downtown, went through Balboa Park, and across Adams Avenue to Kensington Drive. There is no mention of other developments in the area. Kensington Heights seemed to stand by itself, waiting for work to begin.
Through their advertisements, Davis-Baker kept the public informed about sales and progress of general improvements in Kensington Heights. Even before work began on the tract the project seemed to have become a huge success. An article on the improvements reported:
...and meanwhile, the Davis-Baker company, in charge of Kensington Heights sales, announces it is increasingly hard to persuade buyers to wait a bit and see for themselves how the work of improvement will progress. Increasing numbers of reservations indicate the impatience of the buying public for the formal opening of this tract.18
Davis-Baker hoped to imply that the subdivision had become so irresistible that the salesmen were encouraging buyers to wait! Other articles contained enticing accounts of property selling fast to savvy buyers.
News of the physical improvements to Kensington Heights properties generated only meager interest in the project. General improvements such as distinctive street lights and cement sidewalks were typical of all of the Kensington subdivisions and were desirable features of a new subdivision, but most of the houses built for earlier projects presented a mixture of styles and genres. Requa's architectural theme for the project became essential in distinguishing Kensington Heights from the other Kensington developments.
For some time before his association with Davis-Baker, Richard Requa wanted to define a typical California style of architecture based on Spanish and Mediterranean styles. He had made several trips to Spain to photograph buildings and study their construction.19 Requa was intrigued by the "charming composition of lines, arches, and flat roofs,"20 and liked the feeling of little cottages "nestled in rich green and bright foliage of the countryside."21 He sought the "delightful informality of design and satisfying harmony with its environment."22 These characteristics were ideally suited to the environment Davis-Baker worked to create for Kensington Heights. As they stated in an advertisement:
The developers of Kensington Heights believe that in furthering the true type of Spanish architecture they are in a measure perpetrating traditions of San Diego. Behind San Diego is a romance of love, chivalry and struggling pioneers.23
Requa's designs for Kensington Heights reflected a mixture of elements from Spanish country houses, embellished with details found on city dwellings. For example, many of the houses built in Kensington Heights resemble a photograph of a "typical rural cottage of Andalucia."24 Elements such as rounded chimneys, arched doorways, and tile roofs came directly from styles of rural Spain. The influence of city architecture manifested itself in window grilles and balconies. Davis-Baker promoted the theme of Requa's "California Style" with enthusiasm, noting wherever possible how well these designs satisfied the "requirements and advantages of the southern Californian environment."25 Davis-Baker also worked with experts in landscape and furniture design to distinguish their properties from the others in the area.26 They planted palm trees to add definition to the parkways, and used bougainvillea, acacia, and oleander to provide the rich greens and bright colors prescribed by Requa.
Although Kensington Heights lots sold well from the beginning, they were not necessarily being used as Davis-Baker had envisioned. The company wanted to create an established-looking neighborhood instantly, but the typical purchaser of these lots intended to resell the lots for their own profit. Indeed, many lots were bought and sold several times before a family actually settled there.27 Speculators purchased the properties for the same reasons that Davis-Baker had hoped to attract families.
Davis-Baker had managed to keep Kensington Heights lot prices low considering the high-quality infrastructure they created to ensure a lovely neighborhood for years to come. They did this by creating an improvement district to limit their out-of-pocket expenses for the expensive initial construction.28 This way, the cost of the improvements such as fancy street lights, decorative plantings, and cement streets with high curbs and sidewalks would be paid for by the sale of bonds representing a lien on property in the district.29 The low prices and attractive properties created a good incentive for buyers, but it did not encourage those who were interested in staying for more than five years. Fortunately, speculative activity did not have a long-lasting negative effect on Kensington Heights, primarily because of Davis-Baker's vigilance. The company upheld their restrictions on new buildings to ensure high property values later. They also created a new scheme to attract the type of buyer they wanted to see settle in Kensington Heights.
On February 7, 1926, Davis-Baker launched an astute plan to promote Kensington Heights. This promotion was designed to bring people to see the subdivision for a specific reason, and personally interest a large number of San Diegans in Kensington Heights. Davis-Baker created a contest in which citizens of San Diego could submit floor plans for their concept of an ideal house. Richard Requa would serve as judge, and a cash prize would be awarded to the winner. Davis-Baker did not promote the contest as their own inspiration. They realized that such a gimmick would not be good for their image as they tried to distance themselves from typical developers. Instead, they printed an anonymous article in the San Diego Union announcing that a man who had purchased a lot in Kensington Heights offered $100 cash for the best amateur suggestion for a Spanish style home. People understood from previous articles and advertisements that all homes in Kensington Heights must be built in that particular style. Presumably, this man did not care to hire an architect, but would rather defer to the good taste of his fellow San Diegans. The article stated: "Since the location has been determined he wants the contestants to see the lay of the land as they send in their suggestions."30 The article implied that in order to gain the best chance of winning the contest, one had to experience the property in person. Contestants were instructed to provide floor plans and side elevations for a house of "Southern Californian architecture." On the same page as the article about the contest appeared Requa's regular column featuring advice about selecting sidings for homes, and a sketch of his suggestion for an ideal library. The page facing the article displayed an advertisement promoting improvements at the Kensington Heights project.
Davis-Baker ran the contest through the middle of March, 1926. The San Diego Union ran advertisements and articles related to the contest each week informing the public about how many entries had been received, and discussing the surprising display of inherent talent for home design possessed by so many San Diegans. The contest ended with one Margaret Fickiensen the declared winner. The article announcing the outcome stated:
Mrs. Fickiensen has demonstrated unusual ability in designing an exterior that is most charming and inviting, and the most distinctly in the California style. Mrs. Fickiensen is to be congratulated in the success of her designing. Note particularly that there is nothing false, foolish, or insincere in her charming treatment of the exterior design.31
The article also announced second and third prizes, with a number of honorable mentions. There was no explanation why the property owner felt compelled to award additional prizes! Subsequent articles detailed all aspects of what would become the "model" home of the subdivision, and set the standard for other homes built there.
It was more than a happy coincidence that the contest yielded a perfect design for the model home. The design of the home has been determined to be that of Richard Requa, and it is clear that the contest was fixed from the beginning. Whether or not the public suspected such a ploy is not clear, but it is evident that Davis-Baker used the opportunity to gain wide-spread recognition for and interest in Kensington Heights.
Throughout the remainder of 1926, advertisements for Kensington Heights reported on the building of the model home, and on November 14, 1926, the opening was announced with great fanfare.32 According to subsequent advertisements and articles, the model home was a complete success, drawing large numbers of people to view the spectacle.33
Davis-Baker built additional model homes to maintain high standards for Kensington Heights. There were no more contests, but they continued to apply their formula of advertisement and practical improvements to the properties. The model homes were given Spanish names to contribute to the cultivation of an aristocratic air for the neighborhood, and they were part of the uniqueness built into each home.34 Kensington Heights was not a tract configured with row upon row of identical houses, rather it became a community with a visual identity and a feeling of permanence. Davis-Baker's equation continued to work for Kensington Heights and reinforced its initial success into 1930.
The Davis-Baker Company achieved success with Kensington Heights because they applied their formula consistently over a period of years. Modern Kensington's reputation as a unique, historical community owes much to Davis-Baker's careful planning and effective accomplishment of their goals.35
1. The Davis Baker Company was formed Richard D. Davis and Harrison R. Baker who were prominent members of the Pasadena business community. Both Davis and Baker served as president of the Pasadena Board of Realtors at different times. Both men attended Occidental College. Baker also studied at Harvard University, and was the financial expert of the team . Davis had a background in building construction. Together they began subdividing Pasadena after World War I. This information came from a telephone interview with Richard J. Dobbins who was President of the Pasadena Board of Realtors in 1974, and who was personally acquainted with Davis and Baker. Telephone interview, 20 November 1992.
2. Philip R. Pryde, San Diego: An Introduction To The Region (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1984), 220-221.
3. The Kensington Park Land Company was established in 1909 by G. Aubrey Davidson, retired auditor for the Santa Fe Railway Company. See Thomas H. Bauman, Kensington-Talmadge, 1910-1985, (San Diego: author, 1984), 8.
4. San Diego Union, 24 January 1926.
5. San Diego Union, 15 March 1925.
6. For example, the Kensington-Talmadge tract relied on the fame of the Talmadge sisters to draw potential buyers to the site.
7. "How To Create Sales in a Quiet Market," Realtor's: America's Home Builders, (27 May 1929).
8. San Diego Union, 24 January 1926.
9. "How To Create Sales in a Quiet Market," (May 27, 1929).
12. San Diego Union, 14 March 1926. The indication that this was a committee of one is implied by the article in Realtor's: America's Home Builders. No other names of committee members were published in article and advertisements used for this paper.
13. This statement comes from a promotional brochure for the first unit of Kensington Heights. The brochure is contained in the collection at the San Diego Historical Society, Balboa Park.
14. These elements (the exclusivity of this mesa-top property, the high quality of required for houses, the large lots, and the attractiveness of the landscape design) are detailed in the promotional brochure described in Note 11.
15. This statement appears in an advertisement for Kensington Manor. San Diego Union, 3 July 1925.
16. San Diego Union, 9 February 1930.
17. San Diego Union, 3 January 1926.
18. San Diego Union, 7 March 1926.
19. Two of these trips were sponsored by the Monolith Cement Company who wanted to promote styles of architecture that would require their product. The photographs described and comments quoted can be found in Richard S. Requa, Architectural Details: Spain and the Mediterranean (Los Angeles, 1926), and Old World Inspiration for American Architecture (Los Angeles, 1929). Both books were published by the Monolith Cement Company.
20. Requa, Old World Inspiration, 14.
21. Ibid., 16.
22. Ibid., 17.
23. San Diego Union, 21 February 1926.
24. Requa, Architectural Details, 12.
25. San Diego Union, 21 March 1926.
26. Some examples are Benbough's for furniture and Milton P. Sessions for landscape. See advertisement for the opening of the model home, San Diego Union, 21 November 1929.
27. San Diego Union, 3 July 1925.
28. San Diego Union, 24 February 1926.
29. The bonds would run for fifteen years, with only interest payments for the first five years. After that there would be yearly payments for ten years. This detailed information is provided in the brochure described in Note 11.
30. San Diego Union, 7 February 1926.
31. San Diego Union, 21 March 1926.
32. San Diego Union, 14 November 1926. This is an impressive two-page spread with pictures and text describing all stages of the creation of the model home, from the contest through the building.
33. San Diego Union, 21 November 1926.
34. Some of these name were: Vista Del Valle, Mirasol, Carmelita, Vista De La Mission, and El Patio.
35. Some other sources that provided helpful background information for this topic are: Mary M. Taschner, "Richard Requa: Southern California Architect, 1881-1941, a Master's thesis for the University of San Diego; the personal collection of Parker Jackson which includes copies of articles pertaining to the development of Kensington. These articles come from a variety of publications, and were collected over a period of years by Mr. Jackson. I am grateful to Mr. Jackson for allowing access to this invaluable resource, and for telling the story of Kensington he came to know it over the years.
Anne D. Bullard is a graduate of the University of San Diego where she earned a master's degree in history. Her thesis work concentrated on early San Diego naturalists, focusing on those involved in creating the San Diego Society of Natural History. She received a B.A. in literature from Claremont McKenna College. Ms. Bullard has a particular interest in designing and implementing information delivery projects. She is currently creating Internet Home Pages for businesses in the San Diego