Historic Del Mar-vels

Where the Past Hides in Plain Sight

Del Mar, California

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Del Mar’s distant history is a fascinating patchwork of thieves, rats and canoodling celebrities. Most of the landmarks of that past are gone, but a few hang around, masquerading as undistinguished markers of everyday life. Once exposed, they remind us how far Del Mar has come since its days as a quaint resort town––sometimes not in a great way. “People here tear down houses... but not all of them,” says amateur historian Juliana Maxey-Allison, who lives in one of several original homes along 10th Street that still survive from 1885, when the State of California was just 35 years old.

Del Mar was once known as Weed––not for its flora, but for the man who owned most of it: rancher and postmaster William S. Weed. But the reason Del Mar’s citizens are not called Weeders is that Del Mar prefers considering its founding father to be the accused arsonist who first developed the land.

Colonel Jacob Shell Taylor, a 6-foot Texan who claimed to have once been an Indian scout for Buffalo Bill, already owned Rancho Penasquitos and the Stonewall gold mine near Julian. After he heard the railroad was extending southward from Los Angeles, he smelled a second gold mine. In the summer of 1885, he had a depot built (on what is now Stratford Court), and Taylor paid $1,000 in gold for the 338 acres of the town of Weed that lay between the ocean and the train.

A year later, Taylor opened the Casa Del Mar (Sea House) steps away from his depot on 9th Street, on the edge of the bluff between 10th and 11th. The name was borrowed by Ella Loop––the wife of Taylor’s real-estate partner, Theodore Loop––from a poem called “The Fight on Paseo Del Mar.” 

The 30-room resort boasted two open-air dance halls and a protected swimming area in the ocean, accessible by a stairway, that screened bathers from rip tides and sting rays. With a good low tide, you can still see the stubs of piling from what Taylor called a natatorium on the beach at 10th Street.

Del Mar California

Taylor marketed Del Mar as “the Newport of Southern California,” referring to the Rhode Island resort for the rich. Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and Marion Davies were among its first visitors.

“It was not Newport,” Maxey-Allison says, “but it was that kind of ambition. Huge and popular. You would come out here to breathe fresher air––at the time, it was all about the air because of tuberculosis. There were horses on the beach. You could do pretty much what he said–– almost everything.”

Taylor and Loop subdivided the surrounding land and built 14 modest, Mission-style houses for brand new residents. Each sported four rooms, eight-foot-high ceilings and running water; each were either sold for $600 or rented to hotel staff. Nowadays, the home where Taylor and Loop first drew up their plans for Del Mar, Alvarado House, was moved from 144 10th St. to the garden section of the San Diego Fairgrounds, where it’s opened to the public every summer during the San Diego County Fair.

Unfortunately for Taylor, his dream would last only three years. It was drowned in 1888 by heavy rains that washed out the train tracks, some houses and the foreseeable future for Del Mar tourism.

“Everything was wiped out,” Maxey-Allison says. “And this guy had put electric lights and wooden sidewalks in. He really did it up, and it was all gone because of the rain. It was torrential, like what we had this winter, only triple.” In 1890, the Casa Del Mar burned to the ground. When Taylor collected the insurance money, many of Del Mar’s 100 or so residents grew suspicious and discovered other mysterious fires associated with Taylor properties. They sued, and he split for Texas.