By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Binney Ranch becomes latest historical landmark
Just two years after Terry and Pam Hovland bought their house at 8602 Echo Drive in 1979, the couple got an unusual request from the city of La Mesa.
“In 1981, they came and knocked on my front door and they said, ‘We’d like to have your house included in our historic inventory of potential landmarks,’” Terry Hovland said. “From that point on, I had interest in finding out more about the house.”
His interest soon grew into a passion once he was given an old photo of his home with a letter describing it.
“[The letter] said: ‘This old house was built in 1902 and they called it the Warren Ranch. It stands here in the exact spot where Helen Riley built their home in 1952. This old house was slided west about 250 feet to a new site, remodeled and then renovated and then sold again to Opal Fitz and then later on to George Brown,’” Hovland said.
Through further research, Hovland discovered that the home he later bought and restored could possibly be the oldest residence in La Mesa — definitely one of the first — and on Aug. 10, he hung a plaque from the city recognizing it as a La Mesa historical landmark.
The Binney Ranch
Although he did much of the research himself, Hovland eventually enlisted the help of architectural historian Sari Johnson to double-check his work and help prepare the report submitted to the La Mesa Historic Preservation Commission. It was Johnson who discovered the home’s true identity.
“Terry had already done a ton of work, so we had a fun session where we kind of scanned everything, went over what he found and then there was a problem with the original documents. It said ‘unknown’ on the original tax records, so we had to dive deeper to find out who the original owner was,” Johnson said. “Because how do you name the property if you don’t know the original owner?”
The original owner turned out to be Fredrick and Marta Binney, who purchased 33 acres to grow citrus trees and raise animals.
“The Binneys were immigrants — Fredrick was English and Marta was Swiss,” Johnson said. “They came to this area looking to set down roots. They had done farming in other areas. They learned about our coinage so they bought the property with 12 gold coins.”
There is some debate as to when the Binney Ranch home was built. Officially, the records say 1891, making it one of the oldest homes in La Mesa; if built earlier, it would be the oldest home in the city.
“I really think the house was built in 1890 and I’m sticking to it, but the taxes say 1891,” Johnson said. “Marta [Binney] had twins in 1890, so they were kind of busy. They might have had outbuildings before they had an actual house.”
Another sticking point on the oldest home designation is that the house was rebuilt after a fire consumed it in 1897. Though records indicate that the fire completely destroyed the house, there are elements of the original dwelling in the rebuild.
“When I took the staircase apart, I remember seeing burn marks and I thought, ‘That’s odd, there must have been a fire,’” Hovland said.
A wood window frame in the bathroom that used to be a window to the porch also has visible burn marks on it, which Hovland discovered after removing layers of paint.
After a family tragedy — one of their twins died from tuberculosis — the Binneys sold the home to JMC Warren, who started the Lemon Grove Association and was the first president of Helix Water.
“There’s a lot of history,” Hovland said. “A lot of doctors lived here; a guy who was convicted of felony fraud and money laundering lived here; movies were filmed here [a horror movie titled ‘Meagan’ was filmed but never released]; weddings here; births here.”
Sometime in the early 1940s, most of the property was sold to build more housing in the area. The home was even moved nearly 250 feet from its original location to make room for the new construction.
Former owner Dr. George Brown told Hovland that the home was moved by dropping it on its side onto telephone poles and then pulled by horses.
“Which is why the [original] chimney fell down,” Hovland said.
At the same time, other changes were made to the home like adding plumbing and electrical — which currently run along the outside of the house — and a garage was added on.
The original carriage house to the Binney Ranch was left at its original location. It was eventually restored as a separate home and is now owned by a neighbor named Helen.
When the Hovlands bought the home in 1979, the “plaster was falling off the walls,” Terry said.
The family had to live in the front room area of the home while the restoration work was done.
Terry sanded off the paint that covered the finely crafted original woodwork for the molding, doors and cupboards, and removed nearly six layers of wallpaper.
“So, the house got a lot bigger when we took all the wallpaper out,” he quipped.
Becoming a landmark
Just like restoring an old home, getting one listed as a historical landmark is no easy task. It involves thorough research into the building’s architecture, history and its former owners to complete a nomination report with a statement of its historical significance.
“For the Binney Ranch house, a nearly 200-page report was compiled by a cultural resources professional [Sari Johnson] at the request of the owner and submitted to the city,” said Allyson Kinnard, associate planner for the city of La Mesa.
After a landmark designation request is received, the Historic Preservation Commission conducts a public hearing to consider the nomination and makes a recommendation to City Council. The City Council then holds a second hearing to approve the landmark and Mills Act agreement, if requested.
“The Mills Act is a statewide preservation program that allows owners of qualified historical properties to enter into agreements with local jurisdictions to ensure the preservation, maintenance and restoration of historic properties in exchange for a reduced property tax assessment,” Kinnard said.
There are currently 45 locally designated historic landmarks in La Mesa. On average, the city reviews two landmark nominations each year, which are considered “resources of cultural or architectural value that are important to the city’s heritage,” Kinnard said.
So how can La Mesans find out if they live in a culturally significant home?
“The La Mesa Historical Society is a great place to start searching for information about your house and its former owners,” Kinnard said.
The Historical Society’s Palermo Building Research Room is open to the public on Saturday afternoons from 1–4 p.m. Visit lamesahistory.com for more information.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.