As the second oldest city in San Diego County, it’s no surprise that National City’s rich past and Victorian-era charm create a distinctive personality that is present throughout the area. Originally named Rancho del Rey (the Ranch of the King), the 26,000-acre parcel was used by Spanish soldiers as pasture to graze horses and cattle. When the land became part of Mexico, it was renamed Rancho de la Nación, or National Ranch. In 1868, Frank Kimball and his brothers Warren and Levi, contractors and builders from San Francisco, purchased the entire rancho and thus began the foundation of the celebrated city, retaining the National name.
Frank Kimball first brought novelty and change to the area by building his personal residence. His home included a bathtub as well as hot, running water, making it the first modern house in the entire county. However, it was more than his personal innovative endeavors that allowed the region to flourish. By constructing the first roads and railroad in what is now National City, Frank and his brothers most notably were responsible for introducing modern transportation to the residents of the community. The brothers also implemented the area’s first post office and a wharf for sea-bound imports and exports. These large ventures, coupled with smaller personal missions both contributed to the overall goal of creating a community unparalleled to the times. A lasting mark of the Kimballs were the trees they imported and planted from Europe and Asia, accomplished via a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These trees can be found dotted throughout the city to this very day. It was the passion and influence of the Kimballs as well as other early pioneers that made way for the city’s incorporation on September 17, 1887.
Following National City’s incorporation, numerous buildings were erected as the city grew. These now serve as historical landmarks that are visual reminders of the city’s long and storied history. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the following serve as prime examples of structures that embody the antiquated allure of National City and can still be enjoyed today:
Brick Row on Heritage Square (909 A Avenue)
Built in 1887 by Frank Kimball to house prominent railroad executives, Brick Row is composed of ten individual units each with a formal dining room, kitchen, parlor, butler’s pantry and four upstairs bedrooms. The exterior displays a beautiful brickwork facade specifically laid in order to break the severe lines of the long walls. Nestled between grand Victorian homes, Brick Row was originally modeled after East Coast row homes in order to bring familiar architecture to traveling executives while simultaneously generating a novel feel for West Coast residents.
Brick Row is an integral part of National City’s Heritage Square, which also houses four beautiful Victorian mansions and the famed Kimball Museum.
Granger Music Hall (1615 E 4th Street)
World-renowned architect Irving Gill built the Granger Music Hall for Ralph Granger. With a fortune derived from the silver mines of Colorado, Granger wanted to build a hall to honor his unending passion for music. His vision was to create a facility that could house his large violin collection and also could be used as a performance hall. With no wall exactly parallel to the other, the hall’s construction is an architectural oddity. The unique structure was done purposefully as to allow sound to travel from one end of the hall to the other without any distortion or need for a microphone. Adding to its magnificence, a 75-foot mural of Greek muses Euterpe and Erato surrounded by cherubs, adorns an interior wall creating a breathtaking piece of art.
In order to be saved from demolition, the Granger Music Hall was relocated to its current site in National City. Through restorations made by National City residents, the Granger Music Hall presently serves as headquarters of National City’s Historic Society and is available to the public for meetings and special events.
Santa Fe Rail Depot (W. 23rd Street)
Influenced by an Italian style of architecture that was popular in the 19th century, the Santa Fe Rail Depot was built in 1882. The first official train departed from the National City railroad depot on November 14, 1885.
Currently, the Santa Fe Rail Depot is the only original transcontinental railroad terminus still standing. The restored depot serves as a railroad museum for tours and is also a popular community-meeting place.
Stein Family Farm (1808 F Ave)
Shortly after he immigrated to the United States in 1888, Charles Stein purchased a farmhouse complete with a barn, which would soon be known as the Stein Family Farm. Charles and his wife Bertha maintained the property, which included a two-story Victorian farmhouse along with more than two acres of land. The farm remained with descendants of the Stein family until 1992.
Bought by the National City Community Development Commission and saved from destruction, the Stein Family Farm is presently a living history museum where late 19th century California farm life is demonstrated. Here, children and adults can learn about the history of the area, composting, the growing of fruits and vegetables, farm animals and transportation during the 1900s. Other educational programs for local school children are also provided by the museum.
Noyes House (2525 N Avenue)
This Victorian home started off as an olive and olive oil factory. In 2008, a piece of property surrounding the Noyes house was donated by the affluent Walton family (of Wal-Mart fame) to the International Community Foundation. That property soon became home to the Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center, which provides science-based environmental education lessons, hands-on gardening, and hands-on cooking to students and families from under-served communities.
If you are interested in learning more, please visit the Kile Morgan Local History Room.
National City is also featured in SCEDC’s Historic Driving Tour Map along with four other must-visit historic cities in South County San Diego.