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Inspiration Heights Update

Inspiration Heights Historic District Placed on the National Register

By: Barry Hager

On October 29, 2021, the State Historic Resources Commission voted unanimously to approve Inspiration Heights for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This is the culmination of a very long effort by residents of Inspiration Heights and Mission Hills Heritage to have the area approved as a historic district. Bestowing historic district status on Inspiration Heights will help protect the irreplaceable architectural gems that line the streets of Inspiration Heights.

Inspiration Heights has a fascinating history. Captain Henry James Johnston, captain of the steamship Orizaba, purchased the land that later became known as Inspiration Heights in 1869, dubbing it Inspiration Point. His step-daughter, Sarah Johnston Cox Miller recorded the first tract map for the area in 1886 and built a Victorian home known as Villa Orizaba on the land, incorporating portions of the steamship Orizaba, then being scrapped.  Her son, Harry L Miller, re-subdivided the land in 1909, renaming the land Inspiration Heights. Harry remodeled Villa Orizaba into the more fashionable Prairie style and moved it to face Orizaba Street. He also formed the Inspiration Heights Company, which graded roads and constructed sidewalks, then began marketing the lots in 1910. Over the next few decades the area filled with homes built in various styles, including Prairie, Arts & Crafts (Craftsman), Mission and Spanish Eclectic styles, Colonial Revival and, finally, post-World War II ranch style homes.  Three remaining pyramidal pillars on Sunset Blvd. (out of five originally constructed) still mark the entrance to Inspiration Heights.

The effort to have Inspiration Heights designated a historic district began in 2009 when a committee of neighbors, with assistance from MHH, pooled resources and began work on the project, initially in consultation with the City of San Diego’s Planning Department for a locally designated district. However, after the City’s work plan changed to no longer include potential historic districts in Mission Hills and Uptown, focus shifted to the National Register. MHH hired Architectural Resources Group, a qualified historic consultant based in Los Angeles, to prepare the nomination package and guide the process with the state office which processes nominations to the National Register. MHH board member and Inspiration Heights resident, Kirk Burgamy, along with a committee of MHH volunteers oversaw the process.

In addition to its beautiful, well-preserved examples of early twentieth century architecture, the Inspiration Heights subdivision is important for its association with the city planning and urban design principals that became popular in the early twentieth century, namely the City Beautiful movement that was exposed by landscape architect John Nolen in his 1908 comprehensive plan for San Diego. The so-called Nolan Plan was published in 1908 but never officially adopted by the City. However, new residential subdivisions in Mission Hills, including Inspiration Heights, were the first to directly apply key elements of the plan. The Inspiration Heights tract included a system of curvilinear streets and irregularly-shaped lots that conformed to the adjacent topography of hills and canyons, rather than imposing a rigid system of gridded blocks as with earlier subdivisions. This arrangement made more efficient use of the land and leveraged its unique natural attributes. The tract also incorporated a hierarchy of street widths to improve circulation within the subdivision. Parkways were planted with queen palms to dress streets without obscuring views and harmonize with San Diego’s temperate climate.

Of note, Inspiration Heights is the first residential historic district in the City of San Diego on the National Register. This is wonderful accomplishment, a significant honor, and a point of pride for Mission Hills residents. This designation highlights the history and importance of Inspiration Heights to the development of Mission Hills and the City of San Diego and will help preserve this priceless gem of a neighborhood for generations to come.

Following the vote by the State Historic Resources Commission, Inspiration Heights was formally placed on the National Register on December 7, 2021.  The City of San Diego’s historic guidelines will automatically qualify the district for local designation. No additional analysis or reports would be required to designate the district locally.  City staff has tentatively scheduled the district for hearing with the City’s Historic Resources Board on September 22, 2022.  Once designated locally, owners of contributing properties would be able to apply for Mills Act contracts to receive property tax benefits.

In addition to the hundreds of hours of volunteer effort, this project involved significant expense. Please support initiatives like this one by making a donation to Mission Hills Heritage.