March 19, 2004

Two Sisters and the “Saint”

The Love Story behind Old Town’s Casa de Aguirre

By Albert Simonson

The trouble with daughters is that you want so much to hug and cuddle and protect them, but before you know it they start dating total jerks and what if they go and marry one? What then?

But look at the bright side - you might just luck out and get a real gentleman for a son-in-law, someone like the Spanish Don Antonio Aguirre - kind, generous, urbane, smart, polite, tall, good looking with fair skin and hair, influential, distinguished, gracious and very, very rich, one of the richest in California. Wouldn’t that do?

The Estudillos had a fine sprawling house on the dusty plaza of San Diego’s Old Town, which you can still visit, and also a ranch house in the “Valle de Santa Monica” at what is now downtown Lakeside. They also had daughters in this remote Mexican province peopled largely by feckless dandies and opportunistic young men from the “states,” and rootless rovers and, even worse, the human flotsam around ships of the hide-and-tallow trade, all eager to marry into the land-owning ranchero families of California, so they could live lives of landed leisure.

Don Antonio, however, OWNED tall ships which sailed the seas between here and Lima, Manila and Canton, what we now call the Pacific Rim in commercial jargon.

Don Antonio came from San Sebastian, today a ritzy Basque resort city near Biarritz on the Bay of Biscay. Already as a young man, he had owned a hacienda in Mexico, which he lost for his loyalty to Spain when Mexico became independent. While becoming a U.S. citizen in New Orleans, he planned to buy his first ship in order to conduct trade in California. He rounded Point Loma for the first time in 1833 on board his Leonidas.

An entrepreneur of that time and this place could profit nicely from trade with isolated California  missions and ranchos. Manufactured goods sold at three times their value in the states. Brandy fetched fifty dollars a barrel; fine wine about half that. It was all very pricey, considering that prime flat land went for 20 cents an acre.

The only exports from here were tallow and cowhides, the so-called California Banknotes, locally undervalued at two pesos or dollars each. It was just a matter of satisfying the skewed supply and demand, but there were great risks. Any trader had to deal with a rough bunch of drunken, surly “wharf rats,” but Don Antonio remained always a gentleman, and engaged accordingly in luxury goods. He even had the luxury of a black manservant.

He knew his market well; even men liked to look good with vicuña sombreros, embroidered chamois boots, and silver-studded saddles.

In San Diego, while staying at the Presidio, Don Antonio met the Estudillos and charmed both them and their eldest daughter, Francisca. The wedding took place in late 1841 at Mission San Luis Rey, and Don Antonio then left to build a stately home in Santa Barbara, one worthy of his lovely bride. It was to have nineteen rooms opening onto a central patio, all with finest furnishings from Peru and the Orient. Francisca remained with her parents at San Luis Rey, where her father administered mission property.

When the house was done, Don Antonio sent a ship to pick up his bride and her whole family. There would be no bone-jarring journey up the dusty Camino Real in a wobbly oxcart with a dangling grease bucket for the family of Don Antonio’s bride. This son-in-law had the manner of a Castilian hidalgo! It would be great to marry off the other daughters as nicely!

Happiness lasted but ten months, until this perfect love was shattered by Francisca’s death in childbirth. Don Antonio could never again bring himself to live at Santa Barbara’s splendid Casa de Aguirre. Three years of profound despair followed, and he often sought solace with the Estudillos, where shared grief strengthened bonds of friendship.

In the fullness of time, however, the third Estudillo daughter, Rosario, turned seventeen and appeared dignified beyond her years, able to lend solace to the much older, grieving widower. Even grief must have an end, and so the petite girl with the long neck became Doña María del Rosario Estudillo de Aguirre.


Doña Rosario Estudillo Aguirre (1828-1895). This portrait of Dona Rosario was painted by San Francisco artist Leonardo Barbieri.

The wedding took place in 1846 in the chapel of the Estudillo house. Old Padre Oliva officiated. Guns were fired in salute, and the three-day fiesta began. Once again, there was joy in that old house, and if you go there in a receptive mood, you may just find that something exuberant lingers in the corridor around the open patio. If not, just pick up the latest copy of the Gazette while there, and enjoy it, and soon you’ll be in the mood for the romance of Old California.

While you are there in the corridor, imagine the traditional wedding where the old padre receives the wedding party outside the closed chapel door. He blesses thirteen coins and the rings. Only after the bride and groom are wed, does the padre, observing symbolism of the Good Shepherd parable, lead them by their right hands into the “sheepfold” of the chapel. As they kneel before the altar, the padre places a veil over the head of the bride and the shoulders of the groom. It is red and white, colors of blood and fidelity.

After a nuptial blessing, the padre gives the groom the bride’s right hand and says, “I give you a companion, not a servant.” Then as now, such words could be an appropriate reminder.

The bride wore embroidered white silk stockings, satin shoes, and a flounced petticoat under her wedding dress of Chinese silk. She was a pretty bride, with fair skin and dark eyes and hair.

Don Antonio still had a store and the house in Santa Barbara, which held too many sad memories to cradle new lives. It was decided build a new Casa de Aguirre in San Diego near the Estudillos. It is this house which is now reconstructed in Old Town. Like the Estudillo house, it had a private chapel and open patio.

By 1855, Don Antonio had sold his last ship, but was busy with ranches at El Tejón, San Jacinto, San Pedro, Viejas, and Santa Cruz Island. He was a partner in various ventures including “New Town” (present downtown San Diego). Visitors to his home were impressed by his old-world  hospitality, as in the way Don Antonio summoned his fine champagne in generous quantity.

Some  called him “Aguirrón,” or Big Aguirre. Some called him “El Santo,” or The Saint. The U.S. census taker listed his occupation appropriately as “gentleman,” a rare distinction in an otherwise rather rude and crude seaport.

He was also an attentive husband. Some of the first nuggets that he shipped from the new northern gold mines were fashioned into a mantilla comb for Rosario, with a long gold hairpin attached by a fine chain. Not every husband would have thought of such a surprise. Don Antonio was the kind of man that makes the rest of us look bad. He didn’t forget to have her initials ornately engraved on the comb.

Then there were niceties like a red satin embroidered parasol to shade her fair complexion, Dresden china with a Chinese silver service for thirty-six, and a mahogany wardrobe and trunk for her dresses, shawls, beaded purses and silk mantillas. San Francisco painter Leonardo Barbieri lived with the family while he painted an oil portrait of Rosario, demurely seated wearing a black lace dress and mitts, a gold cameo on her wrist, fan in hand, and with a watch on a long, gold chain. Aguirre could have bought fifty fine stallions for the cost of the portrait.

Aguirre had another fine painting with a similar face - Murillo’s “Mater Dolorosa.” Murillo was famous for nice faces. If you visit the Louvre, look for his “Ecstasy of San Diego of Alcalá” and know that our city was named for a saintly but handsome fellow.

That description could apply as well to Don Antonio. There is only one known portrait of him, a charcoal drawing on silk. More revealing than this portrait are his letters, which show him as a man who expressed himself with great elegance in a most refined Spanish, even about mundane commercial matters, signed with such a flourish as might be made by the tip of Zorro’s sword.

The churches of both the presidio and the mission had fallen into disrepair. Don Antonio bought a house near the Campo Santo burial ground, remodelled it into a church with two bells at the south end, and presented it to the faithful of San Diego. A choir sang  and there was even an orchestra. After the dedication, guests walked up present Conde Street for supper at the Aguirre house. The fine china and silver were put to good use, as both wine and sentiment freely flowed.

The Estudillo girls seem to have had a preference for men with the genteel manners of old Spain. The second daughter, Antonia, married Miguel de Pedrorena, a Spaniard in the Peru trade. Don Miguel and Don Antonio became close friends and even partners in the 1850 venture which first laid out lots and graded streets and built the first wharf at what is now downtown San Diego. They were several decades ahead of their time in this. In time weeds grew again in the streets graded by Indians from Aguirre’s Viejas rancho. San Diego languished while San Francisco prospered from the Gold Rush.

One of the historic spots of Old Town is the Casa de Pedrorena, on San Diego Avenue between the Casa de Estudillo and the Casa de Aguirre. The Estudillos had their extended family happily close at hand. It was a close family, and they were also often together at the large old mission rancho of El Cajón, where the San Diego River still irrigated mission vineyards and broad fields of barley and wheat. They, and some Indians, were the entire population of that huge valley.

Like other cattle barons, Aguirre lent out his herds in return for one-half the natural “increase.” He had thousands of cattle on hundreds of square miles of still-pristine unfenced California.

Don Antonio was nearly 30 years older than his wife, but they made the most of their fourteen good years together. They had four children in that time, but he ultimately developed an infection in his leg. That was no trifle in the days before antibiotics.

A last child, a girl, was born into a house of grief on the very day that Don Antonio died. It was said that the child always seemed sad and lived but a little while. Her little body was buried in the Campo Santo burial ground.

If you have a mind to visit the grave of a truly good man, you might find a custodian to open the chapel on Conde Street for you. You will find his inscribed marble slab in the church he gave to San Diego. The inscription in Spanish reads, “He was the benefactor of the poor and deserved well of God and men.”

And he was, one might add, just about the finest son-in-law you could possibly imagine. Just think if your own dear daughter would bring someone like him home for you to meet!

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, esteemed reader, but just don’t hold your breath waiting for such perfection.

Author’s note:  This article and illustrations derive from extensive research by historian Mary Haggland.  San Diego’s Casa de Aguirre has been reconstructed on its original site as shown in early photographs with one room designated as a small museum containing the Haggland collection. Some 50 boxes of artifacts have been recovered from a privy and well, dating to occupancy by the family and also to Padre Ubach’s use of the building as Saint Anthony’s School for Indian Children.  These artifacts reflect wealth and poverty, and the great cultural diversity of early Southern California.

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