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The Case de Estudillo is one of a few oldest surviving examples of Spanish architecture (not of the religious variety) in both San Diego and California. Constructed in 1827, the home's popularity is largely due to the 1884 historical fiction novel "Ramona." The novel has within its pages this structure as it relates the lives of Californios soon after California became an American possession. This home of government and army officials of Spain for the San Diego area has gone through many restoration projects in order to preserve it so that it can tell the story of San Diego's early days as a Spanish town and then an American town.

  • Casa de Estudillo circa 1890. The place was in a terribly dilapidated condition, with the owner having sold off parts of it
  • In 1937, with "Ramona's Marriage Place" prominently visible. Note the missing cupola.
  • In 1975 (same view as above), with the cupola restored and "Ramona's Marriage Place" signage removed
  • Clip from the 1920 Automobile Club of Southern California map No. 482, showing Casa de Estudillo as "Ramona's Marriage Place" in Old Town.
  • Inner courtyard
  • Master bedroom
  • Dining room
  • One of the rooms served as a temporary chapel
  • The kitchen
  • The bell tower
  • Main entrance
  • Portrait of José Antonio Estudillo from about 1830
  • Of the covers used for Ramona in the last century
Born in Andalusia, Spain, Captain Juan Maria Estudillo was Commandant of the Presidio of San Diego from October 23, 1820 to September 1821 and again from 1827 to his death in 1830.

Estudillo married Gertrudis Horcasitas and of their children was named Jose Antonio Estudillo, who would become just as important in the San Diego as his father.  Jose Antonio Estudillo was the grantee of Rancho Janal. Estudillo's other children were Jose Joaquin Estudillo, grantee of Rancho San Leandro, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay; María Dolores Estudillo, who married Juan Bandini; and Magdalena Estudillo, the grantee who received Rancho Otay.

In December 1823, Jose Maria was diarist with Brevet Captain José Romero when they were sent to find a route from Sonora (Mexico) to Alta California; on their expedition they first recorded the existence of "Agua Caliente" at Palm Springs, California.

José Antonio Estudillo was born in 1805 in Monterey, Alta California. Estudillo probably came to San Diego as a boy in 1820, when his father became commandant of the Presidio of San Diego. His brother José Joaquín was the second alcalde of Yerba Buena, the pueblo that later became San Francisco.

Estudillo joined the Spanish Army at the Presidio and eventually made lieutenant around 1824. He received the Rancho Janal Mexican land grant in 1829 and Rancho San Jacinto Viejo in 1842. He was a member of the assembly from 1833 to 1835. During 1837-38 he was Alcade and Juez de Paz of San Diego Pueblo. At various times he was also treasurer and tax collector for San Diego.

In 1827 Estudillo built a large L-shaped adobe house for his father on land granted by Governor José María de Echeandía . The adobe was later enlarged and became U-shaped. It was considered one of the finest homes in Alta California. The house is still standing, known as Casa de Estudillo, and is one of the oldest surviving buildings in California. It is located in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, on the southeast side of the Old Town San Diego plaza, and is designated a National Historic Landmark in its own right. The Estudillo family lived there until 1887, after which the home became a tourist attraction popularly known as "Ramona's Marriage Place," based on the fictional character in Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Ramona. The house was obtained by the State of California in 1968, was restored to its original condition, and is now a museum open to the public.

During the Mexican-American War Estudillo remained neutral. After California became part of the United States in 1850, he was the first San Diego County assessor.

Estudillo married María Victoria Dominguez (July 28, 1800 – October 19, 1875) in the Presidio of San Diego on March 1, 1824. She was the daughter of María de los Reyes and Sergeant Cristobal Dominguez, grantee of Rancho San Pedro. They had 7 sons and 5 daughters. Their daughter, María Antonia Estudillo, married Miguel Pedrorena. Their daughters María Francisca Estudillo and later María del Rosario Estudillo married José Antonio Aguirre. Their son José Guadalupe Estudillo was California State Treasurer.

Estudillo died in 1852 and is buried at El Campo Santo Catholic Cemetery in Old Town San Diego. In his biography in Smythe's History of San Diego, he is described as "a man of excellent character and large influence.

The large building is a U-shaped structure, measuring 113 feet on the front side, and 98 feet on each of the wings. It is constructed in the Spanish Colonial style, meaning that the house's 13 rooms are set consecutively in the building and connected only by an external covered corredor (as opposed to an interior hallway).

The main portion (the center) contains the entrance, facing west. To its left is the chapel and to its right is the schoolroom. Both rooms originally were smaller, with bedrooms located at the ends of building, but a 1910 restoration eliminated those walls to enlarge the rooms. Two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen (which was added at a later date), and the servants' dining room are in the north wing, while the south wing has three bedrooms and the family dining room. The house is topped by a cupola from which bullfights and festivals in the adjacent plaza could be seen.

Meanwhile, the 1884 publication of Ramona, a novel set in Southern California which painted a romanticized portrait of Californio life, generated a nationwide interest in the region. This, combined with the opening of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railway lines (and the ensuing rate war, which drove prices down to as low as $1 from St. Louis, Missouri to Los Angeles), meant that hordes of tourists made their way to Southern California to see the locations in the novel. Unfortunately, Jackson died in 1885 without ever having disclosed what the actual locations in the novel were, which caused a great deal of speculation.

In 1887, a front page article of the San Diego Union declared the Estudillo home to be "Ramona's Marriage Place", saying, "To sleepy Old Town (the house) is known as the Estudillos, but the outside world knows it as the marriage place of 'Ramona.'" This was despite Jackson never having visited the house, but in the novel, Ramona was married in a "long, low adobe building which had served no mean purpose in the old Presidio days, but was now fallen in decay; and all its rooms, except those occupied by the Father, had been long uninhabited". Despite the novel being a work of fiction, visitors flocked to the building thinking it was the actual location of Ramona's marriage. To be clear, the Union did not simply invent this story; a tourist had already scratched the name "Alessandro" (Ramona's husband in the novel) in one of the walls. The caretaker decided to capitalize on the attendant publicity and began selling off pieces of the house as souvenirs. Naturally, the building's condition began to deteriorate rapidly.

In 1906, the dilapidated building was purchased by the San Diego Electric Railway Company, owned by prominent San Diego citizen John D. Spreckels (who also owned the Union). In his vision, the house would anchor a number of tourist attractions connected via his railway which would realize his twin goals of developing San Diego into a popular locale and generate revenue for his company. To this end, he hired architect Hazel Wood Waterman to renovate the house to a condition more closely matching descriptions in the novel. The original cupola and balcony was removed because there was none mentioned in the novel, and several doors and windows were moved. Waterman was exacting in her specifications: She wanted the building to look aged as well as have the "charm of the work of half-skilled Indian hands," although modern conveniences such as electricity and indoor plumbing were included. Upon its completion in 1910, it was marketed as a Ramona-related tourist attraction, and remained popular as such for years to come, drawing 1,632 visitors on one day in 1940.

Spreckels hired Tommy Getz, a theater showman, to manage the property, and it was under Getz's guidance that the property truly gained its Ramona association. He began strongly marketing the property: Tchotchkes of all sorts were labeled with "Ramona's Marriage Place", and more postcards were printed for the adobe than any other Ramona attraction. Due to its association with Ramona's marriage, the house was used to host weddings as well. Getz eventually purchased the adobe from Spreckels in 1924.

The association with the novel was so keen that the application for National Historic Landmark status was entitled, "Casa Estudillo/Ramona's Marriage Place." The Journal of San Diego History goes so far as to say that without the novel's influence and the popularity of the house, the historic buildings that make up Old Town San Diego would have been razed. In fact, for a time, the Estudillos' relationship to the house was nearly forgotten.

After Getz's death in 1934, his daughter Margeurite Weiss continued to operate the business for another thirty years, finally selling it 1964 to the Title Insurance and Trust Company, which then sold it to local businessman Legler Benbough, who donated it to the State of California in 1968.

The state Park Service then set about restoring it to its pre-Ramona state, including the missing cupola. The house now stands as a museum and is furnished as it would likely have been during Estudillo's ownership, but with an added kitchen. The state seemed embarrassed at the property's association with the novel: The long-standing "Ramona's Marriage Place" sign was removed, and brochures printed in the 1970s make no mention of the novel at all. By the 1990s, the state began to acknowledge the long-standing relationship to the book.

Ramona no longer has the same hold on the country's imagination as it once did. It is estimated that only 1% of visitors to the Casa de Estudillo now are aware of the house's ties to the novel.

"The Huntington Library, Early California Population Project Database, 2006."

"The Estudillo Family", The Journal of San Diego History 15:1 (1969) by Sister Catherine McShane

Biography from San Diego Historical Society from Smythe's History of San Diego (1907).

Niemann, Greg (2006). Palm Springs Legends: creation of a desert oasis. San Diego, CA: Sunbelt Publications.

Lech, Steve (2004). Along the Old Roads: A History of the Portion of Southern California that became Riverside County: 1772–1893. Riverside, CA.

California Pioneer Register and Index, 1542—1848

José Romero papers. Archival material. Abstract: "Report, 16 January 1824, to Antonio Narbona from Palm Springs, on his activities in Alta California, and on the expedition undertaken with José María Estudillo to locate a trail to the Colorado River, and on the conditions that forced them to return to the Cahuilla Indian ranchería." University of California Library, Berkeley.

DeLyser, Dydia (2005). "Ramona's Marriage Place". Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California. University of Minnesota Press.

 "Home of Ramona: Cover". Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society