Rolando, La Mesa’s Lost Neighbor: ‘Where You’ll Love to Live’

College Area Neighborhood has a past that connects it to La Mesa. Saturday’s Rolando Home Tour allows a trip back to "La Mesa-era" Rolando Village.

The advertisements read like a circus promotional.

“Spanish barbeques and dancers, hot air balloons, aeronautical acrobatics, musical saw players, operatic singers and vocal groups, investment lectures and a purported chance of a lifetime!”

Take the free autobus leaving downtown each Sunday afternoon and come out and visit your future!

It was to be the “New City between Two Highways,” the place “Where You’ll Love to Live,” “A Project So Vast It Thrills,” simply put the “World’s Master Development” for securing suburban bliss

Located east of the recently annexed East San Diego and west of the La Mesa city limits, in unincorporated land, free of city taxes but with all the amenities of the most modern suburban communities of its day, its developers promised an exclusive community, in design and character, perfect for your home and family.

The roughly 500 acres, situated between the newly christened U.S. 80 (today’s El Cajon Blvd.) and the recently paved extension of University Avenue from East San Diego to La Mesa, was bisected with numerous canyons.

This “rolling land” provided what initial sales manager Chant Shannon termed the perfect descriptor for its new name—Ro-land-o!  (The development’s marketers jumping on the 1920s bandwagon promoting San Diego’s romantic vision of its real Hispanic heritage—including Spanish street names to set the tone).

Rolando was “opened” to the world in June 1926. 

The developers, the New University Syndicate, consisted of mostly Los Angeles based realtors and brokers.  They had worked as mid-level managers in other development companies in Los Angeles and saw in Rolando the opportunity for riding the crest of the Southern California Real Estate Boom of the mid-1920s for themselves.

The land, situated between the two “highways,” and two cities--fit the model of the successful suburban developments of the Los Angeles basin—spreading out from downtown along now famous automobile corridors such as Wilshire, Western and Sepulveda. 

No longer was being on the rail or trolley line essential for suburban success.

New University Syndicates Rolando managers John Waybright and Chant Shannon quickly followed with an intensive marketing campaign including the events and attractions noted above, to get potential home buyers out beyond the San Diego city limits to the still unincorporated land just southwest of the original La Mesa Townsite (originally centered at today’s El Cajon and 70th Streets).

In order to ensure the latest in suburban subdivision design they hired landscape architect Theodore Meier of Los Angeles.  Meier’s credentials included subdivision work in Los Angeles’ fashionable “west end,” including the new community of Beverly Hills.

Meier took advantage of the “rolling land” to design a set of mostly north-south running streets with concrete sidewalks, “acorn-style” electrolier lamp posts, and in the height of exclusive suburban design, a series of public, pedestrian staircase and ramp walkways to allow the future neighbors to traverse between the mesas and canyons of the tract.

In late 1926 San Diego contractor George W. Daley brought the first horse-driven “fresno graders” to begin “cutting” streets and lots from the mesas and canyons.  Soon after the first of the five Rolando subdivision units were laid out and concrete sidewalks and curbs were installed.  Within two years all five tracts stretching south from El Cajon Boulevard in a “J” shape configuration, had streets, sidewalks and utility lines installed to the over 700 lots.

The New University Syndicate utilized a relatively new improvement bond known as the Mattoon Act to fund the tract’s improvements.

What Rolando’s developers were to find out, as with other La Mesa developers in late 1920s subdivisions such as Mt. Nebo’s Windsor Hills (1927) and Ed Fletcher’s Fletcher Hills (1929), was that the Mattoon Act was not really the right financing tool for new developments.

The Mattoon Act, named for legislation author and Los Angeles attorney Everett W.  Mattoon, was really aimed at putting improvements into already established, and mostly built out, neighborhoods. 

This was because it a “pyramiding clause.” 

What that meant is that any unimproved lot’s bonded tax assessment (assuming that there would be but a few unimproved lots in an established district, was to be covered by the improved lots’ owners within the assessment district.   For example, in a 200-lot district, the 180 improved lot owners would pick up the 20 unimproved lots assessments—or those payments would “pyramid” in assessment each year to cover the lost assessments.

So, in Rolando’s case, at the end of 1927, although their advertisements noted hundreds of lots sold—and hundreds of homes to be built—only 12 “Spanish Colonial Revival” (San Diego’s unofficial style of the 1920s) houses had been constructed.  That left nearly 700 empty lots with pyramiding assessments.  

Not a lot of enticement to become home builder number 13.

In reality, the Mattoon Act only set the nail in the coffin for 1920s Rolando. 

The tract’s “country” location, compared with other higher-end community competition from Point Loma, Kensington and Talmadge, also hurt sales. 

In addition the Boom of the 1920s had already started to wane by late 1927 and then after the Stock Market Crash of October 1929, the Great Depression quickly followed.

Thus by late 1929 Rolando was in foreclosure to the state for unpaid assessments, along with 40 other Mattoon Act districts countywide—with little hope for redemption. 

Rolando would sit idle for nearly ten years.

It Takes A Village…Company

In 1936 County voters passed a Mattoon Act recovery bond in order to buy out the foreclosed properties and return the properties to the tax rolls.

By early 1939 the County had purchased, at pennies to the dollar of the bond holders, the remaining bonds for Rolando. 

In March 1939 the Rolando Village Company purchased the remaining original five subdivisions, along with the land south of University Avenue down to Federal Boulevard fronting the Lemon Grove area.

The newly incorporated Rolando Village Company was operated by a group of local real estate men including San Diegans Ben B. Margolis and Harry Arthur, and Mt. Helix resident and long-time Helix Irrigation District Board member Joseph Levikow.

Whereas the timing for Rolando was wrong, the timing for the Rolando Village Company was right.

With the looming War in Europe and San Diego’s association with the military and its number one employer Consolidated Aircraft obtaining contracts for warplanes, the San Diego region was about to hit its greatest growth boom.

During the three years prior to Pearl Harbor and the U.S. formal entry into the War, San Diego experienced what is sometimes referred to as the “Blitz Boom”— in which the population of the County nearly doubled in three short years.

As such, tracts such as Rolando Village with its paved streets, sidewalks and infrastructure and empty lots were primed and ready for those seeking a new home. 

In addition, the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its government guaranteed mortgages, had greatly increased the home buying market.  (Prior to the FHA most banks required collateral to take on the risk of a home mortgage).

Thus the Rolando Village Company quickly moved to take advantage of this “new market” of community development and home building.  

The Company would generally sell a lot to a homeowner.  They would then recommend one of their “preferred contractors” or the owner could choose their own contractor to build their home.

Within a year the community, although still in the unincorporated County lands between San Diego (the area north of El Cajon Blvd through the old La Mesa Townsite to 73rd Street had annexed in 1928 when San Diego State had chosen the Montezuma Mesa site) and La Mesa (which extended only to 70th Street at the time), boasted 132 new homes in the once paralyzed tract.

During this period of renewed life, Rolando and its new residents generally turned toward La Mesa for services and institutional support.  Shortly after the Rolando Village Company had announced its development plans in 1939, many in La Mesa noted that the area should eventually be annexed into La Mesa.  

Being in unincorporated territory the Rolando residents sent their children to La Mesa Grammar School and Grossmont High during this period.  

For the next 15 years Rolando would therefore be associated with, and considered a part of, La Mesa to the east and/or Lemon Grove to the south.  The La Mesa Scout even provided a “social news” column for the neighborhood in each week’s issue.

An Eclectic Landscape

With the mix of contractors, and the growing popularity of American style homes of Colonial, Cape Cod, Monterey, and the newer Streamline and minimal “Modern,” styles, the resulting suburban landscape became eclectic.  

Rolandans proudly purchased and had built homes from San Diego’s top home contractors of the day, including the Dennstedt Company, Hays and Jackson, John Weiss, Tifal and King, Jenkins Construction, the A.L. and A.E. Dennstedt Company and La Mesan George Riha (still in business today) to name a few of the Village Company’s “preferred” contractors.

Although most of these houses were just 2 or 3 bedroom, 1 bath homes of roughly 800 to 900 square feet, each street would include a variety of styles—providing a character that today makes many feel that Rolando Village was a custom home tract.

By the end of 1941 and the onset of World War II the community had over 300 homes. 

Restrictions on obtaining materials slowed building during the War—and also foretold the changes in Post-War home building. 

With San Diego’s military and war industries creating a huge population expansion, only contractors who could build multiple units to help with the housing shortage were provided building materials. 

As such, along with working on military housing projects, these contractors soon learned the processes for building multiple and prefabricated structures.  This would lead to the rise of the Post-War housing tracts of pre-built homes—the “garage-left, garage-right” neighborhoods of simple Ranch-type homes that sprawled across southern California’s urban landscapes representing the new American dream.

Rolando Fills-In, Connects with, and then Splits from La Mesa

After the War, Rolando continued to fill-in its remaining original lots with new houses. 

In addition, contractor/developers such as the Dennstedt Company and Jackson and Scott, would fill in the gaps between Rolando and the San Diego city limit to the west and east to La Mesa’s boundary at 70th Street with small, pre-built tract-home subdivisions. 

When the Lincoln Homes Company, the renamed Rolando Village Company, started building its own all-tract development south of University Avenue, the area quickly took on the moniker of its Rolando Park subdivisions. 

The Rolando name influence also was found directly east of Rolando Village up to 70th street and overlooking University Avenue, under the name of Rolando Knolls.

The Community’s growth pushed the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District to build the Rolando Elementary School on Tower Street just west of 70th in 1946 and Rolando Park Elementary in 1951.  When Helix High opened in 1951 the Rolando High Schools quickly prepared for life as “Highlanders.”

The Rolando Community soon had its own churches, new businesses along El Cajon and University, and its own Women’s Club. 

Each year the community selected its own Miss Rolando for the County Fair’s Fairest of the Fair Contest—Jo Johnson, Miss Rolando 1954 would be win the crown.

As such early 1950s Rolando was clearly associated with La Mesa.

However, Rolando and Rolando Park were not technically within the boundaries of the Helix Water District.  As such the estimated costs of connecting to the water and sewage systems to the east soon appeared prohibitive. 

In 1954 San Diego officials sold the Community on a plan for better, and less expensive, connections for unincorporated Rolando’s infrastructure. 

Considering the long-term costs on March 2, 1954 Rolando and Rolando Park residents voted to annex to the City of San Diego.

Conversely they had hoped to stay within the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, but in 1955 San Diego City Schools required their annexation to the City School District as well.  This led to the sale of Rolando Park Elementary to San Diego City Schools in 1956.

Thus, La Mesa lost its direct hold on Rolando Village and Rolando Park. 

Although it would eventually annex Rolando Knolls and the area around Rolando Elementary School—and the Rolando Little League Field is in La Mesa, Rolando soon became, and is now clearly identified as a “San Diego” community.

Yet, Rolando’s early years of community development were historically associated with its eastern neighbor La Mesa.

La Mesans and All Get a Chance to Visit “La Mesa-Era Rolando”

For those wishing to get a chance to visit, and relive a bit of La Mesa-era Rolando, this Saturday April 14, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the College Neighborhoods Foundation will feature 7 beautiful Rolando Village homes, and a walking route along some of its historic pedestrian walkways during its 11th Spring Home Tour.

Pre-Tour Tickets ($15) and tour information can be found at www.collegeneighborhoods.com or (619) 800-2631.   Day-of Tour tickets ($20) can be obtained at Tour Check-In located at 4834 Rolando Boulevard (just south of El Cajon Boulevard) starting at 9:30 a.m. Saturday.


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