The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1997, Volume 43, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

The Urban Layout of Old Town San Diego

By Antonio Padilla-Corona*
English translation by Suzette Falk

Images from the Article

Although Old Town San Diego was established between 1820 and 1821, underlying its urban characteristics, we find a close relationship with the Spanish Legislation known as "Ordenanzas de Descubrimiento, Nueva Poblacion y Pacificacion de las Indias" (The ordinances of Discovery, New Population, and the Pacification of the Indies), issued by King Philip II, on July 13, 1573.1 The purpose of this study is to emphasize precisely those urban aspects of Old Town San Diego, that were based on these Spanish ordinances.

We shall start by mentioning that from the beginning of the conquest and colonization of the New World, the Spanish Crown sought to regulate all the social, political, and economic life of their overseas possessions. In the process, they also included the urban aspect. Spain confronted the unknown with a set of rules that reflected their thought, ethnocentrism and philosophy of Hispanic life. The idea was to leave nothing to depend on the whim of the conquistadors nor the colonizers. There were laws governing all actions undertaken. However, this process was neither immediate nor spontaneous.

As the years went by, and the Spanish authorities gained experience and knowledge about establishing towns in America, all the legal measures were gathered together, culminating in the so-called Ordinances of Discovery, New Population, and the Pacification of the Indies.

As the title indicates, the 148 legal ordinances covered a great variety of aspects that were useful to guide the Spanish penetration into the American continent, but also -- which captures our main interest -- they had to do with the layout of new towns. In the following we will cite the ordinances whose influence still persists today in the physical layout of Old Town San Diego.

Ordinance 110

Having made the discovery, selected the province, country and area that is to be settled, and the site in the location where the new town is to be built, and having taken possession of it, those placed in charge of its execution are to do it in the following manner: On arriving at the place where the new settlement is to be founded-which according to our will and disposition shall be one that is vacant and that can be occupied without doing harm to the Indians and natives or with their free consent -- a plan for the site is to be made, dividing it into squares, streets, and building lots, using cord and ruler, beginning with the main square from which streets are to run to the gates and principal roads and leaving sufficient open space so that even if the town grows, it can always spread in the same manner. Having thus agreed upon the site and place selected to be populated, a layout should be made in the following way....

Regarding the central plaza, the following ordinance gives us indication of measurements:


Ordinance 112



The main plaza is to be the starting point: for the town; if the town is situated on the sea coast, it should be placed at the landing place of the port, but inland it should be at the center of the town. The plaza should be square or rectangular, in which case it should have at least one and a half its width for length inasmuch as this shape is best for fiestas in which horses are used and for any other fiestas that should be held.

The following ordinance defines the size of the plaza, not only according to its proportions like the former one, but with exact measurements:



Ordinance 113


The size of the plaza shall be proportioned to the number of inhabitants, taking into consideration the fact that in Indian towns, inasmuch as they are new, the intention is that they will increase, and thus the plaza should be decided upon taking into consideration the growth the town may experience. [The plaza] sall be not less than two hundred feet wide and three hundred feet long, nor larger than eigth hundred feet long and five hundred and thirty two feet wide. A good proportion is six hundred feet long and four hundred wide.

The next ordinance establishes the orientation of the plaza and the street grid in general:


Ordinance 114

From the plaza shall begin four principal streets: One [shall be] from the middle of each side, and two streets from each corner of the plaza; the four corners of the plaza shall face the four principal winds, because in this manner, the streets running from the plaza will not be expose to the four principal winds, which would cause much inconvenience.

They also took in consideration the future growth of the town under a prefixed rule:


Ordinance 117

The streets shall run from the main plaza in such manner that even if the town increases considerably in size, it will not result in some inconvenience that will make ugly what needed to be rebuilt, or endanger its defense or comfort.

As far as sites occupied by the main buildings, ordinances 119, 121 and 126 define them as follows:


Ordinance 119

For the temple of the principal church, parish, or monastery, these shall be assigned specific lots; the first after the streets and plazas have been laid out, and these shall be a complete block so as to avoid having other buildings nearby, unless it were for practical or ornamental reasons:

Ordinance 121

Next, a site and lot shall be assigned for the royal council and cabildo house and for the custom house and arsenal, near the temple, located in such a manner that in times of need the one may aid the other, the hospital for the poor and those sick of noncontagious diseases shall be built near the temple and its cloister; and the hospital for the sick with contagious diseases shall be built in such a way that no harmful wind blowing through it may cause harm to the rest of the town. If the latter be built in an elevates place, so much the better.

Commerce came to be an important and complementary activity in the novohispanic life:


Ordinance 126

In the plaza, no lots shall be assigned to private individuals; instead, they shall be used for the buildings of the church and royal houses and for city use, but shops and houses for the merchants should be built first, to which all the settlers of the town shall contribute, and a moderate tax shall be imposed on goods so that these buildings may be built.

Although we only included some of the 148 ordinances, they are sufficient to get an idea of the double hierarchy that permeated all Hispanic life: church and government. The reticular plan in a checkerboard design, with streets connecting at 90û angles, square or rectangular blocks around the plaza, served to frame the urban scenario, the church as well as the government building. Both these powers where located at the most prominent places. From whatever angle that you observe a city founded by the Spaniards, both of these buildings stand out. In this case of the arising town of San Diego, and in spite of the time span of 250 years, these laws, that we can call "urban instructions," served as a substantial basis to define the urban criteria in the period when it belonged to Mexico.

During the 1820s the exodus of soldiers from the Presidio to the foot of the hill, gave rise to what would be the Pueblo of San Diego. The soldiers, assisted by the government, and eligible for retirement, established themselves next to the orchards and begun building their houses.2 We do not know exactly the dates of construction of the first houses outside of the Presidio, however, we do know that five homes existed by 1821.3

With the help of the map elaborated by Thomas L. Scharf, as a complement to the book Old Town San Diego, 1821-1874, by Iris W. Engstrand and Ray Brandes, in which most of the existing buildings in San Diego in 1869 are identified, it was possible to define the location of these first five dwellings.

Map elaborated by Thomas Scharf, as as complement to the book 'Old Town San Diego'   The location of the first five dwellings

In observing the sketch, we notice that the location of the first five houses are close to each other but separated from the Plaza. Likewise they are close to "Wallace Street" at the foot of the hill, where the Presidio stood. The explanation of this could be that in the first urban stage, there was still a close relationship between the colonists and the Commander at the Presidio. This idea is supported by the confirmation that Wallace Street was exactly the road that connected the village with the Presidio according to the map by Derby, elaborated in 1853.5

The small settlement prospered while the military establishment declined and the value of property rose. By 1829, according to Alfred Robinson, "On the lawn beneath the hill on which the Presidio is built stood about thirty houses of rude appearance, mostly occupied by retired veterans..."6

If we represent the former homes on a sketch, the same way that we did with the first five, we can see that at the second half of the decade 1825-1830, the location tends to be around the Plaza. In fact, this stage coincides with the time in which Governor Jose Maria Echeandia, established the seat of the capital of the two Californias in the growing community of San Diego.

In a study done decades ago named, "Plaza in Old San Diego" George Tays, using primary sources, tells us with much clarity, the cultural importance of the Plaza in the daily life of the people of San Diego during the Mexican Era.

The Plaza which formed the center of the old town of San Diego was laid out about the year 1820. From its inception it became the focal point around which took place most of the municipal activities as well as the public and private social functions of the Mexican community. On all sides of it were built homes of some of the prominent Californios of that time, such as Juan Bandini, Jose Antonio Estudillo and Juan Machado.7

The author continues to describe the multiple activities of the Plaza. To give an idea of the type of ambiance, we shall only cite the main ones.

Since the day of its establishment, the Plaza was the center of public life and recreation in San Diego. Certain times of the year, such as Sundays and holidays, the towns-men enjoyed Bull Fights, Bull and Bear encounters, and other sports. Another typical pastime... during Easter Week, each year, was the burning of a figure representing Judas...There were other events, besides recreation, that the Plaza was used for. One was politics. As early as 1831, November 20, there was a political revolution organized at Bandini's house, opposite to the East corner of the Plaza.8

During the twenty-five years of Mexican rule in San Diego, the Plaza was the center of civic, social-political, and cultural life. When it passed into the United States control, Old Town persisted twenty more years. During this time, it resisted the intention of the real estate promoters of relocating the Courthouse to an urban plan, harboring the new San Diego next to the Bay. When the village's final hour came, Tays describes it tragically: "Very early in the morning on April 20, 1872; a big fire began in Old Town that destroyed almost all the houses around the Plaza, including the old Courthouse, the Gila, Franklin, and Colorado Hotels, and other buildings on other streets."9

It is presently unknown if some plan or sketch or specific reference exists that may have served as the original urban layout of the Plaza and the surrounding streets of Old Town. The first graphic reference that we have knowledge of, is a map drawn by Cave J. Couts in 1849.10 The map shows the Plaza, surrounding buildings, and a continuing grid of lots and streets around the area. I believe that the part of the continuing grid in the drawing corresponds more to the commercial pursuit of Couts, than to the imagination of the original inhabitants. However, the Plaza and its surroundings included by Couts, have been useful in our considerations.

In addition to the preceding map, we have also studied the Powell sketch,11 which gives us a three-dimensional idea of the settlement. In addition, we relied on the drawing which helped illustrate Old Town San Diego, circa 1869 (page 110).12 First of all one sees in these maps full compliance with Ordinance 110, which establishes the Plaza as the starting point in the plan of the town. In Old Town, the Plaza became a basic urban element tying streets and blocks together.

Regarding its size, according to Professor Abraham P. Nasatir,13 the Plaza was 130 by 280 feet. This agrees with the Ordinance 112, requiring a rectangular shape and a relationship of 1 to 1½ between the short and the long side. It seems that the short side of the Plaza (130 ft.) did not quite follow the established minimum in Ordinance 113 of 200 ft. Nevertheless, the same Ordinance indicates that "the size of the Plaza should be proportional to the number of inhabitants." We should remember that, at that time, the number of inhabitants in Old Town did not exceed five hundred, conceivably this has influenced the reduction in the size of the Plaza.

The orientation of the Plaza, an urban element of town design normally overlooked, always manifests a well defined urban criteria. In the case of Old Town San Diego, the orientation of the Plaza, and as a consequence, of the whole street grid, were established in accordance with Ordinance 114. This Ordinance also required that "From the Plaza shall begin four principal streets: One from the middle of each side, and two streets from each corner of the Plaza..." Reviewing the plan of Old Town, we see the firm intent to follow the instruction, but at the end, it could not be fulfilled in its totality. Only five streets depart from three corners.

"Fitch Street" and "San Diego Street," run uninterrupted along the long side of the Plaza, but not so the transversal streets, as required by Ordinance 117. This can be explained by the existence of natural obstructions which had to be taken into account. For instance, the hill in the Northeastern side became the site for the Military Quarters. Towards Southwest the San Diego River, in those days, ran into San Diego Bay. These natural obstacles made it impossible to plan streets running through them, but not so for North-South axis which was clearly open to the traffic.

So far we have seen the impact of the Ordinances of Philip II on the urban layout of Old Town. Now let us review the notable physical absence of the two institutions which during three centuries, shaped the life in the colony of New Spain: the Church and the Monarchy.

As we have noted before, the reason of being of the majority of colonial cities was to give seat to the religious and political powers. This dominance existed not only through the political, economic and cultural life in New Spain, but also became integrated in its urban image. The most prominent feature that stands out in the urban profile in towns established in the hispanic period are the church towers. The rest of the building, one or two stories high, are perceived with certain uniformity. When one enters the central Plaza of these towns, one sees immediately, with all its vertical magnificence, the church facade. On one of its sides lays the government building, which is distinguished by its solid construction, ornate and horizontality.

In the case of Old Town, all that urban scenario to magnify the religious and political powers is nonexisting. Descriptions of this era speak of the sobriety in the urban image. Duhaut-Cilly found in 1823 that "below the presidio, on a sandy plain, are scattered thirty to forty houses of poor appearance and some badly cultivated gardens.14 Richard Henry Dana, observed in 1834: "The small settlement lay directly below the fort, composed of about forty dark-brown-looking huts, or houses, and three or four larger ones, whitewashed, which belonged to the gente de razon."15

As we can notice, these descriptions do not mention at all the two preminent colonial powers. This is understandable since during this period both institutions suffered profound transformation as a result of the war of Independence. Now they were not as dominant as before. The mission of San Diego, located five miles from the military garrison, declined completely as a result of secularization measures imposed by the Mexican Government. The garrison continued to deteriorate as the nearby village became more prosperous. These were the times when new concepts such as republicanism, liberalism, and democracy were heard more and more. In the urban layout of Old Town San Diego, the religious and political scenario, so characteristic of Colonial Mexico, was nonexistent. Sobriety, homogenity of materials, and human scale in buildings, speak more about a search for more Democratic ideals and social equality.



1. An original of the Ordinances can be found at the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla. Another at the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, and a third one at the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico. In the Spanish version of this article we have used a transcript of the one in Mexico city, published in the Boletin del Archivo General de la Nacion, VI, May-June, 1975, pp. 321-360. In the English version we have use the translation published in Dora P. Crouch, Daniel J. Garr, and Axel Y. Mundigo, Spanish City Planning in North America (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1982), 7-19.

2. Paul Ezell, Project Superintendent of the Royal Presidio Excavations, "A Landscape of the Past, the Story of the Royal Presidio Excavations," Journal of San Diego History 14 (October 1968): 12.

3. William E. Smythe, History of San Diego 1542-1907 (San Diego: The History Company, 1907), 106.

4. Iris W. Engstrand and Ray Brandes, Old Town San Diego 1821-1874 (San Diego: Alcala Press, 1976), 5.

5. George H. Derby, Survey of San Diego River, 1853, in Neal Harlow, Maps of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego. 1602-1874 (Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1987), 121.

6. Alfred Robinson, Life in California: During a Residence of Several Years in that Territory (San Francisco: Doxey, 1897), reprinted with an introduction by Andreas F. Rolle, (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Publishers, Inc., 1970), 12.

7. George Tays, Plaza in Old San Diego, Registered Landmark No. 63, in California Historical Landmarks Series, edited by Vernon Aubrey Neasham (Berkeley, State of California, Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks, 1937), 1.

8. Ibid., 3-7.

9. Ibid., 25.

10. Cave J. Couts, Plano del pueblo y playa del puerto de San Diego, 1849, reproduced by Harlow, Maps of the Pueblo Lands, 89.

11. H. M. T. Powell, Sketch of the Pueblo of San Diego, 1849, reproduced by Richard P. Pourade, The History of San Diego: The Silver Dons (San Diego: The Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1963), 158.

12. Engstrand, Old Town San Diego, 5.

13. A. P. Nasatir and Lionel V. Ridout, "Report of the Mayor and City Council of San Diego and Historical Site Board on Historical Survey of Old Town Plaza," typescript, n.d., 3.

14. Charles Franklin Carter, translator, "Duhaut-Cillys Account of California in the years 1827-1828," California Historical Society Quarterly 8 (June, September, December, 1929): 219.

15. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast (New York: R. F. Fenno & Company, 1840), 109-110.

*This paper was presented to the XXXII Annual Conference of the Congress of History of San Diego County, March 1997.


Antonio Padilla-Corona, born in Tijuana, Mexico, holds an Architect degree from the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara, a history degree from the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California and a Master's degree in Latin American Studies from San Diego State University. Currently, Prof. Padilla is a Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas de la Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Tijuana.