By Sandee Wilhoit
Since the first sale in 1867 of Lot I on Block 083/96, from Alonzo Horton to Jacob Lehr for $150, this modest property has been a whirlwind of activity. To say that numerous and complicated title transfers are recorded would be an understatement! The title passed through 19 owners from 1867 to 1978.
At first he went from Horton to Lehr, from Lehr to WH Ormerd ($1,200) and from Ornerd to August Michaelson for the low price of $5! It was a hell of a loss! However, Ormerd recovered the property the next day for the same $5 and managed to keep it until 1881, when he sold it to Jeremiah Browell for $500, but once again recovered it for $250. Until 1883 the land remained vacant, but sported a sidewalk at the front of the property, as Ormerd was a finisher by trade. This series of convoluted events was enough to make your head spin!
But wait – in 1887, Ormerd had built a 20′ x 20′ one-story, clapboard frame house on the south side of the property. The north half remained empty but was leased to HF McGarvie and James Tenbrooke for $100 per month. By 1889, Ormerd had regained control of the land’s northern promenade, erected a building on the site, and leased it to Ramona Wolf. Ms. Wolf is rumored to be the same woman used by novelist Helen Hunt Jackson as a model for Ramona, the fictional account of the eviction of the Temecula Indians from their lands in East County. The building was called the standard theater building. Unfortunately, in 1889, the Standard Theater reported an “unrehearsed event” when a trapeze artist took a leap from the top bar, but missed the “catcher’s” waiting hands on the bottom bar. Standard was forced to shut down and regroup. When it reopened, Standard suffered more bad luck. Promoter Peter Johnson drew a huge crowd with a marching band parade but then tried to jump on a train with the bag of theater revenue money, which was supposedly used to pay performers. He was caught just in time!
After further consolidation, the theater was reopened by HL Leavitt, a well-known theater manager, who was to “refurbish and refurbish” and provide an opening show filled with a full company of Oriental performers. Once again the building was packed, and this time Lady Luck was with the Standard, and an excellent opener was recorded.
The renovated building was now 25′ X 100′, with two interior balconies running along the sides, with a short curved section where they met about 20′ from 6th Street. Stairs on either side provided access to the two-story brick-fronted structure. Ornerd then sold everything to George Goodwin, who soon sold it to John Kastle.
Not to be outdone, Kastle sold the southern half of the property two days later to Lyman Weed and John Watawa. Two weeks later, Watawa bought out Weed. Meanwhile, John Kastle sold the northern half of the property to Moritz Trepte, a general contractor. Trepte used the area between the balconies in front of the stage as a carpentry area. In 1970, the San Diego Union named him “one of the Pacific Southwest’s leading contractors.” He eventually retired to Point Loma, where a street bears his name.
While Trepte worked in the Standard Theater building, Watawa, a coachbuilder, continued his trade next door. In 1906, Mr. Trepte sold his half of the lot to Lemon G. Hine, who immediately sold it to Carl Alex Johnson. In 1906 Trepte had built a three-story brick building on the adjoining land for Johnson and Lucille Forman. Mrs Forman retained her interest until 1907 when she sold it to BL Willliams. It then became the headquarters of the C. Holle company, suppliers of “all kinds of glassware”.
Back to the northern half of the property – Mary Hine, now a widow, sold her half of the land to Frederick Fenning in 1919, and he transferred title to the WE Kier Construction Company in 1924. Kier had also purchased the southern side of ownership of the Bank of California National Association, which had obtained the property by way of public auction. Finally – the entire lot I belonged to a single owner. Finally, no more confusion!
Shortly after Kier’s purchase, he began construction of a building, the “Sterling Company”, which would cover the entire land. It was a one-story, 50′ X 100′ brick structure with a 16′ ceiling supported by wooden posts inside. Glass doors and display cases opened onto a wooden plank floor. Non-opening glass windows with wood trim were featured above the windows and doors. The Sterling Company has supplied new and used plumbing supplies, hardware and used goods for many years.
In 1949, Kier transferred ownership to his son-in-law and daughter, William and Ernestine Kier Norgren. They in turn sold the property in 1962 to John C. and Myrna B. Jarvis for $20,000. In 1979, the Jarvis’ had sold the property to Robert Sinclair of La Jolla. The saga continues!
In 1996, Wayne Donaldson and his wife, Nancy, were listed as owners of the structure. Mr. Donaldson is a renowned architect and conservator in the region.
Sparks Gallery, the current owners, now call this well-trafficked building their home. The spacious gallery showcases original contemporary artwork, jewelry, and vintage collectibles, and also serves as a venue for art exhibitions and events.
Sterling Hardware Building
1887 & 1924
534 6th Avenue
Architectural Style: Victorian Commercial/Commercial
Contractor (1924) – W.E. Kier
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian and senior guide at the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be contacted at [email protected]