Nuns’ house last trace of farm past
Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 12:30 a.m.Two Sisters of Mercy nuns built this Victorian house in Carmel Valley in 1905 and it would serve at various times as a religious retreat, an orphanage and a shelter for the homeless even as the nuns continued to farm the nearby land. Chabad Del Mar now owns the house and is looking to sell it.
CARMEL VALLEY — Like a dignified old lady in a sea of urbanization, the three-story white Victorian house still stands at the west end of Carmel Valley.
In February, owner Chabad Del Mar draped a large “For Sale” banner across the roof, causing those who know the history of the house to wonder how to preserve it as the area’s last link to the valley’s agricultural roots.
The story begins in the 1890s, when two Sisters of Mercy nuns came to the area, where a few farms lay across an empty landscape then called Cordero Valley.
Sister M. Michael and Sister M. Alphonsa had arrived to establish Mount Carmel Ranch on 1,000 acres.
Over time, they would build a thriving farm that supplied dairy products and produce to a small San Diego infirmary that would become Mercy Hospital, named for the Sisters of Mercy who founded it. The nuns built the valley house in 1905, and it would serve at various times as a religious retreat, an orphanage and a shelter for the homeless even as the nuns continued to farm the land. The valley and a nearby hill would become known as Carmel Valley and Carmel Mountain, named for the Sisters’ ranch.
Today, state Route 56 runs through Carmel Valley, and 36,000 people have moved into its upscale neighborhoods. All that remains of the ranch is a 1-acre parcel and the big white house.
Carmel Valley resident Martha Sullivan said that after she saw the “for sale” sign, she began approaching nonprofits, corporations and politicians with the idea of preserving the property as a museum or visitors center. Although many have been interested, the recession has limited their ability to fund such a project, Sullivan said.
“There’s so little left in this area of our historical roots,” Sullivan said. “Given its location right next to a trail and green space, it struck me as a wonderful location for a center to showcase the history and agricultural heritage of this area.”
Abutting the 1-acre property is a horse ranch, a bike path and large stretches of open space created in part as mitigation for the construction of Route 56.
The seven-bedroom house is registered with the city and the state as a historical landmark.
“Mount Carmel Ranch has been a landmark in the valley since the 1890s,” said Bruce Coons, executive director of the nonprofit Save Our Heritage Organisation. “It’s the only Victorian house still in that area, and it’s a great example of Greek Revival architecture.”
Remarkably, the property has changed hands only three times since the Sisters of Mercy sold it in 1945, city records show.
Exactly how the nuns came to own 1,000 acres is a bit of a mystery. The land had been half of a larger spread owned by the McGonigle family, the valley’s early settlers who had emigrated from Ireland in the early 1870s.
According to one account, the McGonigles couldn’t pay their mortgage and gave the land to the Sisters after the nuns paid down the debt. Another account was that the nuns got a deal after nursing the family through illness.
Over the years, the nuns grew vegetables, raised hogs and cows, and made daily deliveries of milk to Mercy Hospital.
In 1945, the Sisters of Mercy sold the ranch to George Gress, who sold it two years later to Robert Stephens .
Ranchers in the area depended on well water for their homes and rainfall for their crops. Bob and Ann Stephens dry-farmed lima beans, ran cattle and boarded horses for decades.
By 1974, construction fever raged, and the city adopted a master plan to develop Carmel Valley, changing the name to North City West.
Meanwhile, the Stephenses’ daughters, Beth and Ellen, spent their days riding horses on trails through the still-open landscape. When Torrey Pines High School was built on a nearby knoll in 1974, chaparral surrounded the campus where homes and a shopping center now stand.
“I used to ride my horse to Torrey Pines High School and board it at the stables across the street while I was in school,” said Beth Edmonds, 47, of Ramona.
In 1983, bulldozers arrived and construction started on the first housing developments. By 1990, 5,000 homes and 50 acres of commercial and industrial space were built. The city revived the name Carmel Valley, and in 1992, work began on the west end of state Route 56.
Over the years, the Stephenses sold nearly all their property, including parcels acquired for the new highway and open space.
The highway was built between the old house and a cemetery the nuns had established, severing the two properties. Buried in the cemetery are many early valley residents, as well as farmworkers and their families from Eden Gardens, the first neighborhood in Solana Beach.
Today, the overgrown cemetery lies sandwiched between Route 56 and the rear of St. Therese of Carmel Catholic Church. For the past five years, parishioner Armand Olvera has organized Knights of Columbus work parties to trim weeds and replace toppling headstones.
“I just felt like I had to,” Olvera said. “I guess it was just a calling from God to do this.”
Like the cemetery, the Victorian has seen better days.
Structurally, the house is mostly unchanged, although exterior stairways to second-floor porches have been rebuilt.
Remnants of a basement kitchen remain, where the Sisters prepared meals for the ranch hands and served the food through a window to minimize their contact with men, Ellen Stephens said.
After Bob Stephens died in 1999 and Ann Stephens died in 2003, Chabad Del Mar bought the property in 2004 for $1.15 million. A plan to build a synagogue was dropped when the acre couldn’t accommodate a facility large enough for the growing membership, said member Arie Avesar, a real estate broker handling the sale.
Avesar calls the house a “fixer-upper” with an asking price of $1 million. The property is zoned agricultural/residential with one home per acre. Under laws regarding registered historical landmarks, the exterior of the house can be altered only under specific, approved conditions.