Amid a scattering of homes and handful of businesses to the east, our community started being called “Hillcrest” in 1907 thanks to a 40-year-old entrepreneur. Real estate speculators had identified the scrubland for future urbanization and laid out subdivisions as early as the 1870s, but most of the vicinity still remained a jackrabbit hunting ground when the Sisters of Mercy built a sanitarium on the north side of University at Seventh in 1891.
William Wesley Whitson was born in Iowa. According to his grandson Robert, “WW’s father, John W. Whitson, first came to California as a bindle stiff (he rode the rails),” but his parents moved to the Golden State in 1869 when WW was three. His father operated a small lumber mill in Smith River near the Oregon border, and his uncle founded the town of Selma, just south of Fresno. When he was 20, WW sailed into San Diego Bay to build his future. On February 11, 1898 the Los Angeles Times recorded, “The contract for burial of the indigent dead for the ensuing year was awarded to W.W. Whitson & Company.” He was the first San Diego County coroner and later served as a court reporter and city councilman.
Late in the summer of 1906, Whitson received an inside tip from his sister-in-law, Laura Anderson, a secretary at a downtown law firm. She had overheard that the 40-acre George Hill estate could be bought for only $115,000 (a steal since an adjoining parcel had recently sold for $300,000). The Hill estate, located north of University Avenue to Lewis Street between Second (now First) and Sixth avenues, was one of the largest single lots in uptown San Diego. Whitson quickly sold shares to friends and family for the planned development before borrowing the rest. On August 2, 1907 the property was recorded, and he proceeded to subdivide the “Hillcrest Company.”
With an office downtown in the Granger building and a tract office at the corner of Fifth and University (see photo below, now on current site of Union Bank) his company built approximately 43 houses in the restricted subdivision that required set backs, fence regulations, minimum architectural requirements and land use limitations. Average lot sizes were 50′ x 135′ with prices ranging from $2,500 for a lot on Second Avenue to $10,000 for the lot on Fifth Avenue where Corvette Diner is located. A few original homes remain in the 3900 and 4000 blocks of Third Avenue.
The housing boom generated even more development, and soon the community began to incorporate the surrounding older paper subdivisions. W.W. erected a sawmill in the tract and supplied lumber for 3,000 homes throughout the area. The neighborhood now recognized as Hillcrest is comprised of approximately 25 different subdivisions established between 1889 and 1926.
Whitson’s crowning achievement was the Plaza Theatre topped by the Barbara Worth Hotel where Horton Plaza now stands. It was promoted as “A hotel for your mother, your sister, your wife and yourself from 75¢-$6 a day.” (Indeed, it was home to Laura Anderson and where his son Robert and Helen May Carrier spent their honeymoon.) Another claim to fame was that Whitson built and operated Hillcrest’s only bowling alley. A postcard from the 1940s proclaimed his Hillcrest Bowl “the finest bowling installation in the West.” The building at 515 Washington (between Fifth and Sixth) had 16 ABC-certified alleys (with plans to double the lanes when war conditions allowed) and a unique cocktail lounge, the Rip Room, with murals by local artist Russell Dale Moffett featuring the life of Rip Van Winkle. Another mural covered the entire west wall from floor-to-ceiling showing bowlers and residents at play. In front of the bowling alley was a huge parking lot. (The card boasted it held 250 cars, but Bob Whitson said that was an example of his grandfather’s extraordinary imagination.)
1920’s census lists W.W. as a lumber merchant living at 110 Laurel with his wife Edith. Later they owned a Mission Hills home at 1888 Altamira Place, but Whitson lived his last five years in Los Angeles. Hillcrest continued to develop and in 1957 celebrated its 50th anniversary by honoring a 92-year-old Wesley Whitson, still an LA businessman. He passed away the following year, and his remains were laid to rest at Mt. Hope Cemetery surrounded by other pioneers including Alonzo Horton, often referred to as the “father of San Diego.”
First published in HillQuest, an Urban Guide to 92103 & beyond, volume 5